Here's how it works: The FCC can't require shows to be checked with them beforehand, or make rules like "You can't say 'shit' on the radio". That would be "prior restraint of speech." What they can do is fine stations after they air something. Howard Stern has been fined more than anyone else for stuff like this. As a result, he's forced to censor himself and his callers, so the effect is the same. Of course, this has a "chilling effect" on free speech, but the Supreme Court said that because one cannot preview radio, and because it comes in unannounced and is broadcast in public, and because there is limited space in the radio spectrum (really!), some restrictions are allowed. Of course, where the FCC (which *did not* have in its charter anything about censorship) gets off making these rules, nobody knows.

Fortunately, internet radio makes all of this irrelevant - the FCC can't control the net, because (according to SCOTUS in Reno v. ACLU) "the primary justification for intermediate scrutiny in th, the first supreme court case. e broadcast cases was spectrum scarcity. By contrast, the Internet has virtually limitless communications potential."
Until the 1960s, the word 'hell' was forbidden from US network television, although it made an appearance at the end of the Star Trek episode 'City on the Edge of Forever'.

As previously mentioned, British television is more permissive in this respect, with one exception which I shall arrive at later. In comparison to British television, American television appears very conservative; American television movies which make it over the pond seem to feature no swearing, violence or nudity, and really, what's the point?

The f-word was first spoken on British television in 1965 (by Kenneth Tynan), whilst the c-word made its debut in the late 70s in an arty play on BBC2. There is an unofficial 'watershed' at 21:00, although the good stuff tends to appear from 22:00 onwards. The briefly-notorious mid-90s WW2 drama 'The Camomile Lawn' got into trouble for featuring a brutal rape immediately after 21:00. And famously the Sex Pistols caused a fuss in 1977 by appearing on Bill Grundy's lunchtime show and being very rude ('What a fuckin' rotter', etc), although they were clearly provoked by Grundy.

In general, comedy shows and light entertainment programmes have not featured swearing until quite recently ('Have I Got News for You' used to bleep out the f-words but now includes them). Having said that, Monty Python's Flying Circus was famously filled with bastards and shits, and that's just the cast! No, that was a joke. John Cleese often tells the tale of negotiating the amount of bastards and shits and gits and bastards with some editor or other, swapping bastards for shits in order to keep the show's bastard quotient within an acceptable framework. Hale and Pace, who were quite controversial in the 1980s, did not generally swear on television; neither did Jim Davidson. The Spitting Image puppets hit each other, and used the word bastard, but again did not swear. Until the late 1990s, 'blue' comedy of the kind mastered by Roy 'Chubby' Brown' was not shown on television at all. Bernard Manning was right out.

The exception to the liberal wave which swept the television airwaves in the late 1990s etc was ITV, which often edits films in order to remove swearing and violence, and also to fit its commercials-driven timeslot, and the fact that the news has to be on at a certain time, and that the watershed as mentioned previously starts at 21:00. Most notoriously, both 'Aliens' and 'Robocop' were torn to shreds when premiered - the former featuring the classic lines "You don't see them screwing each other over for a pension" and "We're gonna grease this rat-fat son of a bitch", whilst the latter had "Just give me my freakin' phone call!" and "You're gonna be one BAD mother(cut)". Both of these films features masses of graphic violence and were quite clearly not for children.

Not to mention the immortal 'Yippee Kay-ay, Kimosabe!' (I'm not making this up) from 'Die Hard'. After a particularly amusing parody by Harry Enfield on his television show ("You been funnin' my wife?", "Suck my cake, you melonfarmer!", "Fun you, cop-stacker!", etc), ITV relented. There is a website, at, which charts the ongoing saga of the BBFC's decisions to cut bits out of videos and so forth.

Most of the above is half-remembered from an old Jerry Sadowitz documentary (The Greatest F***ing Show On Television, shown on Channel 4 in the early 1990s) on the subject. Sadowitz himself was controversial in the 1990s, mostly for his bad taste jokes rather than swearing, although he got to swear a lot when he had a show on Channel 5. And then September 11 happened and people stopped swearing, and also being ironic. Or rather, if you're looking at the date above this writeup, September 11 will happen, because it hasn't happened yet.

The seven words you can't say on television:
Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, mother-fucker, and tits

Why? Because the FCC said you can't, that's why.

How did they decide on those words? Was there a committee full of Tourette Syndrome bureaucrats who cursed and wrote the really good ones on a blackboard? Did Congress pass an act that those particular words were no-nos, but words like "twat" were ok? Nope. Comedian George Carlin decided on those words.

What? George Carlin, the funny old bald guy? Yep. Here's the story:

Carlin had an album, Class Clown, released in 1973. On it, there is a routine called "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." The next album, Occupation: Foole, had a sequel called "Filthy Words." Carlin begins "Filthy Words" with, "I was thinking one night about the words you couldn't say on the public, ah, airwaves, um, the ones you definitely wouldn't say, ever." At that time, 1973, there was no regulation of what you could and couldn't say, he was just thinking of words that he had never heard and never expected to hear. The whole routine is pokes at the way we use curse words and how offensive people think they are when they are so commonly used. He announces that the "Seven Deadly Words" are "shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits." He rationalizes those particular choices, and why other words, such as damn and hell aren't on the list. It was a funny routine by a funny guy, but held as much legal significance as when he said that we should bring back crucifixion.

That is, of course, until New York radio station WBAI played the 12 minute routine on air. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received a single complaint from a father who had listened to the routine with his son (family time!). It must have been nicely worded, because the FCC sent WBAI a "Declaratory Order" that they were forbidden from broadcasting such language "at times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience." The FCC did not fine the station, the letter was sent as a warning. The FCC said that if it received further complaints, it would fine the station.

The company that owned WBAI, Pacifica, appealed the order contending that Carlin's speech was protected under the First Amendment as was their broadcast of it. The District of Columbia Circuit Court reversed the order agreeing that the speech was protected. The FCC then appealed to the Supreme Court and won 5-4 in 1978. The Supreme Court said that the FCC had the right to sanction and fine broadcasters because of the pervasive nature of broadcasting.

The Supreme Court defined indecency as "language that describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast of the medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs." So, in practice, pretty much any swear word could be offensive. But for all practical purposes, the censored words were taken right from Carlin's speech. Those seven words were forever inscribed by Supreme Court decision as (as Carlin put it), "the ones you definitely wouldn't say, ever."

In practice, the FCC fines for "fuck" and "shit" but not "bitch" and "ass." The FCC can only fine broadcasts which means that cable television is not censored due to government regulations but due to the channel's own decency guidelines. This was recently put to the test, as in United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group in 2000.

The current fine is $7000 per infraction, which was lowered from $12,500 in 1997. This is probably because swear words are more common and less vulgar and because the fine alone was an incentive for some people to swear, and some people to listen.

The following rules apply to broadcasts in America as regulated by the FCC:

Obscene broadcasts are prohibited at all times. Obscene material meets all of the following three tests: (a) an average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) the material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law, (c) the material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Basically, obscene material is pornographic or similarly suggestive sexual material.

Indecent Broadcasts Restricted to 10 P.M. - 6 A.M. Indecent is as defined by the Supreme Court in their decision: language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.

It should be noted that some uses of "fuck" (such as using the word as an action verb meaning sexual intercourse) can be considered obscene, but "shit," being a excretory activity, cannot. Women's breasts and all genitalia are considered obscene, so you will never see that on television until "contemporary community standards" get lower.

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