On TV, 'Extreme Caution' vs. Free Speech

Some wonder if Fox's decision was about Field's message, not her expletive.

February 12, 2009, 10:26 AM

Sept. 18, 2007 — -- The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences really liked Sally Field Sunday night. Fox, it seems, did not.

While accepting an Emmy for best lead actress in a drama (for her role as Nora Walker on ABC's "Brothers & Sisters"), the 60-year-old actress who memorably peppered her 1985 Oscar acceptance speech with the much-parodied assertion "You really like me!" used her stage time to make an anti-war statement.

"At the heart of Nora Walker, she is a mother. So surely this belongs to all the mothers of the world … and to especially the mothers who stand with an open heart and wait -- wait for their children to come home from danger, from harm's way and from war," Field said before stumbling over her words, appearing to lose her train of thought and blurting, "Let's face it, if the mothers ruled the world, there would be no god----"

That's when the sound and picture cut out, leaving Emmy viewers across the country to wonder what Field said. She reportedly concluded that sentence with "damn wars," but Fox, airing the Emmys on a time-delay, did not cut back to the stage after Field finished talking.

Now, after a year of highly publicized debates about what's appropriate to say on air and what's not, many people are wondering what exactly made the network jump: the expletive or the sentiment?

In an e-mail statement Monday, Fox explained why they chose to censor three parts of Sunday's Emmy broadcast. (In addition to cutting away from Field, Fox also dropped sound during Ray Romano and Katherine Heigl's speeches.)

"Some language during the live broadcast may have been considered inappropriate by some viewers. As a result, Fox's broadcast standards executives determined it appropriate to drop sound and picture during those portions of the show," the statement said.

The network declined to comment on Field's case specifically. But Bob Thompson, Syracuse University professor of popular culture, speculates that Fox's decision was about Field's questionable language, not her anti-war message.

"FCC indecency rules have to do, essentially, with sex, poo-poo and pee pee," he said. "She didn't say any of that. But my guess is that if she said, 'There'd be no damn wars,' they probably would have let it go."

Despite George Carlin's infamous "Seven Dirty Words" monologue, the FCC doesn't have a list of words it considers profane. In its consumer fact sheet, the FCC defines profanity as "including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance."

With no black and white rules, it's up to the networks to decide what words are appropriate for air. And many allow "god----" in scripted shows.

According to the Parents Television Council, a consumer advocacy organization that tracks instances of profanity, sex and violence in prime-time television, three shows on FX -- Fox's basic cable channel -- frequently air the word without bleeping it. NBC was the only network that allowed "god----" to air uncensored last year, once on "Scrubs" and once on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

Pressed on why they cut off Field when their own cable channel and others condoned the use of the expletive, a spokesman from Fox said, "FX is a cable network. In the current regulatory environment, the feeling [for broadcast networks] is that we have to err on the side of extreme caution."

That may be because of the increased pressure to keep live events controversy-free, following the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show when Justin Timberlake infamously -- and, he claimed, accidently -- exposed Janet Jackson's breast during a dance routine. The FCC fined Super Bowl broadcaster CBS $550,000 for violating anti-indecency laws.

Astronomical as those fines can be, John Macleod Gourlie, professor of communications at Quinnipiac University, thinks the networks are using them as an excuse to stifle free speech. He said he wouldn't put it past Fox to blame its censorship of an anti-war rant on a relatively mild expletive.

"I see it as a total excuse," he said. "While I understand it, the concerns for money have engulfed the concerns for media to fulfill its functions."

Even if Fox censored Field purely because of her expletive and not because of her message, Gourlie thinks they were wrong to do so. He argues that, considering the Emmys aired at night, at a time when most children are in bed or at least not listening in rapt attention to a 60-year-old actress at an awards show, Fox should have aired Field's speech in its entirety, curse word and all.

"One should question the larger offense in a land where freedom of speech is a constitutional right: Whether censorship in the name of other values is the right decision, and in the end, if all of those values that we want to serve are better served by allowing a greater openness of speech instead of having someone's finger on a censor button," he said.

Sometimes the call to censor content is made even before the networks get involved. Last week, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences decided to cut down the acceptance speech comedian Kathy Griffin gave at the Emmy Creative Arts Awards, a ceremony held before the main show and taped a week in advance of air, because the Catholic League took offense at her comments.

Accepting an Emmy for her reality show "My Life on the D-List," Griffin joked, "A lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus."

She went on to hold up her statue and declare, "This award is my god now!"

For as long as they've won awards, actors have ruffled feathers with their acceptance speeches.

In 1974, Marlon Brando famously refused to pick up his Oscar for "The Godfather," instead sending to the podium a young woman dressed as a Native American to protest Hollywood's use of Native Americans in film. In 1993, Richard Gere used his platform as an Oscar presenter to protest China's policies in Tibet.

But when celebrities sprinkle their speeches with four-letter words, the networks spring to action. In 2003, U2 singer Bono incited an FCC investigation when he called his Golden Globe award "f---ing brilliant" onstage. Later that year, Nicole Richie and Fox caught heat when she jokingly dropped the F-bomb while presenting at the Billboard Music Awards.

Thompson understands why networks cringe at the F-word. But in Field's case, he thinks Fox may have overstepped their boundaries.

"The thing about the Emmys is that they're so comedy-oriented, and if you're going to do comedy in 2007, it's going to have to include making fun of the administration," he said. "The fact that in 2007 we are still pushing bleep buttons for something like that underscores for me the incredibly sophomoric nature of the culture war. That is just absurd."

Whether or not Fox's decision to cut Field's speech had something to do with her implied protest of the Iraq War, anti-war advocates eventually got the last laugh. David Chase, the creator of "The Sopranos," offered a sharp, expletive-free critique while accepting the Emmy for best drama series, the final award of the night.

"In essence, this is a story about a gangster," Chase said of "The Sopranos." "And gangsters are out there taking their kids to college, and taking their kids to school, and putting food on their table."

"And, hell, let's face it," he mused, "if the world and this nation was run by gangsters … maybe it is."

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