Racy language has its place, but not on live TV

by Jim Longworth

Last week, NASCAR fined racing star Tony Stewart $25,000 and docked him 25 points for using an indecent word (which had to do with a certain bodily function) during a live, post-race television interview. This is not the first time a driver has had his mouth washed out with soap. Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a similar penalty back in 2004 for cursing after a race. In fact, utterance of obscenities is nothing new at most sporting events. Just read the lips of an angry college basketball coach when a call goes against his team, or of a major league baseball manager while going toe to toe with the umpire. Heck, even athletes’ wives are joining the fray. Alex Rodriquez’s wife Cynthia, displeased with media coverage of her husband’s indiscretions, recently wore an obscene T-shirt to Yankee stadium for all to read. The message she sported invited A-Rod’s critics to go do something sexual to themselves. This all comes on the heels of a battle raging between the Federal Communications Commission and New York’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Back in June, the ultra-liberal court struck down the FCC’s attempt to levy fines against Fox and the likes of Cher, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie for uttering obscenities at the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards, which were televised live. In both cases, the female entertainers used obscenities which referred to a sexual act and to a bodily function. FCC chairman Kevin Martin was outraged by the court’s recent ruling. In response, he issued an official press release which contained those same obscene words a total of 10 times as he chastised the court for not protecting families and children from offensive speech. Broadcasters, meanwhile, hailed the decision to strip the FCC of its enforcement authority over so-called “fleeting expletives.” Network brass argued that parents have V-chips, blocking devices and a ratings system to protect their children. But Martin raised a legitimate concern. Live programs are already usually rated as suitable for family viewing. The obscenities occur without warning, so parents have no way of blocking the objectionable language by a select few crude celebs. I am an extreme liberal when it comes to free speech, but certain language just shouldn’t be spoken on the public airwaves. Had Cher and Paris been part of a cable broadcast on HBO, I wouldn’t have had a problem with their choice of words. But instead, she ambushed viewers. The New York court was dead wrong in this particular case, and a handful of senators are attempting to restore enforcement authority to the FCC when it comes to fleeting expletives. At the same time, I don’t want the FCC overstepping their authority. For example, I don’t want them fining a local TV station a half-million dollars just because some idiot stands behind a news reporter in the field and makes an obscene gesture, or takes off his clothes on live television. TV stations can’t control that kind of behavior and don’t deserve to be penalized. Awards shows are another story. They can screen participants in advance and pretty much determine who is most likely to act badly. They can also let nominees know that anyone using bad language will be stripped of her award. Finally, the FCC should require that all live shows with a past history of fleeting expletives carry a more severe rating and a parental warning. That will diminish the viewership and could cost the broadcaster both ratings and revenues. Or producers can simply move all live awards programs over to pay cable stations such as HBO, Cinemax or Showtime. Comedian George Carlin once performed a groundbreaking routine in which he listed the seven dirty words that you can’t say on television. Of those, two refer to body parts, two refer to bodily functions, two are sexual acts and one is a sexual slur against one’s female parent. If the New York court’s decision stands, and if congress fails to restore the FCC’s power to act, then soon, Carlin may be able to do his act during halftime at the Super Bowl or as a contestant on celebrity “Jeopardy” or on any other family-oriented broadcast. Bottom line? Uttering obscenities on cable can be funny or dramatic, but doing it on live network TV is inappropriate, and the offending parties know it. Until we can get all this sorted out, my advice to these potty-mouthed celebrities is to just shut the f#@k up.