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Profanity on TV has increased across the board, study says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The use of foul language on television shows in the past five years has increased dramatically on nearly every network and in nearly every time slot — including the so-called “Family Hour” from 8 to 9 p.m. ET — according to a study by the Parents Television Council.

The report, released Sept. 15, examined all prime-time entertainment series on the major broadcast television networks from the first two weeks of the 1998, 2000 and 2002 November sweeps periods, analyzing a total of 400 program hours.

Foul language, including curses or intensives, offensive epithets, scatological language, sexually suggestive or indecent language, and censored language, increased by 94.8 percent during the Family Hour between 1998 and 2002. During the 9 p.m. ET time slot, such language increased by 109.1 percent, though the smallest increase (38.7 percent) occurred during the last hour of prime time — the hour when young children are least likely to be watching.

According to the study, Fox was the only broadcast network to show any real improvement during the Family Hour, as profanity on that station decreased by 25 percent. But the improvement was overshadowed by a 75.3 percent rise in foul language during the second hour of prime time on Fox.

Offensive language on ABC decreased overall by 17 percent, although profanity increased during the Family Hour by 61.7 percent.

During the Family Hour on CBS, foul language increased by 471.3 percent and went up across the board on NBC in every time slot, the study said. Foul language during the Family Hour on NBC increased 114.7 percent.

On UPN, offensive language increased by 104.7 percent during the Family Hour and 538 percent during the second hour of prime time. The WB network, which targets teenagers, had a 188 percent increase in foul language during the 1998-2002 time period. During the second hour of prime time on WB, such language increased 308.5 percent.

“It’s easy to be dismissive of foul language on TV, but it does have an impact,” the Parents Television Council said in a news release. “Ultimately, the entertainment industry needs to get serious about reducing the flood of vulgarity coming into the family home over the broadcast airwaves. Barring that, the [Federal Communications Commission] needs to get serious about enforcing broadcast decency laws and punishing broadcasters who violate those laws.”

As the PTC report noted, the connection between media violence and real life violence has been well documented. Mounting evidence also points to the fact that highly sexualized images on television can shape teens’ attitudes toward sex, leading to promiscuity. Also, studies suggest that non-smoking children are influenced by screen idols seen smoking in films.

“Given this growing recognition that all areas of a teenager’s life can be influenced by behavior they see modeled on the screens large or small, it should be obvious that the way characters talk on TV can affect the way teens communicate in day-to-day life,” the report said.

In addition, once prime time television pushes the envelope on something, it becomes a stamp of normalcy. Many viewers can recall the nationwide shock when Ellen DeGeneres’ character on the television show “Ellen” made her homosexuality known. Just a few years later, homosexual characters on television shows abound.

“We’ve seen that pattern time and time again,” the PTC said. “Once the initial taboo is broken and the shock value wears off, more and more curse words fall into the category of ‘acceptable’ language, and TV must try to up the ante by introducing new words to prime time TV’s obscene lexicon.”

For those who question why anyone is so concerned with the overwhelming increase in profanity on television, P.M. Forni, co-founder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University, believes cursing is the language of aggression, the precursor to violence.

“Very often, rudeness and cursing are the beginning of an escalation toward violence,” he said in the PTC release. “Words, our words, are like our hands. They can soothe and heal, but they can also strike, which means they can hurt.”

The PTC referenced a survey published by American Demographics which indicates that 72 percent of men and 55 percent of women admit to swearing in public, while the practice seems to be more widespread among younger generations.

Despite the growing use of profanity on television, obscene speech is not granted First Amendment protection, the report said. And in 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that of all forms of communication, broadcasting has the most limited First Amendment protection, the PTC noted.

The court said broadcasts extend into the privacy of the home, and it is impossible to completely avoid those that are patently offensive, the report said, adding that broadcasting is also uniquely accessible to children, even to those too young to read.

Therefore, the FCC has the power to sanction television and radio stations that engage in obscene, indecent or profane broadcasting, but is failing to do so, the PTC asserted

The Parents Television Council was established in 1995 as a nonpartisan group offering private sector solutions to restore television to its roots as an independent and socially responsible entertainment medium, and the group now has more than 800,000 members.
For a copy of the Parents Television Council study, go to www.parentstv.org. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: FOUL LANGUAGE ON THE RISE.

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  • Erin Curry