27 Apr

Donn Esmonde’s column examines the subject of indecency during prime-time television. Specifically, he was watching an episode of the alleged sitcom “Two and a Half Men”, and characters therein used the word “balls” when referring to their testicles.

The word “balls” can also be defined as “courage”. Is it as indecent when used in that context? Is “he’s got a pair of balls on him” more or less indecent than, “I got kicked in the balls”?

The FCC’s indecency rules apply to on-air programming between the hours of 6am – 10pm, and prohibit the broadcast of:

Material is indecent if, in context, it depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium. In each case, the FCC must determine whether the material describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities and, if so, whether the material is “patently offensive.”

When assessing whether it is “patently offensive”, the FCC uses a three-prong (heh) approach:

(1) whether the description or depiction is explicit or graphic; (2) whether the material dwells on or repeats at length descriptions or depictions of sexual or excretory organs; and (3) whether the material appears to pander or is used to titillate or shock.

It was once thought that the indecency rules applied only to George Carlin’s “Filthy Words”, all of which depict sexual or excretory functions or activity using “swear” or “curse” words as commonly understood in our society. The FCC has expanded that definition. Although “balls” is not one of the seven dirty words, the FCC has expanded the definition in a vague, unpredictable, and overbroad way. In other words, using the word “penis” could be found to be indecent if the use of the word wasn’t clinical, but used to titillate or shock. So, Oprah could get away with it, but Howard Stern couldn’t. But the word “penis” itself, while it may describe a sexual organ, is not “patently offensive”. I think the FCC has gotten away with murder on this topic for far too long.

So, the question is whether “balls” is patently offensive for the broadcast community (i.e., the whole nation) is an open one, and one would think that this question is one best answered by a judge or jury – not a small group of FCC Commissioners. Esmonde suggests that words like that shouldn’t be broadcast until 10pm to prevent him from embarrassment in the presence of his 12 and 15 year-old kids.

Under FCC rules, it is completely legal for broadcast television to broadcast the word “fuck” after 10pm, much less “balls”. But also, the indecency rules aren’t set up to protect dads from feeling uncomfortable. It’s specifically to protect tender young children from hearing dirty words during times they are generally awake.

But really, what’s indecent is that networks can put on utter dreck like “Two and a Half Men” on network television, that it gets high ratings, and wins Emmys. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who watches that. A 30-minute sitcom with a live studio audience making sex jokes? What is this, 1988?

5 Responses to “Ballin'”

  1. Terry April 27, 2008 at 9:09 am #

    Not only do I watch it..I enjoy it. Worse, I find myself rapidly falling into a “Charlie” type syndrome…last evening I picked up a wine glass that I had purchased a few months back for a woman and I couldn’t recall the woman’s name….The value of the show lies not in it’s dialog and semantics, but in it’s portrayal of male/female relationships and the absurdities that lie therein…

  2. TseTse April 27, 2008 at 3:35 pm #

    Esmonde is offended by the word balls because he has a vagina.

  3. Mike In WNY April 27, 2008 at 4:12 pm #

    The dilemma of the use of the word “balls” is easily addressed by the use of the power or channel selector buttons on a TV. No monies need be spent for a courtroom resolution or an FCC ruling.

  4. Dan April 28, 2008 at 8:31 am #

    > What is this, 1988?

    In Buffalo? Do you even need to ask that?

  5. hank April 28, 2008 at 3:55 pm #

    The last time I lived in Buffalo was 1988 on the USA calendar, but I think it was 1975 in Buffalo.

    Mike in WNY and I rarely agree-but he nailed that one.

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