Viewers Cry Foul at Network Language

It is not a new story. In fact, it is almost a year old. But the passions it continues to stir are as fresh as this morning’s coffee.

Last January, when the singer Bono (search) received a Golden Globe Award (search) on national television, he reacted by saying, “This is really, really f***ing brilliant.”

The FCC received a total of 234 complaints about Bono’s language, and took them under advisement for several months. Finally, in late October, it issued its ruling:  It was all right for Bono to have said what he said because he did not use the word “f***ing” in its sexual sense; rather, he meant it as an expletive, an expression of surprise and gratification.  Had he instead said, “I’m so happy about this award that I’m going home and f*** my wife,” the FCC, one assumes, would have ruled differently.

In early October, I wrote a column about this story. I got a lot of mail in response. The weekend it appeared, we discussed it on Fox News Watch. We got so many responses that we brought up the subject again a few weeks later on an all-viewer mail edition of the program. And we got a lot of mail about that discussion.

Bono’s right to make “f***ing” into an expletive and utter it on television was, for the most part, defended by the Fox News Watch panel. But the 234 complaints about the statement cannot be ignored. The expressions of chagrin by all those who e-mailed the program, several hundred more, cannot be ignored, either. Freedom of speech, yes; but what about freedom from speech.  The rights of the speaker, yes; but what about the rights of the listener?

As the panel pointed out, the problem is not a pervasive one. People know that when they watch certain shows ("Everybody Loves Raymond" (search)) and certain networks (Disney, Fox Family), they will hear no abusive language. They know that when they watch other shows ("The Sopranos" (search)) and other networks (HBO, Showtime, etc.), they will hear abusive language. Viewers can react accordingly.

The problem is the uttering of foul words in an unexpected context, as the Golden Globes were perceived to be by a great many viewers. This kind of thing does not happen often, but the question raised in this case is, how can it be avoided altogether?

The answer, of course, is that it cannot. Freedom is often messy, often leads to unintended consequences, which people must accept in the name of freedom’s greater blessings.

But let me raise another question: Is there a way for the number of incidents of unwelcome language on television to be reduced, without interference by the FCC or any other government agency? Here the answer is yes.

The networks that telecast various programs can be more vigilant than they are now about what kinds of speech are acceptable and what are not. The producers of the programs can reinforce these standards to members of the cast and guests. And, most important, television can take a lesson from radio.

Virtually all “live” programs on radio are broadcast on a 7-or 10-second tape delay (search), so that an unexpected obscenity can be edited out before it hits the air. Television should do the same. Obviously, there are certain kinds of “live” events, such as breaking news and important press conferences and sporting events, which should not be delayed. 

But entertainment programs, such as the Golden Globes, in which all manner of people are making all manner of impromptu speeches and an obscenity can easily be spoken without anyone’s knowing of it in advance, readily lend themselves to delay.

It is a practice that no one deems controversial on radio. It would be just as acceptable on television. And the balance of rights, between speaker and listener, would be made just that much more even.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT. He is the author of several books, including The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (Temple University Press, 2003).

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