NYPD Blue and Media Hype:
An Analysis of Sex and Profanity
Barbara K. Kaye
Barry S. Sapolsky
Lucia M. Fishburne
Submitted to the Mass Communication and Society Division
of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, 1994.
Running Head: NYPD Blue
Barbara K. Kaye
356 Diffenbaugh Building R-42
Department of Communication
Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL 32306-2064
The ABC crime/drama NYPD Blue premiered in Fall, 1993. It was greeted with
criticism for its supposed graphic portrayals of sex and excessive
frequency of offensive
language. The present study was undertaken to examine the validity
of these charges. A
content analysis of NYPD Blue and selected programs appearing on
ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox was
conducted to ascertain if NYPD Blue contains more sexual acts and references
language than other primetime fare. NYPD Blue and eight primetime
videotaped over a three week period. Three additional episodes of NYPD
Blue were randomly
selected and recorded. Contrary to the critics' assertions, the results show
Blue contains less sexual content than dramas or sitcoms. Offensive
language is uttered
with the same frequency on NYPD Blue as on sitcoms; dramatic shows
contain the least
amount of off-color words. This suggests that the critics' harsh
assessment of NYPD Blue
may have been influenced by pre-broadcast media reports than the
Additionally, media reports more accurately reflect the frequency of
than that of sexuality.
NYPD Blue and Media Hype: An Analysis of Sex and Profanity
NYPD Blue's Fall 1993 debut was engulfed in controversy as well as curiosity.
months before the first episode aired, the media hyped the program as
the "raciest show
ever to appear on the networks' primetime schedule" (Kolbert, 1993,
p. C11). Claims that
the program would contain graphic sex, rampant profanity, and
profuse violence piqued the
public's interest while raising outcries of disgust from critics.
Now, with the first
half of the 1993-1994 season completed, we can examine whether NYPD
Blue has lived up to
its controversial reputation, or whether media claims were greatly
Local TV Affiliates and Advocacy Groups
Watchdog groups such as the American Family Association (AFA) strongly oppose
which they believe contains excessive elements of sex, profanity and
1993a). Efforts to curb violence on television have recently gained
momentum in Congress
(Flint, 1993b; McAvoy, 1993; Waters et. al, 1993). However, NYPD
Blue was not conceived to
be a show that features violence (Coe, 1993). According to the general
manager of one
station that has refused to air the program, violence is not the
problem - "nudity and
dialogue" are (Flint, 1993a, p. 21).
Though the network (ABC) and the producers of NYPD Blue have a strict agreement
as to how
much nudity and profanity the show can contain, many viewers and affiliates
still goes too far (Flint, 1993a; Leland, et. al, 1993). Prior to
the first airing of
NYPD Blue, the AFA relied on media reports to assess the program's
content. The group
urged its members to write letters and picket local ABC affiliates to
keep the "soft-core
pornography, pornographic words and descriptions...off the air"
93; Wildmon, 1993a, p. 2).
The AFA and other groups such as the Family Defense Council and the Christian
(Fight for..., 1993) opposed to NYPD Blue pressured ABC affiliates
to the point that 57
stations (mostly in the South) did not air the opening episode. By
mid-December, 1993, 44
of those stations still did not carry the show (Leland, et al., 1993). The AFA
its campaign against the program "could become the turning point in
the battle against
indecency in the media" (Wildmon, 1993b, p. 2).
Certainly NYPD Blue has not been the first program to draw fire from special
groups. Decades ago rating hits such as The Untouchables, All in the
Family, Maude, Love
American Style and Soap all contained controversial content that was
blasted by advocacy
groups. Some groups were more successful than others in curbing
Successful campaigns initiated by special interest groups seem to have two
denominators: (1) goals compatible with the networks' current position on
and (2) public support and interest (Montgomery, 1989). Current pressure on
networks to minimize sexual and violent content coupled with intense
public interest in
these issue have provided the conditions necessary for keeping NYPD
Blue off the air in
In general, when media bow to content restrictions and place limitations on
freedom the outcome is often the absence of controversy, an increase
in positive messages
and an overall blandness of programs (McQuail, 1992).
