Remember comedian George Carlin’s list of the seven dirty words you can’t say on television?
It just got a little shorter.
The Federal Communications Commission ruled this month that Irish rocker Bono did not violate federal indecency rules when he used the f-word during an acceptance speech at the Golden Globe Awards, which NBC broadcast in January.
“This is really, really [expletive] brilliant,” Bono said during the ceremony, using the f-word as an adjective. The speech aired live on the East Coast.
The FCC said it received 234 complaints, all but 17 of them from individuals associated with the Parents Television Council, a nonprofit group that monitors programs for adult content.
The FCC rejected the complaints Oct. 3 in a written statement that used the f-word far more often than Bono did on the air. David H. Solomon, chief of the FCC’s enforcement bureau, said the word “may be crude and offensive, but, in the context presented here, did not describe sexual or excretory organs and activities.”
That distinction is a key to test whether a statement meets a federal standard for broadcast indecency, according to FCC staffers.
Mr. Solomon said in the ruling that Bono used the vulgarity as an adjective or to emphasize an exclamation and that “the use of specific words, including expletives or other ‘four-letter words’ does not render material obscene.”
Laura Mahaney, director of corporate and entertainment affairs for the Parents Television Council, has vowed an appeal. “The ruling is outrageous. It’s splitting hairs,” she said.
Activists said they fear the FCC’s ruling will allow the f-word and other vulgarities to become more common in prime-time television.
“We’re gradually getting to the point where nothing will be off-limits,” said Jim O’Connor, president of the Cuss Control Academy, a Lake Forest, Ill., group that advises individuals on ways to limit cursing.
Spokesmen for NBC and the other major broadcast networks rejected the suggestion that the ruling will lead to more salty language in prime time.
However, they acknowledge they face heavy competition from cable networks such as HBO and FX, which have more freedom to air edgy shows because they do not deliver programs over the FCC-regulated airwaves.
The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued the ruling on Bono’s language. The five-member FCC panel did not vote on the matter.
Commissioner Michael J. Copps, one of two Democrats on the panel, said he has not reviewed the case, but if it had come before him, he may not have dismissed the complaints. “I do believe under the right circumstances that a word in and of itself can be indecent without having to fit in with a wider context,” he said.
Six years ago, activists and the Clinton administration pushed the networks to adopt a content-ratings system that would enable V-chips to block programs parents deemed inappropriate.
At the time, some network executives feared the ratings system would lead to bland scripts and cost them viewers.
For the most part, broadcasters have continued to push the limits of decorum with programs such as “NYPD Blue,” a pioneer in the use of four-letter words. The show crossed another line last season when ABC permitted writers to slip a coarse word for bull dung into an episode.