CBS censored Robert Di Nero — but what words are actually off limits for TV?

By Matt Collins Article may include affiliate links

After actor Robert Di Nero said the word “fuck” on national television — twice — CBS opted to censor the word during its broadcast of the 2018 Tony Awards.

  • “Fuck” is, of course, on the list of words that are generally considered unacceptable for broadcast television.
  • The list of unacceptable words for TV is often linked to comedian George Carlin’s 1972 “Seven Dirty Words” act, though some of the words on the list can be heard on broadcast television regularly today, while cable and streaming services are typically less heavy on removing the words from broadcasts, if at all.
  • Contrary to popular belief, however, the “seven dirty words” list is not complete or authoritative on a legal basis.
  • Networks maintain a “standards and practices” department that decide what words and phrases can be used — and in what cases.
  • This is also typically the team responsible for hitting the censor button during live events such as the Tony Awards, which typically air on a slight delay to get networks time to jump in and mute content they deem unacceptable.
  • Some of the words on the list may be allowed depending on the context. For example, many American networks will allow the word “ass” to air, but not “asshole.” Another example: “Tit” is generally allowed if it’s used in the phrase “tit for tat” but not as a slang for a woman’s breast (though even here, writers can get creative where the reference may be implied and allowed to air).
  • A program’s timeslot or target audience can also play a role in what is censored and what is not censored — generally, shows aimed at children or ones airing when children are more likely to be awake have stricter standards.
  • In short, in the United States, while stronger profanity is basically off limits on broadcast TV, other words that may be unacceptable to some viewers still make it to air.
  • International broadcasters may be less likely to censor certain words too, as was the case in Australia, which let Di Nero’s speech air uncensored.
  • In the U.S., the FCC can fine broadcasters, though not cable TV networks, for profanity or other objectionable content, such as Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show on CBS, though CBS ultimately did not end up paying the fine.
  • FCC fines are typically not leveled against broadcasters who air profanity or other objectionable content inadvertently. For example, incidents involving profanity or “flashers” during live news coverage are typically not fined.
  • A notable exception of stronger profanity being allowed to air on broadcast TV is during past airings of “Saving Private Ryan,” though this has caused some local stations to pre-empt the film.
  • “Shit,” another word generally deemed off limits for broadcast TV, was used by “NBC Nightly News” during its coverage of Donald Trump’s reference to “shithole countries.”