Local TV Affiliates and Network Programming and Community Standards
A local affiliate's decision to carry a program is based on the audience
characteristics for that market, potential ratings success,
recommendation by the national
networks, and sometimes, as in the case of NYPD Blue, the presumptions of
standards (Collette, 1994).
The decision of whether or not to broadcast a program can be complex,
especially if the
show is controversial. Viewing audiences can be unpredictable and
yet local affiliates often must decide if they will carry a program well in
a substantial number of local affiliates make the wrong programming
decision it can have
devastating effects on the network's ratings, advertising support
and thus its economic
health (Collette, 1994).
When ABC announced that NYPD Blue would be part of its Fall 1993 line-up, many
affiliates were immediately inundated with requests from individuals
and advocacy groups
requesting them not to run the program. The networks predicted a
ratings smash and the
show premiered with a 27 share, the best in the 10 p.m. time slot
since 1988 (Mandese,
1993). Despite this, one local affiliate's decision to ban the
program "arose from moral
concerns surrounding" NYPD Blue's content (Collette, 1994, p.1).
The management of a
local affiliate may base programming decisions on assumption's about
the local community's
standards. However, without a public referendum it is difficult to assess
standards and whether the most vocal group represents the majority or
In a study conducted in an Illinois market where NYPD Blue was not broadcast,
respondents were nearly evenly divided in their support of the local
to ban the program. More importantly, 91% of the respondents agreed
with the statement: "I
think I am the best judge of what's appropriate for me and my family to watch
(Collette, 1994, p.14).
In a northern Florida community NYPD Blue was banned from the airwaves until
1994. When the program was finally broadcast the local ABC affiliate
telephone survey asking viewers to respond to the question of whether the
episode of NYPD
Blue was appropriate for the local viewing audience. The poll
revealed that 93% of the
respondents agreed that the episode was indeed appropriate.1
The above examples illustrate situations where local affiliates acquiesced to
interest groups claiming to represent the majority opinion. However,
it was shown that in
the Tallahassee television markets the majority of viewers would like to have
program aired rather than banned, and in the Illinois TV market
viewers were evenly
divided on seeing NYPD Blue but in general want to judge for themselves.
Local TV Affiliates and Advertising
Commercial television program content is often adjusted to minimize any
to social or minority groups, especially since negative publicity
can have dire effects on
a show's advertising. Thus, advertisers can limit freedom of expression by
the networks to edit content or preempt shows thought to be
offensive to advertisers or
viewers (McQuail, 1992).
In its attempt to block the airing of NYPD Blue the AFA recommended that its
businesses advertising on their local ABC affiliate to discontinue buying air
that station (AFA hands ABC...,1993). Despite the show's healthy
ratings, AFA President
Donald Wildmon contends that "the share average has not translated
to advertising success
for the network" (Coe, 1993, p. 19). Additionally, Wildmon asserts
that ABC is getting
"less money for spots on this show than they would otherwise" (Coe,
Advertisers are reportedly apprehensive about possible boycotts. Thus, after
into the season NYPD Blue has failed to attract appreciable amounts of
the "industry mainstays: beer, cars and fast food" (Leland, et al.,
1993, p. 59).
Commercial time on some of NYPD Blue's earlier episodes was purchased by
advertisers such as weight loss and personal hygiene products (Coe,
1993). Since that
time, however, NYPD Blue has drawn advertising from Coors, Nike,
Volkswagen of America,
Unilever and Warner-Lambert (Mandese, 1994).
ABC is airing fewer 30 second spots on NYPD Blue than on its other programs.
during an hour long program ABC will air between twelve and fourteen
spots at about $115,000 each. During the first half of NYPD Blue's
debut season, ABC ran
an average of ten 30-second spots, and these were reportedly
undersold (Coe, 1993). ABC
contends that the show's spots sell out. However, despite an average
14.3 rating and 24
share, each commercial unit is selling for only $100,000; far less
than what the
commercial spots should be commanding based on audience delivery (Coe,
Regardless of the effect that advocacy groups have had on local affiliates and
advertisers, it is predicted that by the second season the controversy
show will ebb. This, coupled with consistently high ratings, should
enable NYPD Blue to
draw premium advertisers at top rates. Further, it is predicted
that the show's
controversial content will not have a detrimental affect on its success
and, in the long
run, "ratings overcome content problems" (Coe, 1993, p. 20).
