F-word on TV: Can the F-word be used on basic cable?

I was recently chatting with a friend about the FX series The Old Man. We often refer each other to TV shows that could be watched with children in the room.

It’s convincing, I told him. Jeff Bridges is fantastic. There is no sex and no nudity. It’s violent, but not gratuitous.

“There are no F-words, are there?” he said. At least I was looking at the basic wired version – you know, the one with ads.

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Oh no. There are many F-words on The Old Man. And on Yellowstone. And on other popular basic cable shows like AMC’s “Better Call Saul” and FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows” — both of which were Emmy nominees this year.

In 2016, a Washington Post headline asked, “Is there anything you can’t say anymore on TV?” When it comes to what adult Ralphie once dubbed the “queen of dirty words,” the answer is increasingly “not much”.

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Its use has been part of premium cable for decades, and the F-word is common in the original content offered by the growing number of streaming platforms. But since 2014, the F-word has wormed its way into ad-supported basic cable and also into some TV-14 rated streaming series. It seems like the only F-bomb bunkers left are TV PG programs on streaming services and TV shows in general — though viewers there often get hidden F-words or creative substitute words. (NBC’s The Good Place was particularly good at this.)

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The F-word has taken over television. how did we get here And are we better or worse for it? Let’s analyze.

Brecken Merrill as Tate Dutton and Kevin Costner as John Dutton in an episode of Yellowstone.

Brecken Merrill as Tate Dutton (left) and Kevin Costner as John Dutton in a Season 3 episode of Yellowstone.

Cam McLeod, Paramount Network

How common is the F word on TV?

First an acknowledgment. The meaning of “television” in 2022 is far more complex than it was in the days of basic and premium cable, but also even more so in 2013 — when “House of Cards” became the first episodic television series produced for Netflix by an outside studio.

In 2022, Netflix and a host of other streaming services — Amazon Prime, Hulu, Apple TV+, Disney+, Paramount+, Peacock — are constantly rolling out original programming on their platforms, leaving consumers with a bewildering array of options.

How ubiquitous is the F-word in television entertainment? Consider the following:

  • The website ReelGood.com lists the most popular streaming TV shows. The latest lists show that six of the top 10 are TV-MA rated and contain multiple uses of the F-word, including the cartoon “Rick and Morty”. Another, the TV-14 rated “Cobra Kai,” also has the occasional F-word.
  • At the most recent Emmys, seven of the eight nominees in the Outstanding Comedy Series category were rated TV-MA and included the F-word. (The TV-PG comedy Abbott Elementary was the only exception.)
  • Seven of the eight nominees for Outstanding Drama Series are rated TV-MA and use the F-word. The only TV-14 show on the list was Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” which went from zero uses of the F-word in season one to nine in season four.
  • Another TV-14 Netflix series, Locke & Key, also rarely uses the word.
  • Now that there are some R-rated movies like Deadpool, Disney+’s streaming service is no longer F-word free.

The F word on basic cable

In 2016, Washington Post entertainment writer Bethonie Butler wrote about the use of the F-word in the FX miniseries The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.

“The word used to be banned on basic cable,” Butler wrote. “But what exactly can’t you say on TV these days?”

However, it wasn’t the first time the word had been used for a basic, ad-supported cable. The FX series “Louie” featured an F-Bomb in 2014. According to Butler, then-FX network president John Landgraf told TV critics in 2015, “We’ve used the F-word on air a number of times over the last few years. … So we’re close to being done with the debate or the fight over the language. It’s close anyway.”

In 2018, Season 3 of The Magicians on Syfy began using the F-word unfiltered, with show creator Sera Gamble telling IndieWire, “It’s an ongoing conversation they’ve had. They could make the show TV-MA rated. Now that we’re TV-MA, we can let the F-word fly.”

FCC profanity rules do not apply to basic cable like they do to television broadcasts. Networks like FX are only “accountable to advertisers,” explains Butler.

“Basic and premium cable networks, along with streaming services, have a lot of freedom because the Federal Communications Commission’s rules on indecency and obscenity don’t apply to subscription services,” Entertainment Weekly’s Lynette Rice wrote in October 2018.

Parents Television and Media Council program director Melissa Henson pointed to the “great migration” to streaming content, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as a possible cause of the increase in harsh language on basic cable programming.

“It’s a fairly new phenomenon,” Henson said. “I suspect a lot of that comes from streaming services, which are pretty free to do that.”

Bob Odenkirk stars in Better Call Saul, a prequel to Breaking Bad.

Bob Odenkirk stars in Better Call Saul, a prequel to Breaking Bad.

Authentic or bad for families?

Six years ago, Butler wrote that the networks “seem to be pushing the envelope, but it’s not as if the rules — which have always been pretty vague — have explicitly relaxed. It is that the standards reflect the times. And in 2016, our collective vocabulary is more outlandish than ever.”

Authenticity is often the argument for relaxed F-word restrictions. Rice’s article argued that television should embrace the word and quoted Christopher J. Irving, an English and humanities associate professor at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.

“If networks want their audiences to continue to relate to their characters in ways that don’t always require disbelief to be lifted, then maybe they should start dropping more than just an F-Bomb or two,” Irving said.

Bill Aho is CEO of VidAngel, a subscription service that offers customizable filters for Amazon, Netflix, and Apple TV+ subscribers. While he acknowledges that the F-word “has become fairly commonplace in a lot of circles,” the most used filter on VidAngel is the one that removes that particular word.

“There are a lot of people who don’t want it in their house,” Aho said. “Whether the F-word makes a movie or TV show worse is a matter of personal values. But the question is, does it make the show better?”

Most observers seem to agree – the constant presence of the F-word in modern entertainment is a reflection of our culture.

“I think the reality is that people get desensitized over time,” Henson said.

Whether it’s for authenticity, a reflection of culture, or just desensitization, the F-word has become almost ubiquitous on modern television. And Henson doesn’t see that as a good thing.

“There’s always going to be a segment of people who don’t get comfortable with this language,” Henson said. “I think we’re all the worse for it.”

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