James Werrell

FCC hits snag in trying to regulate profanity

A friend recently recounted that, during a trip to Ireland, the two words she heard most often used in conversation were the "f-word" and the "s-word," with the former pronounced more like "look" than "luck," and the latter pronounced more like "light" than "lit."

Often, she said, they were used in tandem, as in "f-ing s-."

Apparently the Irish -- and the rest of Great Britain, too -- have become more inured to these words than Americans have. While the use of those words if far from rare in the good ol' USA, they still have the ability to raise hackles here.

Witness the failed effort by the Federal Communications Commission to corral "fleeting expletives" that sometimes pop up on our TV screens. Commissioners hoped to address cases of isolated swearing, such as Billboard Music Awards shows where both Cher and Nicole Richie dropped "f-" bombs.

The FCC also was spurred to act after Bono, frontman for the band U2 and a true son of Ireland, called a Golden Globe award "f-ing brilliant" during a live NBC broadcast in 2003. FCC officials at first decided to look the other way, but after being pressured by a variety politicians and blue-noses, they reprimanded the network for allowing reference to what they called "one of the most vulgar, graphic and explicit descriptions of sexual activity in the English language."

Oh, yeah? Have they visited any college fraternities lately? Have they been to boot camp or a locker room? How about happy hour at a white-collar bar? Have they been to Ireland?

While the "f-word" might be present in some of the most vulgar, graphic and explicit descriptions of sexual activity in the English language, it is not likely to be the most prominent nor the most colorful descriptive. I'll leave to your imaginations what those other words might be -- which, of course, is what Bono, Cher and Nicole should have done.

I certainly am not above using graphic words to salt and pepper a sentence now and then. I like to believe, however, that I can gauge when that is acceptable and can turn it off when necessary.

I scorn those who can't. They seem either unable to control what they say, which is childish, or purposely refuse to delete their expletives in hopes of shocking listeners ... which is childish.

I also can understand why the FCC would attempt to regulate what it calls "patently offensive" descriptions of "sexual or excretory activities and organs" from family-hour TV shows. We shouldn't have a round-the-clock barrage of vulgar language on network TV. Those who prefer profanity-free TV should have somewhere to go.

But let's face facts. Successful TV must, to some degree, reflect the way we really talk. And even the president and vice president are moved to use profanity in public from time to time. The veep, for example, suggested to the esteemed senator from Vermont that he go "f-" himself.

That incident was cited in a decision by a federal appeals court that rejected the FCC's strict new enforcement policy. Two judges on the court wrote that they were "skeptical that the commission can provide a reasoned explanation for its fleeting expletive regime that would pass constitutional muster."

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin complained: "If we can't prohibit the use of the words "f-" and "s-" during prime time, Hollywood will be able to say anything they want, whenever they want."

In his statement, the expletives were not deleted. He used the "f-word" six times and the "s-word" four times. Hope the kids weren't listening.

The FCC's reach is limited. While it has jurisdiction over network TV, cable and satellite aren't subject to its rules. And if the networks hope to compete by presenting cutting-edge entertainment of their own, the FCC can't tie one arm behind their backs.

But the networks realize they are not completely off the hook. The FCC is likely to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court, and it won't sit idly by if we begin to see a constant stream of "f-" bombs detonated during primetime.

Meanwhile, we consumers have the ability to regulate what we and our children see on TV. All we have to do is change channels or turn the TV off altogether if we are offended. And if enough of us do that, Hollywood producers will get the message.

In short, all we have to do is tell them to fudge off.