Monday, March 11, 2002

A red-letter day for TV swearing

By David Bauder
The Associated Press

        NEW YORK — Time to wash the speakers out with soap: This past weekend marked a milestone in televised swearing.

        Several profanities were included in the riveting footage on the CBS 9-11 documentary about the World Trade Center collapse Sunday night, the most in memory for a single prime-time broadcast network show.

        And ESPN's first-ever original movie, A Season on the Brink, contained frequent swear words from the lips of actor Brian Dennehy portraying basketball coach Bobby Knight — highly unusual for a basic cable network that has avoided profanity in the past.

        Both decisions were debated at length within their respective networks, which ultimately said they opted for realism.

        They were notable developments even for a television landscape that has plainly grown coarser over the last few years.

        There was less than one use of rough — not even necessarily profane — language per prime-time hour on all the broadcast networks during the 1989-90 TV season. By the 1999-2000 season, there were nearly five per hour, according to a study by the Parents Television Council.

        During four weeks of viewing in 1989, PTC researchers counted 108 uses of “hell” and “damn.” By 1999, there were 518, the group said.

        The language on 9-11 was much tougher. Firefighters are shown staring at the fireball after the first plane flew into the World Trade Center and repeatedly saying, “Holy (expletive).” Firefighters use vivid language to express their anger at the attack.

        At one point, the filmmaker is ordered away from the World Trade Center by a police officer who says, “This ain't (expletive) Disney Land.”

        Profanity is uttered throughout the footage captured that day by the two French filmmakers who were making a documentary on firefighters. “What you see is quite limited,” said Susan Zirinsky, 9-11 executive producer.

        The program's host, Robert De Niro, warned viewers at the outset to expect rough language.

        “This was uncharted territory,” Ms. Zirinsky said. “The language was rough but the circumstances were rough.”

        Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, said he couldn't object to the language. He compared it to the TV premiere of the movie, Schindler's List, about the Holocaust. Mr. Bozell said he had his twin 14-year-old sons watch that movie with him, despite the violence and full-frontal nudity, because he believed it was so important.

        The head of broadcast standards for NBC said he understood CBS' reasoning. “I would have made the same call,” said Alan Wurtzel.

        Many of his other decisions are harder. What used to be hard-and-fast rules for network standards departments aren't anymore, he said.

        “They have really diverged,” he said. “There are some things I hear on other networks that I'm really surprised at, and I hear from my colleagues that there are things on our network that they are surprised at.”

        The success of HBO's Sex and the City and The Sopranos has increased the cultural pressure on network executives to air rougher material, and producers constantly try to push things, he said.

        If a producer hears something on a competitor's show, they'll use the example as ammunition. Mr. Wurtzel said he tries to balance the sensibilities of conservative viewers and advertisers with societal mores.

        ESPN was faced with its language decision when a rough cut of the movie was completed about a month ago. ESPN convened focus groups of network viewers, with most preferring the profane version, said Mark Shapiro, an ESPN senior vice president.

        “You couldn't produce a movie on Bobby Knight and use phrases like "aw, shucks' and "golly gee,”' Mr. Shapiro said. “It just wouldn't be believable.”

        Mr. Bozell finds that justification pretty weak.

        “Hollywood has done movies involving probably hundreds, if not thousands, of people who were known to cuss,” he said. “Were they doing a disservice by not having them cuss? When was the last time you heard people see a movie, and say, if there was more cussing, it would be more realistic?”

        ESPN decided to offer parents concerned about the language an option. It simultaneously aired a version with the swear words bleeped out on ESPN2 — the network's less visible younger sister.

        Mr. Shapiro said the edited version was not offered on ESPN because the movie had been so relentlessly promoted on the main network.

        One irony: At the movie's conclusion, ESPN airs footage of the real Bobby Knight — with all his swear words bleeped out. ESPN said the clips came to them with the language already removed.

        Don't expect the bad language to become a trend at ESPN, Mr. Shapiro said.

        “Profanity has never been a fixture in the past,” he said, “and it won't be a fixture in the future.”


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