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What the bleep are people saying on TV?

By Lisa Respers France, CNN
Vice President Joe Biden turns from the mic after using an expletive in speaking with President Obama.
Vice President Joe Biden turns from the mic after using an expletive in speaking with President Obama.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Experts have noted an increase in cursing on broadcast television
  • Everyone from celebs to the vice president has uttered forbidden words
  • Brand consultant says people make too big a deal out of cursing on television
  • Parents Television Council rep says viewers are growing used to hearing curse words
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(CNN) -- Seems like you can't turn on the television nowadays without hearing someone say something you shouldn't say on television.

It's not just "South Park," home of the frequent bleep, or HBO comedy specials, where F-words fly fast and frequently, or even broadcast TV, where words that still can't be listed on CNN.com are now part of everyday speech.

Now such language is even part of the august environs of C-SPAN: During congressional hearings investigating alleged financial fraud by Goldman Sachs, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, repeating a word in a Goldman memo, read an adjectival variation of the S-word aloud. In fact, it came up more than a dozen times during the hearing.

And then there was Vice President Joseph Biden, who made news when an open microphone captured him telling President Obama "This is a big f***ing deal!" in reference the passage of health care legislation

The foul-mouthed politicians may just be following a trend. Experts say cursing on TV has increased, and not just on cable stations where it has become almost de rigueur. On broadcast television, characters and reality stars are saying whatever the bleep they feel like.

"[Cursing on television] has been creeping up for quite some time," said Brian Steinberg, television editor for Ad Age. "Shows like 'Southland' have tried to take it as far as it could and bleep [a certain] word out, even though it was quite clear what the word was."

There have been countless examples of curse words used on television -- quite often during live broadcasts, including Bono's "f***ing brilliant" during the 2003 Golden Globes and expletives uttered by Cher and Nicole Richie during live events. The language helped precipitate a fight by the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the airwaves, that led all the way to the Supreme Court last year.

The justices upheld the FCC's "fleeting expletives" policy, which allows the commission to crack down on networks with fines and punishments when even one curse word is used.

Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council, said her group has had to make its peace with the fact that viewers are more accepting of certain words.

"[The public has] come to the point where we have sort of given up and accepted the fact that some words are part of the vernacular on primetime TV," she said.

"Some of the milder profanities, like 'hell' and 'damn,' don't even register now when we hear them on TV," Henson said. "What we have seen, particularly with the advent of the popularity of reality TV, people are becoming more and more comfortable with bleeped obscenities."

The bleeped versions of those words, some of which the late comedian George Carlin immortalized in his routine "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," help to pave the way for viewers to become more comfortable with the coarseness of language on TV, Henson said.

So it's no longer shocking to hear a woman called a word which rhymes with witch or some other expletive, even on shows viewers might assume would be family-friendly, she said.

"It's not just on reality shows. [It's] also on scripted comedies and some animated primetime programs like 'Family Guy' and 'American Dad,' where, given the high number of young viewers, you would think they would use a little bit more discretion with the language they use," Henson said.

Brand consultant Daniel Coffeen, who wrote an essay in defense of profanity, disagrees. "People make too big a deal out of f***ing everything. I don't understand it."

But what about the children who are exposed to such language? Coffeen said that good parenting is the best way to show your child what's acceptable and what is not.

"What I teach my kid is that there are things I can do that he can't do. I can curse, I can drink tequila, I can go out at night, I can cross the street by myself," he said. "There are things that grown-ups can do that kids can't do."

While an adjunct professor at the University of California - Berkeley, Coffeen was once reprimanded for cursing in front of his students. But his belief dovetails with that of comedian Carlin, who in the "Seven Words" monologue pointed out that there are "no bad words."

"Bad thoughts, bad intentions ... and words," Carlin said.

Much of the language trend has to do with competition, observes Ron Simon, a curator for The Paley Center for Media. In a 500-channel multimedia universe, broadcast television has to contend with many more outlets for an audience.

"The [broadcast] networks are trying to show that they are the equivalent of those other forms of entertainment," he said. "Obviously what can be said in American culture has expanded."

After all, he pointed out, something like a Biden slip of the tongue is no longer limited to those who catch the moment.

"Those types of things now go viral," Simon said. "Now everyone in the country can see it because of things like YouTube."

It could be that television is only mirroring the real world, and the real world has gotten coarser. In February, the California Assembly passed a resolution to establish the first week of March as "Cuss Free Week" throughout the state.

Given all that, Coffeen would rather have television focus on good programming.

"Obviously I don't give a [expletive]," Coffeen said. "The offense to me is sh***y art, it's bad television. It's the same bourgeois family on the same formulaic sitcom that, to me, is a moral and aesthetic offense."