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Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Censored for your Convenience

In the UK we have a simple system of TV censorship called The Watershed. Programmes shown before 9pm are designated suitable for family viewing, while after 9pm children should not be permitted to watch without their parents' consent and supervision. Constant public feedback helps program makers and schedulers determine if they have judge things correctly.

In the US there is no such watershed. It would be impossible, since programmes shown at 9pm on the East Coast are showing at 6pm on the West Coast. Instead there is a blanket ban on all swear words which are censored out of broadcasts, regardless of when those broads are cast. Nudity is banned, sex scenes discreetly trimmed.

So far so good. Unfortunately the censoring is done very poorly, possibly because there's so much of it to do. Swearing is, after all, a part of life, distasteful though it may be. Sometimes a word will be bleeped out, sometimes cut out altogether (leaving an awkward sound gap), sometimes replaced with a "suitable alternative". This is all done so it is nearly always possible to recognise the original word and mentally replace it. The cuts and beeps are so obvious that it draws more attention to the censored word than leaving it in.



Context doesn't matter. I'm currently watching a gory horror movie. The opening scene shows a man being run over; then the driver rolls the car wheel onto the victim's chest until his ribs break. A few minutes later the driver carries the victim's severed head into his "workshop", with other severed and bloody heads are stacked everywhere you look. Nasty stuff, but not apparently as disturbing to children as the word "shit" which is beeped out a few moments later...

* sweartime over

It all seems a bit silly to censor in such circumstances, though I understand that American parents don't want their kids learning swear words off the TV. Yet surely the children's viewing should be determined by the parents, not the broadcasters? I can only assume that blanket censorship is done to take the burden of parenting away from the actual parents.

It would make more sense to me to have the censoring option left to the discretion of the viewer, so you could block channels and programmes that you do not want your children to watch, surely not impossible with current technology, or simply not let them watch TV unsupervised.


  1. Although it is often parental activism that drives decisions such as the censoring before 9, but not after rule. Parents aren't necessarily abdicating their role, but they may have sought that support from the broadcasters.

    In practice, however (as you observe,) it comes down to how much control a parent feels compelled or able to exert. I seen attitudes across the board on this one. When Gabe was elementary school age, one of our carpool kids (same age) would re-tell, in the most gruesome detail, whichever horror movie or shoot'em up he'd seen the night before. I didn't make him stop, but figured this second-hand account was enough for my kid, at the time. A few years later I allowed Gabe to select films and games with free leeway.

  2. The blanket ban only applies to broadcast TV. There's technically no rule at all that pertains to cable/satellite TV. A basic cable channel could, if it really wanted to, show "indecent" material at 6pm. Advertisers and cable/satellite companies may have something to say about that.

    There's also a watershed of sorts: the FCC generally allows broadcast stations to show indecent (as opposed to obscene) material between 10pm and 6am local time. That said, as it stands now, there's actually no formal rules on the broadcast stations any more: about a year ago the FCC rules were deemed by the courts to be unconstitutionally vague and struck down.