Program Content: Sexuality
Sex and intimacy on primetime network television have been areas of concern for
two decades. Numerous content analyses in the 1970's examined the
frequency of sexual
situations in network programming (Fernandez-Collado et al., 1978;
Franzblau et al., 1977;
Greenberg et al., 1980; Lowry et al., 1981; Sapolsky, 1982; Silverman et al.,
Sprafkin & Silverman, 1981). In the 1970's, depictions of sexuality
limited to touching, hugging, and kissing, and much of the activity
unmarried couples. Intercourse was infrequently alluded to either
visually or verbally,
and couples were never explicitly shown making love
(Fernandez-Collado et al., 1978;
Franzblau et al., 1977; Silverman et al., 1979).
According to Cultivation Theory (Gerbner et al., 1978, 1980), viewers' beliefs
frequency and nature of sexual behavior in the real world may be
influenced by sexual
images on television. The implications of television's role as a
agent include unrealistic expectations, frustration and
dissatisfaction with sex.
Children can be particularly vulnerable (Baran, 1976a, 1976b;
Fernandez-Collado et al.,
The late 1980's brought a resurgence of interest in sex on primetime
Greenberg, et al. (1986) analyzed three episodes each of 19 primetime
most watched by high school students. The long kiss was the most
frequent incident, un
married intercourse was the most common type of verbal reference, and
the number of
intimate sexual behaviors was higher than in prior studies.
A Fall, 1987 analysis of prime time network fare found the most common forms
activity included innuendo, suggestiveness, kissing, and hugging
Federation of America, 1988). Verbal references to intercourse
occurred at a rate of
just over one per hour, surpassing the incidence of implied
intercourse by three to one.
In another study of primetime television (Lowry & Towles, 1988) 20 incidents of
intercourse were observed. More instances of erotic touching and
unmarried partners, and the authors found an overall increase in
verbal references to
intercourse relative to analyses of 1970's content.
Sapolsky and Tabarlet (1991) compared the sexual content in network primetime
in 1989 to that in programming broadcast ten years earlier. Their
content analysis found
no difference in the rate of sexual imagery or language in 1989
compared to 1979. In
1989, as in the previous decade, innuendo was the most predominant
form of sex on
television. Finally, instances of implied intercourse increased from four
1979 to nine depictions in 1989.
Network television in the late 1980's offered for the first time "explicit "
of intercourse - partners engaged in intercourse with their bodies
partially hidden from
view. Content analyses of sex on primetime programming found
between two and four
instances of explicit intercourse (Lowry & Towles, 1988; Planned
Parenthood Federation of
America, 1988; Sapolsky & Tabarlet, 1991).
Although 15 years of content analyses have demonstrated that primetime
programs have depicted scenes of implied and explicit intercourse as well
nudity, critics claim that some scenes in NYPD Blue are too risqu for
example, in the first episode two characters were shown in a dimly
lit bedroom making love
in the nude. The male character simulated the motions of intercourse, while
female's breasts were briefly exposed and she was seen nude from the
rear. In a later
episode, a male character stepped out of the shower and was shown
naked from behind as he
walked across the room.
Sexual Content and Indecency Laws
The FCC has received complaints of indecency regarding NYPD Blue. Some of
complaints have already been dismissed and others will likely follow
(Flint, 1993a). The
FCC defines indecency as "material that contains vivid descriptions
of sexual or excretory
organs or activities and is patently offensive when measured against community
for the broadcast medium" (Andrews, 1992). The FCC can assess fines
against stations for
broadcasting indecent material (Bering-Jensen, 1990). The
anti-indecency law does not ban
indecency outright but does require stations to air such programming at
times" when children are less likely to be watching. A study of
programming revealed that significantly more sexual content occurred during
the middle of
the evening (9-10 p.m.) than during either the previous hour or the
10-11 p.m. time slot
which is thought to attract more adult viewers (Sapolsky & Tabarlet,
agreement is reached as to what constitutes "safe" time periods, the FCC
has decided that
stations which violate the indecency law after 8 p.m. will not be
penalized (Coe, 1993).
