Former President Donald Trump s impeachment trial last week featured explicit language rarely heard on American airwaves, particularly during a dramatic 13-minute video presented by House managers that showed scenes from the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and the enraged, violent mob that caused it.
Why was hearing that language on network television unusual? And what might it mean for the future when it comes to broadcast standards?
WHAT DID THE RIOTERS SAY?
Repeated obscenities were shouted by members of the angry and agitated pro-Trump mob as they moved toward and inside the U.S. Capitol that day. They included a chant of “f—- the blue,” apparently directed at police officers, and other swear words including “motherf——-,” as the crowd became more confrontational and violent.
They were heard on several networks, including ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Often, they were seen as well; the House managers printed some of the dialogue on screens so viewers were clear about the often-muffled sounds that they were hearing.
Many of the networks bleeped out the offending language when repeating videos later, but not when they were broadcast live.
WHY IS THAT UNUSUAL?
The Federal Communications Commission prohibits broadcasters from airing indecent or profane content on television between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children could reasonably be expected to be in the audience.
You can thank the late comic George Carlin for perpetuating that standard. When his famous routine, “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” was played on a New York radio station in 1973, it led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the FCC's authority to fine radio or television stations for using such words and, potentially, take away their license to broadcast.
ARE THE RULES THE SAME FOR BROADCAST, CABLE AND STREAMING SERVICES?
No. Broadcasters — networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and PBS — are subject to penalties because their signals are sent over public airwaves. The other services are different, because users subscribe to them, and thus are not subject to FCC penalties.
So-called “basic” cable services like CNN, ESPN or USA tend to keep profanity to a minimum because they don't want to offend advertisers. Premium services like HBO and Netflix don't depend on advertising, so they can let their freak flags fly.
WHAT'S THE LIKELIHOOD THAT BROADCAST NETWORKS WILL BE PENALIZED?
The first requirement for FCC action is getting a complaint from the public, which would lead the government body to open an investigation. There have been some complaints, an agency spokesman said Friday. But enforcement is unlikely for several reasons.
The FCC fined ABC and Fox in 2012 after they aired obscenities blurted out during an awards show, but the Supreme Court threw the action out, saying the networks could not have anticipated the language. Networks could argue the same thing with the impeachment trial; it strengthens that point when they “bleeped” out the bad language for later reruns.
The FCC received complaints in 2018 after news programs aired stories about Trump referring to some African and Latin American nations as “s—-hole countries,” but did not take enforcement action.
ARE STANDARDS DIFFERENT FOR NEWS EVENTS?
That's not in the rules. But in practice, that's the case, says Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University. “The FCC doesn't want to get anywhere near what would be considered political censorship,” he said.
News executives who aired the language this week argued that it would be wrong to edit language being used on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Given the explicitness of the language used this week, during daytime hours, Levinson said he believes it's a watershed moment in broadcast standards.
“The fact that this language was put out there," he says, “is a very important step forward in terms of freedom of expression.”
David Bauder, the media writer for The Associated Press, has been covering the business of television for more than two decades. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/dbauder