After Will Smith slapped Chris Rock during Sunday’s Oscars, the United States broadcast of the event went silent for an extended period. But social media lit up immediately with full-audio Australian and Japanese footage captured, respectively, by Australian BuzzFeed reporter David Mack and Tampa-based live-TV guru Timothy Burke.
Why did those countries get the good stuff and not the U.S.?
Slate’s beloved explainer-article alter-ego and I discuss below. (Disclaimer: This article contains graphic, arguably lewd content unrelated to the altercation between two beloved Hollywood stars.)
The most immediate reason the U.S. audio was muted is likely that Oscars producers or the ABC standards and practices department stepped in when Chris Rock said shit and Will Smith said fucking. The show is aired on a slight delay in the U.S. (in the past it’s reportedly been five seconds) expressly so such foul dumpster words can be censored. Neither the producers nor ABC has acknowledged on the record that this is what happened, though, and ABC didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.
In any case, both entities are aware that the Federal Communications Commission can fine TV networks for broadcasting profanity. In fact, the Broadcast Decency Act of 2005 gave the agency the power to issue fines as high as $3 million for incidents of obscenity, indecency, or profanity (definitions of those terms here) that are shown on multiple affiliate stations. And the agency has previously concluded that spontaneous live-event swearing is a no-no, as is conveyed in the title of a March 2004 press release: “FCC FINDS THAT BROADCAST OF ‘F-WORD’ DURING GOLDEN GLOBE AWARDS WAS INDECENT AND PROFANE.”
Humorously, that determination took 14 months to make, the precipitating incident having occurred during a January 2003 Golden Globes broadcast on which U2 frontman Bono exclaimed that winning the Best Original Song award for a tribute to Irish people that appeared in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York was “fucking brilliant.” (Worth it!)
What is the most recent press release listed on the FCC website where you found the one above?
It is a 2015 announcement that Virginia TV station WDBJ was being fined $325,000 for broadcasting “a video image of a hand stroking an erect penis” during a news segment about “a former adult film star who had joined a local volunteer rescue squad.” The video was apparently playing in a peripheral context on a website that the station showed because it also featured a non-obscene image of the woman in question. Said one of the viewers whose complaints was cited in the FCC announcement, “I can’t believe they didn’t catch the penis before it went to air.”
And this happened at WDBJ? Like, BJ? Ha ha!
You have been fined $325,000.
Is there anything else that happened in the early 2000s that drove people insane to the point they decided that even the briefest instances of televised indecency and profanity deserved a $3 million punishment?
Yes. Justin Timberlake ripped off a piece of Janet Jackson’s costume during the conclusion of their Super Bowl halftime performance on Feb. 1, 2004, exposing her breast. Four days later, an ABC spokeswoman said the Oscars would be aired with a delay for the first time ever, although she claimed the change had been planned before the Jackson incident. Republican Sen. Sam Brownback pursued the issue of TV indecency in Congress until the aforementioned bill passed (in 2006). Its Democratic co-sponsors included Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. The FCC said it ultimately received 540,000 complaints about the incident, although CBS argued in a subsequent court filing that more than 85 percent of the complaints were form letters submitted via conservative interest groups.
There are lots of other swearwords on my TV set, though. I can click almost any of the boxes on the flashing screen and hear someone swear!
Cable and streaming TV are not subject to FCC rules, and the First Amendment generally protects the right to say F-, S-, G-, P-, C-, and MF-words. The reasoning for network TV being an exception, as laid out in a 1978 Supreme Court ruling involving George Carlin, is that because it is “uniquely intrusive” and “uniquely pervasive” in homes, the government can regulate it to prevent children from seeing anything that violates community standards of propriety. This standard does not apply after 10 p.m. because children are presumed not to be watching anymore, but bear in mind that 10 p.m. on the West Coast is 1 a.m. on the East Coast. Which means that basically all network programming is covered, including the 10:30 p.m. ET–ish Will Smith Incident.
In Australia and Japan, though, they just don’t care? You can just say whatever to an Australian or Japanese child, via television?
Not quite. Australia has a body called the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which works in tandem with industry to create guidelines for “free-to-air” TV stations (the equivalent of U.S. networks). Content rated “M” for mature, for example, can only be aired between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. and after 7:30 p.m. Melbourne-based Slate contributor Rachel Withers notes via email that the free-to-air Seven network, which ran the Oscars broadcast, listed it as “PG” (which means the same thing there as it does in the U.S.) before it aired but now has it available online (and uncensored) as an “M” program.
A source close to the situation says that Seven was airing the broadcast live, without the kind of buffer that would have made it possible to censor the profanity, but it has not received any complaints about the incident. A spokesperson for the ACMA says it has not received complaints either.
Which is not to say Australians never get upset: In one recent case, the agency received 180 complaints about a radio host who said, among other things, that it was “dumb as dog shit” to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and that the Virgin Mary likely created the idea of the immaculate conception after “someone chock-a-blocked her behind the camel shed.” The ACMA ruled that the station that aired the material was “in breach of rules relating to generally accepted standards of decency” and that further violations could put its license to broadcast in jeopardy.
Slate has been unable to reach either the WOWOW channel, which aired the Oscars in Japan, or the country’s Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization, a self-regulation group. (Japan’s Broadcast Act requires licensees not to “harm public safety or good morals.”) But WOWOW is a subscription entertainment channel—in a message, Timothy Burke compared it to TNT or TBS. University of Oregon professor Alisa Freedman, the author of Japan on American TV, said that at one point WOWOW broadcast episodes of South Park. She speculated that in this context, a brief instance of obscenity (in English) would be unlikely to raise significant alarm, but Japan-specific political content could have been a problem. “There were a few episodes of South Park that were not able to air there, like the one that satirized the Japanese emperor,” Freedman said.
Does it make sense to continue to threaten the major networks and their shrinking share of viewers with huge fines for the utterance of words that are legally permissible everywhere else in the universe of television? Especially given that the networks may well choose to prohibit such words anyway for reasons of audience and advertiser preference, as many cable stations have long done?
Maybe not, but the laws are still on the books. A 2012 Supreme Court ruling overturned fines the FCC had imposed for “fleeting expletives,” but only on the basis that stations hadn’t received “fair notice” of the rule interpretation involved. John Allen Hendricks, the chair of the Department of Mass Communication at Stephen F. Austin University, notes that the FCC has actually continued to adjust its potential penalties for inflation, such that the maximum fine it could levy is now $3.87 million.
Is there anything else?
According to a 2017 Variety article about TV censorship, “it was a ‘big deal’ when audiences heard a toilet flush in one of the first scenes of [a 1971 episode of] All in the Family.”