Three episodes into FX's critically acclaimed miniseries
, Sarah Paulson (as beleaguered prosecutor Marcia Clark) let the mother of all f-bombs fly.
She said it with sheer contempt, upon learning that the defense team had hired Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance). In another episode, Vance yelled the f-word when Cochran's ex-wife was interviewed alongside his alleged mistress on A Current Affair.
The word used to be forbidden on basic cable. But these days, what exactly can you not say on television? Both cable and broadcast networks seem to be pushing the envelope, but it's not that the rules - which have always been fairly vague - have explicitly gotten looser. It's that the standards reflect the times. And in 2016, our collective vocabulary is edgier than ever.
As a cable channel, FX is not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, and therefore doesn't face any outside restrictions. But unlike premium channel cables such as HBO and Showtime, where f-bombs are a dime a dozen, FX is accountable to advertisers, so it keeps swearing to a minimum.
FX would not comment specifically for this story, but provided a transcript of network president John Landgraf addressing profanity at the Television Critic Association's 2015 summer press tour. "We've used the f-word on air now multiple times in the last several years," Landgraf told reporters. Examples include Louie, during Sarah Baker's memorable "fat girls" speech in a 2014 episode. Landgraf said the practice has yielded few complaints. "So we're on the verge of being, kind of, done with the debate or battle over language. It's close anyway."
The f-word is heard again this week, as The People v. O.J. Simpson delves into the tapes of former Los Angeles Police Department detective Mark Fuhrman using racial slurs. Landgraf is especially careful about FX's use of racial epithets: "When they're used, they tend to be used in a context where you see they're used by a character that is doing something wrong, and it's pretty clear they're doing something wrong," he said at the TCAs.
FX isn't the only basic cable network to grapple with the profanity issue.
creator Vince Gilligan told the radio station KCRW that AMC allowed the show one f-word per season. But
, also on AMC, used "screwing" in a place where the comic book version used the f-word, and some fans weren't happy about that.
Unlike cable, broadcast networks face some FCC restrictions, as the result of a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said the agency could monitor for obscenity between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The FCC defines profanity as language that's so "grossly offensive" to "members of the public" that it becomes a "nuisance." Even by that vague definition, language deemed "grossly offensive" a decade ago would barely warrant a raised eyebrow these days.
For instance, the b-word is now commonplace on TV. So is scripted bleeping, as in a 2012 episode of Modern Family when the toddler Lily appeared to drop the f-bomb several times. A 2009 New York Times article heralded the heavy use of the word "douche" on broadcast networks.
Even after 10 p.m., broadcast networks don't toss around uncensored bad language, since they want to keep the affiliates and advertisers happy. Ariana Grande accidentally said "oh s***" recently on
, and the slip was a mere footnote to generally positive reviews. NBC's 10 p.m show
mutes the f- and s-words and blacks out the screen when the words are said, a technique that some viewers have found distracting.
The Parents Television Council has lobbied for more aggressive indecency regulation, crying foul when Scandal aired a steamy sex scene immediately following the 2014 broadcast of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. The PTC also took issue with ABC's new comedy The Real O'Neals, for sexual innuendo and bleeped out swear words, which the group felt was inappropriate for a show rated TV-PG. The group's 2010 report Habitat for Profanity, which compared broadcast network profanity in 2005 to 2010, cited increases in mid-level curse words such as "suck."
Alan Wurtzel, who oversees research and broadcast standards for NBC, explains that there are basic bad words you're not going to hear on broadcast television. Think George Carlin's famous "seven dirty words you can't say on television" routine - which played uncensored on New York radio and led to the 1978 Supreme Court case. Other words are borderline cases, and may be permitted based on the context, the type of the show and the composition of the audience.
"A lot of people feel that in my drawer is a list of words that you can say or that you can't say and that's just not true," Wurtzel tells The Washington Post.
The indecency standards have faced challenges in recent years. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled against FCC sanctions against Fox and ABC - for foul language used on live awards shows before 2004 and a scene involving brief nudity, respectively - asserting that the networks were not given "fair notice" as to what constituted indecency because the rules were so vague.
The court's ruling did not address what many saw as the overarching issue - whether the 1978 Supreme Court ruling was outdated. In 2013, the FCC asked for public comment on its indecency policies and received more than 100,000 responses. While this did not result in any changes to the rules, then-chairman Julius Genachowski directed his agency to focus only on the most egregious complaints.
Ultimately, Wurtzel says, the standards are constantly evolving. "There's no question that some of the policies and rules and words that we use have changed over the years because society has changed."