TV Censorship Then And Now

The only interesting moment of Harry’s Law, otherwise an indication that David E. Kelley has stretched his formula to the breaking point (and I say this as one who liked Boston Legal almost without irony, because of its broad goofiness and willingness to provide opportunities for its performers), was when Kathy Bates calls the straw-man prosecuting attorney an “asshole” and doesn’t get bleeped. This is not, I am informed, the first broadcast network show to use that word. NYPD Blue used it in its famous early seasons; it just didn’t become famous for the language because there was so much controversy over the nudity, and that took up most of the coverage.

It reminds me that censorship on U.S. broadast television is not in a linear decline; as a general rule, restrictions are lifted over time, but sometimes they snap back to where they were. The late ’90s saw a major thaw in the Standards and Practices™ at major networks, especially in terms of language: Kelly’s show Chicago Hope was the first to utter the s-word (yeah, I’m holding myself back from typing it — oh,the irony), and NYPD Blue soon followed, leading to the famous South Park episode parodying the hoopla around the casual use of that one four-letter word. Nudity also became more acceptable, particularly after 10 o’clock, thanks to the influence of Blue.

And then Janet Jackson came along and ruined it for everyone. The networks panicked and clamped down on everything, even ordering the creator of Desperate Housewives to digitally airbrush nipples out of the many scenes where his actresses weren’t wearing bras. (He complained about how different things had become since the ’90s: “I look at Friends and it’s a nipple fest.”) The result was that by the end of the decade U.S. TV was in some ways more heavily self-censored than it was at the end of the previous decade.

Yet at the same time censorship was being amped up in some areas, it was being relaxed in others, as dramas and comedies — particularly on CBS, but other networks followed — started to have more gruesome murders and more frank sex talk. So you had this weird situation where language and nudity and even violence were more restricted, but subject matter was less restricted, and gore (as opposed to gunplay and car crashes) was shown in more detail.

I don’t know how long it will take networks to crawl back to where they were in the late ’90s in terms of language and nudity, or if they’ll have to compensate by censoring more heavily in another area. I do think that ten o’clock shows probably need to get back to that NYPD Blue style of doing things you can’t do earlier in the evening or saying things network shows usually don’t say. It’s so hard to get viewers at that time, and that’s the time when competition from cable is most real and direct; if they can’t at least drop a few naughty words, they’re going to lose everybody to cable and DVR.

And yes, I’m aware that the U.S. free TV is absurdly censored compared to other countries’ — including ours. But that’s the way it has been, and that’s the way it will be. Within the limitations of what the FCC and the advertisers will allow, they probably do need to find new ways (or even the old late ’90s ways) of loosening censorship, just as a practical and commercial matter.

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