Program Content: Offensive Language
Sexual behavior and language in primetime network television have been
researched. A related area that has received less attention is that of
The media spotlight on NYPD Blue has intensified concern over offensive
television. In the opening episode of NYPD Blue, a male detective is
shown yelling at a
female assistant district attorney. She retorts with "I'd say res
ipsa loquitur, if I
thought you knew what it meant." The detective grabs his crotch and
barks out "Hey, ipsa
this, you pissy little bitch!" (Leland, et al., 1993, p. 57).
The nature and frequency of verbal obscenities in broadcast programs including
is unknown. Mass media content is expected to reflect the
prevailing social culture as a
whole, as well as the diversity within that culture (McQuail, 1992).
Language in public
discourse has always been coarser and less restricted than that in
the broadcast media
(which are legally restrained from permitting obscenities). The
increasing frequency of
off-color language occurring in dialogue written for network
programming may be an
indication that television is loosening it standards in this area
There are little data on the frequency of offensive language in general
Studies are plagued with methodological problems that make counting
actual word usage
difficult (Jay, 1992).
Offensive language is influenced by the context in which it is used (Jay,
example, foul words are more likely to be heard in pool halls and
sporting events than in
the workplace. With regard to television program content, there may be some
which the use of offensive language accurately reflects the culture of the
cops on the street are likely to cuss more frequently than lawyers
in a courtroom.
In one study of conversations overheard in natural settings, foul language was
12.7% of adult leisure conversations, 8.1% of college conversations,
and 3.5% of
on-the-job conversations, signifying that risqu speech is used more often
in casual co
nversation than in more formal situations (Cameron, 1969).
Offensive words have been categorized by frequency of use, degree of tabooness
specific context. Based on dictionary definitions, "swear words" can be
eight categories; curse, profane, blasphemy, obscene, insult or
slur, scatology, taboo and
epithet (Jay, 1992, p. 2). 3
Offensive Language and Indecency Laws
While a clear definitional distinction does not exist between obscenity and
legal one does: Indecency has First Amendment free speech protection,
not. Within the context of broadcasting, the amended Communications
Act of 1934 and
separate criminal law (18 U.S.C. 1464) gives the FCC the right to ban
obscene and indecent broadcasts (Lipshultz, 1992).
In 1978 the Supreme Court ruled on the "seven dirty words" 2 case involving
George Carlin and the Pacifica Foundation, upholding the FCC's punitive
stations airing broadcasts considered indecent or obscene. With the
exception of the
seven dirty words which were deemed obscene, the Court still failed to
clearly define the
difference between the two types of speech (Lipshultz, 1992;
Although verbal indecency is constitutionally protected, the FCC requires
limit indecent speech to "safe times" (Lipshultz, 1992). As with
visual depictions of
indecency, the FCC has decided not to penalize stations for verbal
in programs aired after 8 p.m., but none of the "seven dirty words" can be used
et al., 1993).
Offensive language changes over time. Words that were once considered obscene
may not be considered so at a later time (Jay, 1992). Since the Pacifica
ruling the FCC
is of the view that indecent language encompasses more than just
Carlin's seven dirty
words, including "talk of the penis and animal sex" (Lipshultz, 1992,
Network censors are loosening their restrictions on indecent language,
10 p.m. when they feel freer to take risks with material that would
not be allowed at an
earlier hour (Bechloss, 1990; Polskin, 1989). Overall, indecent
words and phrases are
being uttered on network television with more frequency than ever
before (Polskin, 1989).
The first known usage of "goddamn" was on LA Law in December, 1988 (Polskin,
Prior to 1990, the terms "penis envy" and "biker bitch" were aired on
Murphy Brown, and
the word "slut" was repeated at least 10 times on an episode of
Married with Children
(Bechloss, 1990). Indecent language on network television has become
more prevalent and
overlooked since the days when Laraine Newman had to apologize to
standards department for saying "pissed off" during a performance on
Saturday Night Live
(Hill & Weingrad, 1986).
