Craig Ferguson is the host of CBS’ “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” which airs weeknights at 12:35/11:35p.m (central). Ferguson, born in Glasgow, Scotland, began his career in the entertainment world as a drummer in several Scottish punk bands. After discovering his talent as a comedian, the British Broadcasting Corporation gave Ferguson his own TV show, entitled, “The Ferguson Theory.” Ferguson moved to the United States and gained fame in America by acting on The Drew Carey Show during 1996-2004. After acting on the Carey show, he began hosting “The Late Late Show” in 2005 as a successor to Craig Kilborn. Ferguson’s monologue style is unique because he uses a free style, off-the-cuff approach. The humor of The Late Late Show comes from his strong Scottish accent combined with the unpredictable and ridiculous delivery of his jokes. During the monologue and interviews with guests, Ferguson will do and say almost anything to get a laugh and is completely unaffected by the fact that some people may be offended by his behavior. The latest episode of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson aired on Tuesday, November, 16, 2010, and was full of his typical style of comedy. Throughout the episode, Ferguson made several jokes and used terms that raise the issue of censorship and tolerance of offensive words on television.
There are a number of factors that determine whether words are considered profane compared to words that are acceptable to say on television. Some of these factors include the type of network, genre of the show, and time of day it airs. A combination of these factors will determine whether the Federal Communication Commission regulates the content of the programs or not. The FCC was established by the Communications Act of 1934 and regulates under Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The type of network factor comes into play here because the FCC’s jurisdiction only applies to broadcast networks, such as CBS, Fox, ABC, and NBC, and does not cover cable or restricted-access networks, like BRAVO or HBO. The FCC’s enforcement process begins by allowing the public to file complaints about potential obscene, indecent, or profane material aired on television. The FCC examines each complaint and if it contains sufficient information to suggest a possible violation, an investigation will begin. After the investigation, the FCC determines whether the material is obscene, indecent or profane, and if so, the Enforcement Bureau issues a Notice of Apparent Liability to the broadcaster. The broadcaster is given an opportunity to respond to the notice by the Commissioner. The Commission reviews the complaint, along with the response, and decides whether to grant or deny it. If the complaint is granted, the Commission may issue sanctions to the broadcaster for violation of its policies.
Material that rises to the level of obscenity is always prohibited on television, regardless of what time and in what context it airs . Indecent and profane material does not rise to the level of being “obscene” and is only prohibited by the FCC during the hours of 6am-10pm. Civil enforcement of these requirements rests with the FCC, and is an important part of the FCC’s overall responsibilities. Indecent or profane material aired on broadcast networks after 10pm are not prohibited under the regulation of the FCC. However, most networks institute self-censorship policies for late-night programs. Broadcasters often choose to censor material without being forced to do so out of fear of losing advertisers or to give deference to the the sensibilities of viewers. Indecent material is prohibited throughout the day and during prime time hours, due largely because of the children that may be subjected to the material. Indecent material and adult content are not prohibited during what is referred to as “Safe Harbor.” Safe harbor, known as “watershed” in countries other than the U.S., is the time period in television during which “adult content” may be shown. Adult content is an image or language depicting or referring to explicit sexual intercourse, graphic violence, drug use, or the use of strong language. The Supreme Court established this Safe Harbor principle in the 1978 case, FCC v. Pacifica. In the U.S., Safe Harbor time begins at 10:00pm and ends at 6:00am for all time zones. Networks need to be mindful of the time zone aspect of these rules because each of the 4 U.S. time zones enters its Safe Harbor at 10pm in its local time. Thus, network affiliates need to ensure that the same show airing at 10pm in one zone does not fall outside the Safe Harbor in another zone.
Since the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson airs at such a late hour, it falls under Safe Harbor and indecent material aired during this time is not subject to the rules of the FCC. CBS engages in the self-censorship of Ferguson’s show, which is evidenced by the bleeping out of curse words spoken by Ferguson or his guests. TV shows have been bleeping-out profane words for years, but some shows are beginning to intentionally include swear words and later bleeping them out for comedic effect. Whenever profanity is used on “The Late Late Show,” the person’s mouth is covered up by a country’s flag and is bleeped by a phrase from that particular country. An example of this can be seen from Tuesday’s show when Ferguson uses a swear word and his mouth is covered by a French national flag and is bleeped by the phrase “Oooh-la-la.”
Ferguson makes it obvious during his monologue that CBS is concerned with the language and content of the material of his program. An example of this from Tuesday’s episode is when Ferguson makes references to city of Bangkok and Lake Titicaca. The only reason he mentions these places is for the mere fact that the words sound like “cock” and “titty”, slang terms referring to parts of the body. Ferguson then makes jokes by rhyming words with the terms “testicles” and “vagina” After making these ridiculous jokes, Ferguson looks to the side of the stage and tells the person in charge of censoring what he says on the show, “It’s a real place/thing and you can’t touch me.” Ferguson also frequently says “CBS cares” and “I expect your letters” after he makes comments or jokes that he knows will offend some viewers. Ferguson is aware that he may be offensive to some viewers, but that does not stop him from saying exactly what he wants within the bounds of the self-imposed limits CBS places on his show.
By using common scientific terminology for body parts and referring to actual places, Ferguson avoids the risk of saying anything that can get him in trouble with CBS. Also, the shows use of “bleeping” curse words is just one example of the ways actors or programs can come up with creative ways to include edgy, controversial material without getting in trouble by its network or the FCC. Another way networks do this is by using grawlixes, which are symbols that take the place of the letters of a curse word. An example of this in television can be seen in the title of the CBS show, “$#*! My Dad Says.” Minced oaths are also commonly used as euphemisms to avoid swearing. An example of a minced oath is the term “fugly” which combines the offensive “F” word with the word “ugly.” These methods are all creative ways broadcasters get indecent material into programs without violating the FCC or its own censorship rules. These methods are sometimes refered to as “veiled expletives.” Series often use veiled expletives because harsher language adds to the believability and reality of a situation, such as in crime dramas and reality shows. Whether the network is strategically placing expletives in material to add to the comedy, drama, or reality of the program, it is a common tool being used in television to stretch the bounds of censorship.