Another thing that keeps making my brain jerk to a halt and turn around to see what exactly that was while I watch Supernatural is the language. I have no idea how they are getting away with this. Did they get the network censors drunk one night and take incriminating photos? Do they keep sending over gift baskets with hookers attached? All I can think is that no one from Standards & Practices is watching this show. Seriously.

If you're not in the US, you may be surprised about how touchy our Federal Communications Commission can get about salty language on open-air broadcast systems. One of George Carlin's more famous pieces is on the 7 Words You Can Never Say On TV. (Not work-safe for obvious reasons, unless you have a workplace like Moggie's, where if she had a photo of Jensen Ackles losing his jeans and an aircraft engine losing its cowling, her coworkers would be more likely to pick on her for the Pratt & Whitney.)  Technically, you can opt to broadcast them a time or two and just take the fine -- which is what Howard Stern used to do before moving to satellite radio -- but do it too much and the FCC starts making your life very unpleasant, complete with license-revoking noises.

(They may be a bit overcautious on that. The higher-order punishments the FCC doles out are mainly unpleasant for networks that physically own stations which can be shut down, as traditional networks like NBC, ABC and CBS do; the CW airs largely if not exclusively through affiliates that just buy their programming blocks. The FCC would have to jump straight from monetary fines to court orders to stop them, and I'm not sure if they've ever actually done that, or had to.)

In addition to Carlin's list up there -- which has remained largely unchanged since he introduced it in 1972 -- there are a lot of words and phrases that are avoided even though they aren't outright banned. You might hear them on a sketch on Saturday Night Live, and no one will be arrested over it, but they're considered to be too crude for prime time TV, which is what SPN is.

The history behind why this is, is rather convoluted, but most of it boils down to the weird way obscenity is handled in American law. Our Constitution guarantees us "freedom of speech", which is great in theory, but in practice, it collides head-on with the need to keep social order by applying consequences, lest we all degenerate into howling animals, insulting each other for kicks. The quintessential example of this is shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater. You cannot be prosecuted directly for shouting about a fire in a public place, but if there isn't a fire (or you couldn't reasonably have thought there was), and someone gets injured or killed in the resulting stampede for the exits, you can be prosecuted for what's called "reckless endangerment", i.e., your words created a situation that you should have known was dangerous, and for no good reason.

Because we're reactionary sods and hate the idea that someone, somewhere, might be having fun, obscenity -- which, as a legal term, covers pornography and an assortment of other things, like intentionally defiling religious symbols, or doing pointlessly disgusting things with bodily fluids -- is often treated as an emergency. In the above example, you're not considered to be in the wrong if you shout "Fire!" because you genuinely believe there is one, on the grounds that even if you turn out to be wrong, you were acting to prevent greater harm; likewise, if you believe that something is so obscene it'll cause some sort of harm or distress to people who accidentally encounter it, you can have a go at getting it at least moved somewhere else, out of sight. "Obscene" things are legally treated as "obscenity" (and subject to regulation) if they are held to have no value as art or free expression. A vagina randomly in your shop window is equivalent to shouting "fire!" where there is none, but The Vagina Monologues is equivalent to shouting "fire!" after you saw some smoke. Sort of.

How do we define what is obscene in the eyes of the law, you ask? We don't. There's no list. The current standard was set by a Supreme Court Justice named Potter Stewart in 1964, when he admitted he couldn't give a list of what made something obscene or pornographic, but, "I know it when I see it." I really wish I were making that up. This particular bit of case law has been expanded since into the general axiom that whether something is too obscene for display depend on where you're trying to display it -- you're supposed to go by the "prevailing standards of the community", which makes this one of the few areas of US law where if you manage to argue enough other people over to your opinion, the law actually will be explicitly on your side. In other words, if most people in your community think that a giant penis sculpture outside of City Hall is horrifying, then the law agrees, and the police can drive over and make you cover it up.

A lot of very terrified people have also applied this to broadcast TV. Radio waves are not generally known for respecting geographic boundaries, and television stations can often be picked up far outside their home cities. The FCC has been around since long before 1964, and the history of censorship on American airwaves is kind of convoluted, but the gist of it is that, because obscenity statutes run on "prevailing standards of the community", and over-the-air TV broadcasts blanket multiple communities without any good way to block them from people who don't want them, TV decency standards generally had to meet the lowest common denominator. (Cable TV has no such regulation. You can show anything you want on cable. The idea is that, while anyone can pick up broadcast tx for free with an antenna, you have to seek out and pay for cable stations, and presumably know what you're getting into.) We also don't really have the British concept of "watershed" -- we assume the small children and pearl-clutchers will be up all night -- so there is no time on American broadcast TV where one is allowed to say 'fuck' and show bare tits.

As far as I can tell, the only things SPN avoids are the ones that will definitely get them a fine. I'm surprised a lot of the dialogue made it onto the air, frankly. You can get away with a lot more if you're British and evil, so Crowley muttering "bollocks" would probably have gotten through -- I think Spike got away with that on Buffy a few times -- but Bobby's frustrated exclamation of "Balls!" would normally be a no-go. "Bitch" is normally used much more sparingly, and phallic references, like calling the angels "dicks with wings", is something that's not only avoided, but often dubbed out of movies when they're aired on network TV. (That bit in Ghostbusters where Ray calls the EPA guy "dickless" for wanting to unplug their ghost storage? Not in the network version. They spent money to take it out.) Particularly verboten are things with a derogatory sexual connotation when directed at another person -- I'm not sure if I've heard anything like Dean's "You know what? Blow me, Cas," outside of a Very Serious Gritty Police Drama on Very Late At Night, if even then. It's very realistic, but it's not often on television.

It's particularly striking if you dig up any of the gag reels on YouTube. Since they're extras on the DVDs, and potentially subject to the DVD ratings committee, they're bleeped to the normal network TV standards, while the show itself is not. Thus you get Collins complaining that "there's a foot on my (censored) right now, just FYI", after he's ruined yet another take by corpsing. (Which there was. Apparently Jared Padalecki has discovered that it's dead easy to make Misha forget his lines by going for third base while he's trying to be serious. Jensen Ackles just makes kissy faces at him.)


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