NYPD Blue is not only the most controversial but also one of the highest rated
the Fall, 1993 season (Coe, 1993). While it is being hailed for its
of police life and cutting-edge story lines, it is also being
deplored for its explicit
sexual scenes and language. The show's sexual content and
offensive language have led
advocacy groups and others to force local broadcast management to
make hard decisions
regarding airing the show and to threaten advertisers with product
boycotts. Critics claim
that more than any other show, NYPD Blue crosses the line of what is acceptable
television. To determine the validity of these claims the present study
examines the types
and frequency of sexual acts and offensive language present in NYPD Blue.
comparisons are made between NYPD Blue and a sampling of other
television programs aired
on the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox networks during the Fall, 1993 season.
NYPD Blue and other eight other prime time programs aired on the ABC, CBS, NBC
networks were videotaped during three randomly-selected weeks in the
Fall, 1993 season:
October 26th, November 16th, and December 7th. Three additional
episodes of NYPD Blue
were randomly selected and recorded (October 5th, October 19th and
The two programs judged to contain the most visual and verbal sexuality on each
were recorded. Undergraduates (n=39) rated all Fall, 1993 primetime
programs (except for
NYPD Blue) on the degree of "sexual behavior and language" present
in the program. The
two highest-rated programs from each network were selected.3 As can
be seen in Table 1,
for each of the four networks the top two shows in terms of
sexuality included an
hour-long drama and a half-hour situation comedy. Thus, for three weeks
under study, six
hours of primetime shows across the four networks were videotaped,
along with each week's
episode of NYPD Blue. Episodes of NYPD Blue were recorded during
three additional weeks,
yielding a total of 24 hours of primetime programming for analysis.
The coding scheme for sexual activity was drawn from the most recently
published study of
sex on television (Sapolsky and Tabarlet, 1991). Sex acts include touching,
hugging, implied intercourse, explicit intercourse, prostitution and
language consists of references to sexual behavior and sexual organs.
verbal (implicit, covert reference to sex) and visual or situational
bodily displays and sexually-suggestive situations). Two content
categories were added to
the coding scheme: visual depictions of frontal and rear nudity.
Offensive language was coded as either verbal, implied (bleeping out or
dirty words) or gestural. Further, offensive words were classified
into one of eight
groups (c.f. Jay, 1990).4 For example, "go to hell" is classified as
a curse, "you look
like hell" as an insult, and "oh hell" as a profanity and "the hell
with God" as a
blasphemy. Any of the "seven dirty words" are classified as an
include words or phrases cried out in an outburst of emotion such as
"damn." Taboo words
and phrases are in-and-of-themselves not necessarily offensive, but are
unacceptable to talk about, such as masturbation. Scatological words
references to human waste products and processes.
The humorous and non-humorous context of each incident was coded.
program characteristics were also noted: type (drama and situation
comedy), network and
The first author independently viewed and coded the videotaped programs. The
coder viewed all 24 hours of programming. The second coder viewed 10
hours (41.0% of all
programs). Intercoder agreement was 0.90 for the sexual content
categories and 0.91 for
the offensive language categories (Scott's pi; Scott, 1955).
