What would Carlin do?

What would Carlin do?

There have been many occasions this fall that it’s been possible to tune in to broadcast network television during prime time and hear one character call another one a “douche.” Since October, it’s happened on CBS’s comedy starring Julia Louis Dreyfus, “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and the CW’s “The Vampire Diaries” – both broadcast at 8 p.m., during what used to be called “the family hour.” The word has also been uttered on Fox’s new animated series “The Cleveland Show,” which airs at 8:30, as well as on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” On NBC, the word has been heard on newly-minted comedy “Community” as well as the venerable drama “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” According to the Parents Television Council, “douche” has been thrown around at least 76 times already this year on 26 different prime-time network series. That’s up from 30 instances on 15 programs in the entire year 2007, and only six uses on four programs in 2005. Since 1972, when George Carlin first spelled out the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” broadcasters and television writers have been pushing the envelope to its breaking point, exploring the boundaries of titillation, if not outright offense. And although the word “douche” isn’t profane or obscene — which isn’t to say that it doesn’t offend many people — it does seem to be a small, if edgy, part of an overall strategy to turn the tide of defections by network television audiences to the largely unregulated realm of cable. The result: words that were previously rarely heard on television are suddenly turning up everywhere, and once unutterable terms have become passé through overuse. For instance, use of the word “bitch” tripled over the last decade alone, growing from 431 uses on 103 prime-time episodes in 1998 to 1,277 uses on 685 shows in 2007, according to the Parents Television Council, a conservative interest group that monitors and opposes profanity on television. Television writers acknowledge that the use of language on the networks has changed. It isn’t simply that the language has become more raw on broadcast television; language, violence and sex formerly restricted to the 10 p.m. hour have migrated into earlier time slots. Research by Barry Sapolsky of Florida State University and Barbara Kaye of the University of Tennessee found that in 2005, viewers were more likely to hear strong, offensive language during the 8 and 9 p.m. hours than at 10 p.m. There hasn’t been an official “family hour” since 1976, when a U.S. District Court in California struck down the policy by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Still, the networks observed the practice long past that. Those days, it seems, are over. During a symposium last summer sponsored by the Alliance for Family Entertainment, the heads of the major networks said the concept of a family hour was antiquated. Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, said programs like “The New Adventures of Old Christine” “merely reflect a different family dynamic.” That difference includes frequent use of profanities, defined broadly as anything from the relatively mild “hell” to sexual and excretory words. Researchers Kaye and Sapolsky found that use of profanities on broadcast prime-time television jumped from 5.5 times an hour in 1990 to 7.6 in 2001, and 9.8 times an hour in 2005. Although stronger words saw the fastest growth, the term “jackass” has seen a jump in usage, appearing in 34 family-hour shows so far in 2009, up from 31 in 2007 and 27 in 2005. Other words have seen their fortunes rise and fall. “Sucks,” for instance, appeared in 226 family-hour episodes in 2005, then dropped to 120 in 2007, rising again to 232 so far this year, according to the Family Research Council’s research. According to University of Tennessee’s Kaye, the only time in recent years that profanity has briefly declined was in 1997, just after television ratings were put into effect. Users of “douche” defend its use, noting it was first used (normally accompanied by the suffix “bag”) in the 1990s on “NYPD Blue” by character Andy Sipowicz, a program and character which at the time pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable to watch and hear. Timothy Jay, author of “Cursing in America” and a psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts said the word “douche” has evolved to a point where it’s lost much of its offensiveness. “Vulgar slang has a way of waxing and waning, where we become desensitized to a word’s earlier meanings,” Jay said. “I would bet most kids today couldn’t tell you what a douche bag is.” – Boomer