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What's behind naughty TV titles?

It’s mid-season on American television, and some entitlement issues have surfaced at ABC. A naughty word is suggested in not one, but two of the network’s new spring titles: "GCB" and "Don’t Trust the B----in Apartment 23." Some people have seen this as yet another step down the nation’s road to perdition. Others see it as nothing more than a marketing ploy.

A provocative title is, of course, one way to get people to notice a new show in today’s overcrowded multi-channel television environment. ABC has had some success with this strategy in the past. Back in the quaint olden days of 2004, both "Desperate Housewives " and "Wife Swap" managed to lure lots of viewers who may not have sampled these shows were it not for what at the time seemed to be pretty risqué titles.

Swear words have, of course, been a part of the vocabulary of TV characters as far back as "All in the Family’s" Archie Bunker, but it would have seemed unthinkable in 1971 to include such words in the title of a show.

Then, thirty years later, the Fox Sports Net introduced "The Best Damn Sports Show Period." This may have marked the first time in TV history when a kid could get his mouth washed out with soap just by saying the title of a television program. Since then, the broadcast networks have flirted with using bad words in the titles of their series, but so far they’ve always backed off.

In 2010, for example, CBS aired a sitcom based on Justin Halpern’s popular Twitter feed, “Sh*t My Dad Says.” Although this may be the most dicey network series title to date, CBS replaced the vulgar word in Halpern’s title using an old typographical technique for disguising bad language that kids have been seeing in comic books for decades. The show aired as the impossible to pronounce, "$#*! My Dad Says."

The title of "GCB," which debuted on ABC a few weeks ago, had a more complicated evolution. The show started out with the blatantly provocative name: "Good Christian Bitches," the same title as the Kim Gatlin book upon which it was based. 

Before it even aired, it had been renamed "Good Christian Belles," and was referred to as such by at least one of its stars as she made the talk show rounds. 

When the first episode finally played on March 4, however, it did so with the title "GCB." According to that chronology, it could be argued that the “B” stands for “Belles,” reflecting the most recent previous title. That argument, though, would need to be made with a wink and a smile.

The title of another ABC show, scheduled to begin on April 11, had a similarly complex history. 

The pilot was written as "Don’t Trust the B*tch in Apartment 23." When ABC picked up the show as a series, the name had been shortened to "Apartment 23." In the fall, though, all but four letters of the original title had been reinstated. The series will finally air with what might well be the most juvenile title in the history of television: "Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23." What the H-E-double-hockey- sticks kind of name for a TV show is that?

Broadcast television is often accused of contributing to the “coarsening of the culture,” and some will point to the titles of these shows as evidence. It seems, though, that in the particular case of TV series titles, the opposite might be true. After all, the words in question can be heard with great frequency in casual conversations and seen daily on bumper stickers and T-shirts. 

As common as these words are in everyday life in 2012, every one of these shows did, in the end, have these words replaced in their titles with dashes or initials or typographical nonsense. Given where we are in the linguistic history of our culture, the decisions to continue to obfuscate these words in series titles might in fact be seen as a sign of network television’s restraint

Although the word “b*tch” is said a lot in many TV shows, the fact that it’s still being disguised in their titles is, oddly enough, a culturally conservative statement. By changing the title of a show to the astoundingly awkward "Don’t Trust the B----in Apartment 23," ABC has essentially announced that there is still a line that they will not cross. They have declared that “b*tch” is a bad word; so bad that they won’t write it out in a title (though not bad enough to exclude it from the dialogue in some of their shows). 

By refusing to spell out that word in the titles of these two shows, the network has observed a standard higher than that observed in the daily speech of many regular Americans.

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As a postscript to all of this, we should perhaps take note of the peculiar case of "Cougar Town," another provocatively-named series on ABC. For the past two seasons, the producers of this show have actually been, in effect, apologizing for the title and advocating that it be changed. 

Although “cougar” may not be in the same category as the “s-word” or the “b-word,” many people, especially women, find it offensive and it is, in many contexts, cheap and tacky. What started out as a title designed to titillate, has become one from which the producers seem to want to escape. Written just above the title in the opening of each episode have been comments like: “All I Want for Christmas is a New Title,” New Year’s Resolution: Embrace Our Stupid Title and Lose Six Pounds,” “Badly Titled,” and “Not What the Show Is.”

Robert J. Thompson is the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, where he is also a Trustee Professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He was a visiting professor for six summers at Cornell University and served for nine years as professor and director of the N.H.S.I. Television and Film Institute at Northwestern University.

Robert Thompson is founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University and a trustee professor.