Sexual Behavior and Language
The six episodes of NYPD Blue contain 45 incidents of sexuality or an average
incidents per half-hour. The rate of sexual acts and words in NYPD
Blue is significantly
below that of the other program genres (F=5.32 (df = 2, 27), p
=.01). Dramatic programs
included in the analysis contain an average of 6.1 incidents per
half-hour and situation
comedy programs contain more than three and a half the number of
incidents per half-hour
(13.5) as NYPD Blue (refer to Table 4). Moreover, the rate of
sexuality in NYPD Blue is
significantly below that for the total set of comparison programs (t
= 2.87 (23.5), p <
As seen in Table 5, the sample of NYPD Blue episodes does not contain any
implied or explicit intercourse. The dramatic programs depicted a
total of six
occurrences of intercourse; the comedy programs included two additional
should be noted that several episodes of NYPD Blue have in fact
intimacy and intercourse. Regardless, such behavior was not present in
the six episodes
under study. Further, dramatic programs aired 1.4 times as many
instances (per half-hour)
of verbal reference to intercourse as did NYPD Blue; comedy programs exhibited
the NYPD Blue half-hour rate. In fact, the only categories of
sexuality for which NYPD
Blue demonstrated a higher rate per half-hour than dramas and
comedies are references to
prostitution/rape and suggestive displays. The former finding would
be expected for a "cop
show" which routinely deals with criminal behavior including prostitution and
When the amount of sexuality within dramatic programs is considered, Melrose
found to contain significantly more sexual acts and words than
either NYPD Blue or the
other primetime dramas examined (F = 6.83 (df = 4, 25) p < .001; see
As seen in Table 4, NYPD Blue contained an average of 7.9 instances of
language per half-hour. This is significantly above the rate found in
(2.5) but at the same rate observed in comedy programs (7.9 per
half hour; F = 5.14 (df =
p =.01). In addition, more incidents of offensive language occurred in NYPD
Blue than in
all other programs combined (t = 2.19 (40), p < .05; refer to Table
4.) Within dramatic
programs, expletives are uttered more often in NYPD Blue (F = 17.26
(df = 4, 25) p <
.001; refer to Table 2).
When all drama and comedies are considered (exclusive of NYPD Blue), the most
occurring form of offensive language is "profanity" (1.9 times per
half hour). Across the
six episodes of NYPD Blue profanities were uttered 1.3 times per half hour.
Blue insults are used more frequently than any other type of
offensive language at 3.6
times per half hour. Table 6 shows that two of the "seven dirty
words" ("tits" and
"piss") - considered too obscene for television - were heard a total of
nine times. 6
When examining the frequency of taboo words within specific programs,
Roseanne tops NYPD
Blue as well as the other programs.7
Sex and Offensive Language
When all categories of sex language/behavior and offensive language are
Blue contains a slightly higher (but nonsignificant) rate per half
hour (11.7) than
dramatic programs (8.5). The rate of sex and offensive language found
comedies (20.6) is significantly above that for both NYPD Blue and
dramas (F = 8.04 (df =
2, 27), p < .01).
Other Program Comparisons
Networks. There were more sexual incidents in Fox programs. ABC, which airs
had the second highest number of incidents of sexuality. While Fox
led the four networks
in sexual displays and language, it trailed the other networks in
amount of offensive
language (refer to Table 7).
Time Period. While one would expect more adult-oriented programming in the
time slot and, with it, more occurrences of sexuality and offensive
language, the current
analysis reveals that there were significantly more instances of
both in the 9-10 p.m. tim
e period (see Table 7).
Context. As seen in Table 7 more sexual language and behavior occurred in a
context. This was largely due to the greater number of sexual acts
occurring in a
nonhumorous context. There was no difference in the content of offensive
According to pre-broadcast media reports, NYPD Blue is rife with more sexuality
offensive language than has been previously seen or heard on
television. The present
study examines the content of NYPD Blue to assess the accuracy of the
media reports and
compares the program to other current primetime network shows.
Contrary to the critics' assertions, NYPD Blue presents fewer sexual acts and
either dramatic programs or situation comedies. In fact, sitcoms
depict more than three
times the number of sexual incidents per half hour than found in
The six episodes of NYPD Blue analyzed in this study did not include any
implied or explicit intercourse. Exposure to this type of sexual
content occurs more
often when viewing other dramatic programs or sitcoms. As has been
noted, some episodes
of NYPD Blue not captured in this analysis have contained scenes of
implied and explicit
sex which have been well documented by the media. In the NYPD Blue
analysis two incidents of nudity occurred: a man shown naked from the
rear and the partial
baring of a woman's breast. These scenes are atypical in primetime network
(no incidents of nudity were observed in the other drama or comedy
programs) and have
contributed to the furor surrounding the program.
NYPD Blue contains significantly more offensive language than dramatic programs
more so than comedy programs. Overall, sitcoms and NYPD Blue have
almost the same
frequency per half of hour of offensive language, 7.9 and 7.1
respectively. Across both
program genres (dramas and sitcom) the most frequently used category
of offensive language
is profanity; on NYPD Blue insults are most commonly used. The vocalization of
the "seven dirty words" (tits and piss) considered too obscene for
television occurred on
NYPD Blue. Additionally, a character on Melrose Place used the word
"pissed" on one
occasion. The FCC claims that it will not penalize stations for
language after 8 p.m., as long as the seven dirty words are avoided.
