CLARIFICATION: The TV Column Dec. 13 referred to the Center for Media and Public Affairs as a conservative organization. The center describes itself as nonpartisan, and its studies have been cited by both conservative and liberal commentators. (Published 02/09/2000)
I have a potty mouth.
It is because I watch so much television.
Robert Lichter, at the conservative Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), says so in his new study, "The Rude and the Crude: Profanity in Popular Entertainment."
According to the study, the 1998-99 television season was a veritable cesspool of verbal filth, with a whopping 2,156 instances of trashy talk. And that didn't even include TV news coverage of "Monica Does the White House."
No, Lichter was looking just at fiction series and the top-rated TV movies on all of the broadcast networks as well as two premium cable networks and eight basic cable networks.
Well, actually only seven basic cable networks. CMPA mistakenly put Pax-TV in with the basic cable networks, which would really tick off Bud Paxson because he's the biggest broadcast TV station owner in the country.
But since The TV Column asked Lichter about this on receiving an advance copy of the study on Friday--("We goofed," he said)--he's probably fixed it by now.
He's also probably fixed a couple more mistakes we found, such as stating that all of the TV series in the study aired during prime time or immediately after when in fact the study has thrown in Showtime's late-night, soft-core porn shows, such as "Compromising Situations."
Which, I know, might leave you wondering just how meticulous this "scientific" study actually is. But it's hard to argue with Lichter's basic point after watching a couple of sitcoms from Bruce Helford ("Drew Carey," "Norm"), who seems to have just one joke in his repertoire and that involves the family jewels. Was it really just nine years ago that The Reporters Who Cover Television nearly brought down a summer press tour, so great was their outrage that a 6-year-old girl would deliver the line "you suck" in the pilot episode of a sitcom called "Uncle Buck"?
The study also looked at 1998's 50 top-grossing theatrical films (1,933 offenses) and four days of MTV, which logged 160 expressions that I wouldn't dream of saying in front of my mother.
Bad language is divided into three categories. Hard Core Profanity includes most, but not all, of George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," and then some; one of Carlin's Seven Deadly Words has been downgraded to Mild Profanity, which covers such things as telling someone to go where Satan lives; and one Carlin word is actually now considered merely Coarse Language, which encompasses such phrases as "he's a real [donkey]."
More than half of the entertainment media's tally of 4,249 foul-ups were of the mild variety; 23 percent were hard-core and 18 percent were coarse language.
Feature films and premium cable networks cornered the market on the hard stuff; basic cable and broadcast networks settled for tamer fare. "Thus," says the study, "the more expensive forms of popular culture offer their customers the foulest language."
Though broadcast TV's language is child's play compared with the premium cable networks, which offer such profanity-packed programs as HBO's "Oz" and "The Sopranos," broadcasters scored no points with CMPA for "inventing crude lingo that skirts forbidden words theatrical movies can use." In fact, CMPA thinks broadcast the worse offender, because it has the higher frequency of bad language--gee, could that be because it has the most hours of original fiction programming? Broadcast also comes under attack for having a bigger audience, and so "the potential for coarsening real world speech is probably greater," the study says.
What did I tell you? I watch a lot of broadcast TV.
Nonetheless, I can't help but feel that there's just something not quite right about this report. I mean, why are Showtime's late-night soft-porn shows thrown in the mix? Particularly when Lichter explains to The TV Column that "parents, above all, should have this information on the kind of shows they might object to having their children watch."
What is a child doing watching pay-cable's "Compromising Situations"--which can start any time between 12:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m., depending on the whim of Showtime? If parents have been letting their children watch this show in the wee hours of the morning, they don't need this study to help them--they need to have their children taken away from them.
But if we surmise that this study is really for the purpose of bringing in additional funding to the conservative Center for Media and Public Affairs, you have to wonder why Lichter left out the totally scripted, prime-time faux wrestling programs.
Those extremely raunchy programs would've really boosted the tallies for cable's USA and TBS. Lichter explains the omission by saying that when the study began, back in fall '98, "people" didn't realize that those shows were scripted and that the wrestlers were acting. Yes, but what of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which is supposed to be an authority on the media? Where is its headquarters--under a rock?
I mean, here's a squib from the Los Angeles Times, dated August 1995, which says "pro wrestling is scripted." Trade publication Broadcasting & Cable, in 1997, ran an item in which the head of a pay-per-view company says he'll have to "approve the script" on a wrestling event. The Omaha World-Herald, in August '98, says "though the scripts are written and outcomes decided well before a match begins, fans don't seem to care." And so on.
I'm also a little uncomfortable reading a "scientific study" in which the authors determine "whether such speech was judged to be appropriate or inappropriate."
It seems that foul language, in CMPA's world, is more acceptable if it's said in anger, because "profanity is traditionally an expression of hostility." But, CMPA charges, only 42 percent of the language it found offensive was said in anger; 30 percent was contained in "banter" and 28 percent in "teasing." This, says CMPA, reflects the " 'normalcy' or mainstreaming of coarse or racy language."
"Words once reserved to register strongly negative emotions have become the standard lingo of movies, TV shows and music videos," the group says.
"Rhett Butler once raised eyebrows by not giving a damn. Today, no one would notice if he did."
Nor, I might add, did I raise an eyebrow when I read it in Lichter's report.
But then, I have a potty mouth. I watch too much TV.