ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. A warning, this next story is about swearing. There are some words you just can't say on the radio or on broadcast TV, but cable television, that's different. It's not subject to the same oversight from the Federal Communications Commission. So, cable executives and their show writers make up their own rules about what characters can say and what they think will offend viewers. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on the two worst swear words by FCC standards and the fuzzy line that separates them on basic cable.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Since this is the radio, we can't actually say the two worst swear words on the playground so here's how we're going to handle it. The worst one, the very worst swear word is (beep). And the second most horrible word is (beep). Got that? Worst swear word is (beep) and the second worst swear word is (beep).
Now, basic cable dramas treat (beep) and (beep) very differently. So you might yell out (beep) if you were being attacked by a zombie.
(SOUNDBITE OF GROWLING AND SCREAMING)
ULABY: But no one on "The Walking Dead" ever yells out (beep), no matter how dire the situation. They do, however, say the word (beep). It's the same with other basic cable shows, like "Justified" and "Sons of Anarchy," a biker gang drama heavy on tattoos and violence.
(SOUNDBITE OF "SONS OF ANARCHY")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm not gonna hurt you. Just looking for your dad. I'm a friend of his.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let me see the ink.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I got all kinds of ink.
ULABY: "Sons of Anarchy's" fifth season starts tonight on the cable channel FX. The show's creator, Kurt Sutter, says he and his writers can use the word (beep), but not the word (beep).
KURT SUTTER: It's so arbitrary, hon. It's just basically people in suits making up the rules.
ULABY: These suits will not let Sutter say retard. He also can't use his very favorite swear word, the really, really bad one for female anatomy.
SUTTER: But we can use the word gash, which I think is far worse.
ULABY: Using words like (beep) and (beep) is not about trying to sound cool, Sutter says. It's about conveying rhythms, cultures, intense emotions. You can't hear actors' voices when you bleep them, so he swaps in other words instead.
SUTTER: Jesus Christ is probably our replacement, ironically, for (beep).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Oh, Jesus.
ULABY: FX carefully counts all those Jesus Christs. Everything remotely like a swear word is tracked on every show by every cable network. NPR's pop culture blogger, Linda Holmes, has written about how rules around language are being tested and redefined on TV. She says you can hear it on the big broadcast networks, too.
LINDA HOLMES: There is a little bit of soft-profanity creep.
ULABY: There's a curse word chasm between what you can say on cable and what you can say on broadcast networks, like ABC or CBS. Broadcast shows never allow their characters to say the word (beep), let alone the worst word, (beep). That said, now they use anatomical language that would have been found way too vulgar just a decade ago.
Even on shows for younger audiences like "Glee," you'll hear words like bitch.
(SOUNDBITE OF "GLEE")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: If we do a duet together, we will be the undisputed top bitches at this school.
ULABY: You could argue the rise of profanity across television has to do with the rise of profanity generally. But it also has to do with the rise of quality cable drama. For that, thank HBO. Think of the language in "Deadwood" or "The Wire." Not everyone takes pleasure in extreme language and many may find it offensive.
Still, the broadcast networks like Fox, ABC, NBC and CBS want to be able to use harder swear words. They recently asked the Federal Communications Commission to relax decency guidelines because, they say, nobody cares anymore whether a show is on cable or broadcast. Linda Holmes.
HOLMES: They want to be able to say bull(beep), which is a really hard word to substitute for. Bull(beep) is really hard word to find anything else that feels as good.
ULABY: Holmes says no other word contains exactly the same meaning of bull(beep), and certainly there's no more effective way to call something out. You can say bull(beep) on basic cable, but the word (beep) not so much. I was told that AMC actually has a (beep) quota with "Breaking Bad." It's okay a certain number of times per season, but after that, they tastefully drop it out.
You have to listen carefully to notice.
(SOUNDBITE OF "BREAKING BAD")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: You want to get the (silence) out of there and never come back.
ULABY: Other cable dramas bleep the word (beep) like "Southland" on TNT. Others try to have it both ways, like "Battlestar Galactica."
(SOUNDBITE OF "BATTLESTAR GALACTICA")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Okay. Fire on my mark.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: No fracking way, Lee.
ULABY: But Linda Holmes finds made-up curse words distracting.
HOLMES: If you know that frack is just (beep), it feels phony. It takes away from the moment.
ULABY: Vulgar language ruins TV shows for some people. And most of us agree there should be channels or times of day without obscenities. But to think about dirty words on television is to think about how we use language and how it evolves. All of these amazing cable dramas, and the language they use or not, are a drama of their own, about community standards, artistic choices and the values we put into words. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.