However, as this
content analysis indicates, these words are being heard in rare
In summary, NYPD Blue contains fewer sexual portrayals and sexual language than
dramatic and comedy programs examined. NYPD Blue does contain more
than these programs. This suggests that the critics' harsh
assessment of sexuality on
NYPD Blue may have been influenced more by pre-broadcast media
reports than by the show's
content. Furthermore, the reports would seem to be more accurate however, in
assessment of the presence of offensive language in NYPD Blue.
Based on pre-broadcast media reports many ABC affiliates were pressured by
groups to ban the controversial new program, NYPD Blue. Additionally,
advertisers were threatened with product boycotts. A station's
decision to ban or to air
NYPD Blue comes with considerable risk. To broadcast the program
brings the risk of
breaching community standards, alienating the local viewing audience,
and facing low local
commercial sponsorship. On the other hand, not airing a series may mean lost
and sponsorship for a program that has been shown to receive high ratings and
in the market, alienating viewers who want to see the show.
The decision to keep a program off the air precedes audience viewing and in
screening by station management. When previewing is not possible
local affiliates and the
viewing public often rely on pre-broadcast media reports assessing the
The accuracy of these media descriptions of episodes is crucial to the
management of the
local affiliate, to the viewing audience, and to the program's producers.
The issue of banning a program such as NYPD Blue from the airwaves has
repercussions for the network, local affiliates, advertisers and viewing
audience. As has
been argued, it is not a decision to be taken lightly. More importantly, it is
decision that should be based solely on pre-broadcast media reports
or on a partial
preview of the debut episode.
Viewers' perceptions of televised content can be just as important to a
as actual content. As seen in this study, the perception of the frequency and
explicitness of sexual portrayals on NYPD Blue, for which the show has been
exaggerated compared with the actual content. By comparison,
Roseanne, a family- oriented
sitcom where sexuality might be expected to be minimal, sexual language and
abound. In one episode of the show, the theme revolves around
reference to the subject is mainly through innuendo, at one point the
actually says the word "masturbation."7 Although masturbation could be
obscene according to FCC regulations, the episode did not appear to
Yet, had "masturbation" been uttered on the opening episode of NYPD
Blue, one can only
assume that it would not have gone by unnoticed.
This initial look at obscenity raises several questions regarding the
between TV content providers, gatekeepers, pressure groups, and the
Future research might explore viewers' perceptions of controversial content
sexuality, offensive language or violence in television programming
relative to the actual
frequency of instances of such content. Additionally, when local affiliates
pressured to ban programs entirely or specific episodes, to what degree
decisions based on community standards or on the demands of a vocal
1. WTXL-TV, "Talk Back Tallahassee" viewing audience telephone poll. January,
2. Seven dirty words- shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and
3. Moon over Miami (NBC) was pre-empted on November 10th and December 15th (the
since been canceled). Episodes of Lois and Clark: Superman (ABC)
were recorded in January
1994 to substitute for the missing episodes of Moon over Miami.
4. Jay (1992) classifies offensive words into the following eight categories:
1) Curse (vt): to call upon divine or supernatural power to send injury upon.
Curse (n): a prayer or invocation for harm or injury to come to one.
Cursing's intent is to bring harm to another person through the use of words
Examples: go to hell, screw you.
2) Profane (vt): to treat (something sacred) with abuse, irreverence, or
Profane (adj.): not concerned with religion or religious purposes: secular:
because unconsecrated, impure, or defiled: unsanctified.
Profanity is based on religion, and to be profane means to be outside of the
Examples: For God's sake, oh hell.
3) Blasphemy (n): the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence
God: the act of claiming the attributes of deity: irreverence toward
considered sacred or inviolable.
Blasphemy and profanity differ as the former is a direct attack on religion or
religious doctrine and is aimed at the church. Profanity, on the other
indifferent to religion and is secular in nature.
