Seven words you can (almost) never say on (non-cable) television

More than 30 years after George Carlin pronounced "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television," some of those words have lost their sting.

Some of those words still aren't welcome on the public airwaves (or, for that matter, in print) and still are being debated in the courts.

But you can hear those words voiced in everyday discourse more than ever.

Carlin, who died June 22 at age 71, observed in his routine: "We have thoughts, but thoughts are fluid. Then we assign a word to a thought and we're stuck with that word for that thought — so be careful with words."

Or course, times — and wars — have changed. At least one of Carlin's words (a rude term for urine) wouldn't raise an eyebrow on much of broadcast TV now.

Meanwhile, none of them is alien to premium cable. For many viewers, hearing those Words You Can't Say On Television being said on television helps make pay cable worth the price.

Of this Magnificent Seven, only one, which refers to the female anatomy, retains the power to jolt nearly anyone within earshot. On an HBO sitcom a couple of years ago, the angry husband used this word to insult his wife. It nearly wrecked their marriage. More tellingly, the studio audience emitted an audible gasp.

Premium cable, and even basic cable, have far more freedom with content than broadcast programming, which is carried on public airwaves by stations licensed by the Federal Communications Commission.

For broadcast, The Words are actually words the FCC says can't be heard before 10 p.m. — when the "safe harbor" for young viewers applies. But exactly what those words are, and under what circumstances they may be permissible, is currently unclear.

The picture is further muddied by the fact that 80 to 90 percent of viewers get all their programming (from broadcast stations as well as cable networks) through their cable or satellite subscription. Different indecency standards apply to channels whose difference is often undetectable to the audience.

Recently the U.S Supreme Court has entered a legal fight over curse words aired by Fox in 2002 and 2003 on the live broadcasts of "The Billboard Music Awards." Scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court this fall, the case would decide whether the government can ban "fleeting expletives," one-time uses of familiar but profane words.

Dropping an "f-bomb" on a broadcast won't automatically blast open the floodgates, said Tim Winter, president of Parents Television Council, but he warned, "It's a slow accumulation. First it's once every several months. Then it becomes once a month. Then it becomes once a night."

Share This Story