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Is the F word allowed on TV?

The use of profanity, especially the “F word”, on television has been controversial for decades. While some argue it is inappropriate and offensive, others say banning words infringes on free speech. Here is an in-depth look at the rules and history around profanity on TV.

What are the FCC’s rules on profanity?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates television and radio airwaves in the United States. Under FCC rules, it is illegal for broadcast TV and radio stations to air “obscene” material at any time. The FCC defines obscenity as material that:

  • Depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in a patently offensive manner as measured by contemporary community standards
  • Lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value

For many years, the FCC did not consider fleeting, non-literal uses of profanity to be obscene. However, in 2004 it changed course and ruled that even isolated uses of certain words, like the “F word”, could be illegal.

This led to a major crackdown on profanity by the FCC, issuing large fines to networks like Fox for programs that aired isolated expletives. However, the crackdown faced legal challenges from the networks.

What do the courts say?

The FCC’s rules on fleeting expletives have faced court challenges from networks. In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC could regulate “isolated, non-literal, fleeting expletives”. However, the Court also ruled that the FCC had not adequately justified its new, stricter policy on profanity.

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision, the FCC issued new rationale for regulating fleeting profanities. However, on appeal in 2012, the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the FCC’s policy on fleeting expletives as unconstitutional.

The court ruled that the FCC’s rules were vague and could have a chilling effect on free speech. Today, the FCC’s position on fleeting profanity remains in legal limbo and it does not issue fines for isolated uses of expletives.

Has the FCC fined for profanity before?

Yes, before the court challenges to its rules, the FCC issued a number of large fines related to profanity:

  • A $1.4 million fine against over 100 ABC stations for a 2003 episode of NYPD Blue that included multiple S-words.
  • $550,000 against Fox stations for the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards airs that included fleeting expletives from Cher and Nicole Richie.
  • $27,500 fine against a CBS station for The Early Show airing a guest who used the F-word.

The FCC stepped up its fines starting in 2004 after the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show caused a public controversy.

What about cable and streaming TV?

The rules are different for paid cable and streaming services like HBO, Netflix and Amazon Prime. Because viewers specifically subscribe to these services, they are not subject to FCC regulation. Therefore, there are no restrictions on the use of profanity or other explicit content.

This is why premium cable networks like HBO have historically had more flexibility with profanity compared to broadcast television. Many streaming shows today are similar, with few limits on profanity.

Has profanity increased on TV over time?

Studies show the use of profanity, especially the F word, on scripted primetime television has gradually increased over the past 20 years.

Year Occurrences of F Word per Hour
1998 2.5
2002 5.9
2005 11.5
2010 29.6

This table shows the frequency of the F word on primetime broadcast TV increased nearly 12-fold between 1998 and 2010. However, it has leveled off in recent years and even declined slightly.

Why has profanity on TV increased?

There are a few factors behind the rise of profanity on television programs over the past two decades:

  • Relaxed FCC regulation – The lack of recent fines from the FCC has emboldened broadcast networks.
  • Trying to reflect real life – Writers argue characters should swear like people do in real life situations.
  • Competition from cable/streaming – Networks compete with edgier cable and streaming shows.
  • Push the limits – Networks intentionally include profanity to push boundaries and get attention.

Is TV profanity on the decline now?

Despite the rapid increase through 2010, studies show profanity on primetime broadcast TV has slightly declined over the last decade. The Parents Television Council found use of the F word decreased 29% from 2010 to 2018. Some reasons include:

  • Public fatigue – Audiences may be tired of excessive profanity on TV.
  • Advertiser pressure – Advertisers sometimes object to excessive profanity.
  • Alternative platforms – Very profane content has moved to streaming services.
  • Risk of fines – Networks still fear potential FCC fines.

So profanity remains common on primetime TV, but does appear on a slight downward trend in recent years.

What are viewers’ opinions on profanity?

Public opinion on the issue is mixed. A 2017 survey found:

  • 29% of adults said they watched a TV show with stronger profanity than they expected “very often” or “fairly often”.
  • 37% supported complete profanity bans on broadcast TV.
  • 28% wanted shows to be allowed to use profanity freely.

So while over half of viewers were bothered by profanity on TV, opinions on policy solutions were divided. Parents of young children were more likely to support restrictions.

Should use of the F word be restricted on TV?

There are good arguments on both sides of this issue:

Arguments for allowing the F word on TV:

  • Free speech – Banning words infringes on First Amendment rights.
  • Reflects real life – Many people use profanity in casual speech.
  • Not harmful – Expletives don’t directly cause real-life harm or damage.
  • Viewer discretion – Adults can change channel or parents can block shows.

Arguments for restricting the F word on TV:

  • Offends community standards – Profanity offends and outrages many viewers.
  • Harmful to children – Profanity can negatively influence kids’ behavior.
  • Abused for shock value – Networks use it excessively just for attention.
  • Public airwaves – Publicly-owned airwaves should have decency rules.


The issue of profanity on television has been hotly debated between networks and regulators for decades. While overall use of the F word and other expletives has increased over time, it has tapered off slightly in recent years.

Opinion remains divided on whether allowing profanity on airwaves violates community decency standards or is simply reflecting how people talk in real life. The legal status of FCC rules remains murky after court challenges. But for now, isolated profanity continues to be common, if less pervasive, on primetime television.