Mom, What Does $#*! Mean?

Who knew that the simple combination of a dollar sign, number symbol, asterisk, and exclamation point would stir up a huge controversy?

CBS recently announced it would air a new comedy series titled “$#*! My Dad Says,” inspired by a popular Twitter feed with a very similar (and decidedly less symbolic) name. In the new series, William Shatner plays a curmudgeon who offers witty, and often politically incorrect, advice to his son. Despite the title’s hint at the s-word, CBS insists that its new show will not be indecent in any way and will adhere to all CBS standards. Parents who do not want their children to see the show can simply block the program using a handy v-chip. Moreover, CBS has assured its skeptics that the promotions for the show will say “Bleep My Dad Says,” the “Bleep” referring to the actual word and not the bleep audio effect. And using the word “bleep” may be cloying, but is surely isn’t indecent, right?

Wrong, says the Parents Television Council, which (together with the Federal Communications Commission) has waged a years-long campaign against the use of indecent language (among other sins) in radio and television — a campaign which it has now extended to naughty language in disguise. According to the PTC, this combination of four seemingly harmless symbols makes for a “bold, shameless, and in-your-face” program title, demonstrating CBS’s “contempt for families and the public.” (The copyright implications of this blog’s upcoming adoption of “bold, shameless, and in-your-face” as its tagline are a subject for another post.) As expected, the PTC denounced CBS for choosing to insert an offensive expletive (albeit a “bleeped out” expletive) into the actual name of the new show, asserting that the title violates FCC indecency standards. The PTC announced its plans to wage an “unrelenting campaign” against advertisers that support the show and has threatened to challenge the broadcast license of any CBS affiliate that chooses to air the show or a promotion for the show before 10 p.m. (prompting the Hollywood Reporter to drolly note that “the $#*! is already hitting the fan”).

More than 30 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation that the U.S. Constitution allowed the government, via the FCC, to restrict radio broadcasts from using vulgar words that were indecent, even if the words were not obscene. The Court explained that broadcasting has less First Amendment protection than other forms of communication because of broadcasting’s pervasive nature and accessibility to children. The infamous act of indecency behind this notable Supreme Court opinion was a radio broadcast of George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” monologue, where Mr. Carlin repeated curse word after curse word in a satiric take on the public’s attitude toward certain “filthy” words.

So, what exactly does indecent mean? As the Court described it, indecent language is “language that describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs, at times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.”

The Court’s notable ruling undeniably affected the world of broadcasting, effectively prohibiting the use of indecent language between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., the time children are most likely listening to the radio. The reach of the Court’s ruling, however, was somewhat limited, prohibiting only the continuous or repeated use of such indecent language.

More recently, the FCC sought to enforce a more restrictive policy on the use of vulgar language during television broadcasts in the case of FCC v. Fox Television Stations. In this 2009 case, the Supreme Court found that fleeting expletives on public airwaves could be indecent and therefore restricted by the government, overturning the Second Circuit’s holding that the FCC had overstepped its bounds by issuing indecency rulings against Fox for airing the f-word and s-word during live broadcasts of the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards. The FCC also famously cited NBC for Bono’s observation that winning a 2003 Golden Globe award was “really, really [err, effing?] brilliant” (prompting some legal observers to note that the FCC was, in effect, being “really, really effing stupid”).

In an effort to enforce the FCC’s indecency standards, the PTC is now condemning CBS for inserting symbols that allude to an expletive in the name of its new show. Can “$#*!” be considered an indecent word? In reality, this combination of symbols is not even a word at all! Nevertheless, an argument can be made that CBS is pushing the boundaries set by the FCC, which maintains that material that consists of double entendre or innuendo may be considered indecent if the sexual or excretory import is unmistakable.

So has CBS run afoul of the FCC’s indecency standards? The key question seems to be whether the “$#*!” in “$#*! My Dad Says” is unmistakably construed as the s-word. The PTC certainly thinks so (and ironically, the PTC’s own public campaign may erase any shred of doubt that may have otherwise existed). And while the FCC hasn’t yet signaled its own intentions, its recent aggressiveness about language on the airwaves suggests that it might look cockeyed at CBS’s cheekiness (wait, I can still say that on the Internet, right?). Will CBS respond to the PTC’s threats by censoring its already censored title? Well I guess that depends on how much $#*! they’re willing to take about it.

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