TELEVISION The @#$*%# facts on foul language
A study shows bad language ebbs and flows on network television.
By RANDY KENNER
You might think that bad language has increased on primetime television. But Barbara Kaye and Barry Sapolsky know it for a fact.
Over the past dozen years Kaye, an associate professor in the University of Tennessee's School of Journalism and Electronic Media, and colleague Barry Sapolsky, a Florida State University professor, have chronicled the ebbs and flows of bad and profane words on primetime network television.
Their latest article, "Offensive Language in Prime Time Television: Four Years After Television Age and Content Ratings" was published in December in The Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media.
"Profanity increased between 1997 and 2001 to a rate of one word every eight minutes," they wrote. "Fox network programs contained more crudities than all other networks; UPN had the highest rate of such words per hour."
Words such as hell and damn dominated, they wrote, "but the 'seven dirty words' were heard once every three hours."
Research on how many times someone says "damn" or worse on network television wasn't the sort of research Kaye focused on as a Florida State graduate student -- until a Tallahassee television station refused to air a controversial new show in 1993.
"'NYPD Blue' is what got me into it," Kaye said. "They were saying there was going to be all this indecent language, and I was not happy that the Tallahassee affiliate wouldn't show the program."
"I wanted to see for myself, does it really have more instances of (bad) language?"
Kaye had a friend send her tapes of the program.
"I believe we found that 'NYPD Blue' did not have significantly more instances of language than the other shows, and actually some of the sitcoms had more instances of indecent language," Kaye said."
It was the beginning of what's been a long research project.
"It's the kind of thing that deserves frequent checking to see how things (change)," Sapolsky said.
After the pair did an initial study on "NYPD Blue," they looked at tapes of primetime programming in 1990 and compared it to programming in 1994.
Eventually "we decided we would do this as a continuing work every four years," said Kaye, a co-author of three books including ones focusing on advertising on the Internet and the past, present and future of electronic media.
Both she and Sapolsky have other research interests with Kaye co-writing a number of articles on the relationship of the Internet and the media. But they have collaborated on at least five articles based on their research including a study that came out earlier this year, "Watch Your Mouth! An Analysis of Profanity Uttered by Children on Prime Time Television."
She and Sapolsky have surveyed network primetime content for 1990, 1994, 1997 (because it was the year age and content ratings debuted) and 2001.
They're gearing up now for their 2005 effort.
The pair studies primetime programming on seven networks: ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, WB, UPN and PAX.
A gradual rise
Their work has shown that bad language has risen over the years, but it hasn't rocketed up or even climbed steadily.
Instead, Kaye's and Sapolsky's work has shown that the use of bad or profane language has peaked at some points and then dropped apparently in response to viewer complaints and pressure from interest groups before rising again.
It's expected to dip again in the 2005 survey.
"1990 was less, it went up in 1994, down in '97 but only to the same levels of 1990," Kaye said.
"There was just a lot of attention paid to language on television at that time (1997, the year the ratings came into being). I think there was more attention being paid to it so that's why it went down, but then by 2001..."
By 2001, coarse language was up considerably.
According to a table that accompanied their December article, the frequency of offensive language in primetime on four networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) went from a combined total of 384 incidents in 1990 during the survey period to 536 in 1994, 392 in 1997 and 639 in 2001.
The survey period is generally a few weeks long.