Civil Liberties

Protecting America From Flying Fucks


When I sent my column to Creators Syndicate this week, I wasn't sure how to treat bullshit and dickhead, two words featured in the 2nd Circuit's decision overturning the FCC's ban on broadcast indecency. Newspapers generally like to replace the last three (or middle two) letters in shit (and fuck) with hyphens or asterisks—a policy that has always seemed rather silly to me, since there's no mystery about what the missing letters are. But in this case the appeals court spelled out all the naughty words, and it seems especially absurd to shield readers of a newspaper column about a court decision from words that appear in that decision. I also thought that maybe bullshit had, like BS, become acceptable as a slightly stronger variation on nonsense, balderdash, poppycock, and pishposh. (It's the name of a TV show, after all.) Evidently I was wrong: My editor thought it was best to take the cautious route of censoring bullshit, bullshitter, and even dickhead (which the FCC had certified as totally OK for prime time [correction: I see that dickhead made it through, so maybe the FCC has a firmer grasp of "contemporary community standards" than I thought]). He also added a warning about the language, perhaps to cover Milk Nymphos and Storm Squirters 2, porn movie titles that do not include any forbidden words but might, "in context" (as the FCC likes to say), be a little too suggestive for squeamish newspaper readers.

The more I think about these rules, the less sense they make to me. (For an interesting exploration of language taboos, I recommend the 2006 documentary Fuck.) This press release nevertheless made me proud to be an American:

New Profanity Filter Battles the F-Word in Living Rooms

ROGERS, Ark., July 21 /Christian Newswire/—Just one week after a federal appeals court opened the door for the F-word to be used freely on broadcast TV, an Arkansas company says they have a solution: Filter the words out on your own.

TVGuardian, LLC is just this week receiving shipment of the first of their new profanity filters—boxes that connect to TVs and automatically filter out foul language.

"It's now clear families can't rely on broadcasters to provide profanity-free TV," says TVGuardian, LLC President Britt Bennett. "Families have to take matters into their own hands to protect themselves from obscenity."

A second new model is due to be released next month, one that works with high definition TV. Both new models are available on the company website,

What's new about the new models? "New software, new boxes, now in HD, and a new rental program," says Bennett. "Families can now rent TVGuardian for as low as $6.99 a month."…

TVGuardian was invented by Rick Bray in 1997, and the company produced more than 400,000 units before discontinuing production in order to pursue licensing. They successfully licensed their foul language filtering technology into over 12 million DVD players. Their return to the marketplace with new set top boxes comes after a nearly three year absence.

"I used to be more hopeful about the future of TV for our children," says Bennett. "But now that even the F-word is allowed? At any time of day? It looks like we'll be in business for a while still."

Contrary to Bennett's implication, it's quite unlikely that TV networks will start recklessly tossing F-bombs into people's living rooms, because they don't want to alienate viewers. There are plenty of family-friendly options available on cable, which has always been legally free to transmit profanity-laced dialogue between SpongeBob and Patrick or Maggie and the Ferocious Beast. But for those extra-cautious parents who do not entirely trust the standards of children's channels or the TV rating system (on which the omnipresent yet little-used "V-chip" relies), TVGuardian offers another option (in addition to relying on DVDs and streaming video, turning the TV set off, or even not buying one to begin with, an option that some strains of cultural conservatives have been known to exercise). Whatever you may think of TVGuardian's approach, it is vastly preferable to the attitude of former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who in 2005 defended the commission's censorship this way: "You can always turn the television off and, of course, block the channels you don't want….But why should you have to?"