Examples: Screw the Pope, Shit on what it says in the Bible.
4) Obscene (adj.): disgusting to the senses : repulsive: abhorrent to morality
designed to incite lust or depravity.
Obscenity is used here as a legal term. Obscenity laws are enacted to protect
listeners from harmful language. Obscenity is determined by the courts
to restrict or
control media content. Generally, obscene words are those
considered most offensive and
thus are rarely, if ever, used by the media.
Examples: piss, tits
5) Insults (vb) to treat with insolence, indignity, or contempt: to make little
Slurs (vt) to cast aspersions upon: disparage.
Insults and slurs are verbal attacks on others, used to harm the person by use
word alone, by denoting real or imagined characteristics of the
Examples: bitch, slut, bastard.
6) Scatology: (n): the study of excrement: interest in or treatment of obscene
Scatological terms refer to human waste products and processes.
Examples: shit, piss.
7) Taboo or tabu (adj): set apart as charge with a dangerous supernatural power
forbidden to profane use or contact.
Taboo or tabu (n): a prohibition instituted for the protection of a cultural
against supernatural reprisal.
Taboo or tabu (vt): to exclude from profane use or contact as sacrosanct esp.
marking with a ritualistic symbol.
A taboo's function is to inhibit, suppress, and control certain thoughts and
such as speech, to maintain social cohesion and order.
Examples: words for body parts (penis), sexual activity (masturbate).
8) Epithets (n): a characterizing word or phrase accompanying or occurring in
the name of a person or thing: a disparaging or abusive word or
Examples: damn, son of a bitch.
Epithets are brief but forceful outbursts of emotional language stemming from
frustration, hostility and aggression. An epithet is determined by the
context of its
use. For example, the phrase "son of a bitch" can be use as an
insult ("you're a son of
a bitch"), or as an epithet yelled out after smashing a thumb with a hammer.
To classify an offensive word the context of use must be considered. As can be
the classifications the word "shit" can either be a curse (shit on
you), a profanity (does
the Pope shit in the woods), a blasphemy (who gives a shit about the Bible), an
slur (you're a piece of shit), scatology (he shit in the backyard, an epithet
in an outburst of emotion) or an obscenity (if banned by the courts
from the media).
5. The test for equality of variances (Levene's Test) proved significant.
t for unequal variances was utilized. A t-test following a data transformation
yielded significance on the Levene's Test.
6. A cop on NYPD Blue told a woman she was "A+ in the tit department."
form of the word piss was used three times on NYPD Blue and once on
7. The theme of one episode of Roseanne was masturbation. This included
saying the word
"masturbation" one time and 16 verbally implied references to it.
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NYPD Blue 8
Top Five Shows by Network
Rated by Students for Frequency of Sexual Incidents and Language
Roseanne* 4.75 Love and War* 5.00
Moon over Miami* 4.73 Northern Exposure* 4.06
Lois & Clark: Superman** 4.14 Dave's World 3.80
Mr. Cooper 3.88 Murphy Brown 3.56
Step by Step 3.11 Evening Shade 3.13
Wings* 5.06 Melrose Place* 6.34
LA Law* 5.02 Married with Children* 6.12
Sisters 5.00 Hermans Head 5.90
Mad About You 5.00 Martin 5.88
Seinfeld 4.81 Beverly Hills 90210 5.74
* Top two programs from each network selected for this study
** Moon over Miami was cancelled. Episodes of Lois & Clark Superman were
NYPD Blue 19
Frequency Of Sexual Acts And Reference And Offensive Language
NYPD Blue Vs. Selected Dramatic Programs
Lois & Clark: Superman2
NYPD Blue3 Moon over Miami Northern Exposure LA Law Melrose Place Total
(ABC) (ABC) (CBS) (NBC) (Fox)
Type of Sexual Total Total Total Total Total
Content Incidents Average4 Incidents Average Incidents Average Incidents Avera
ge Incidents Average Incidents Average
Non-Criminal 1 0.1 9 1.5 2 0.3 0 0.0 45 7.5 56 2.3
Criminal 0 0 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0 0 0.0 0 0.0
Sex Language 22 1.8 14 2.3 2 0.3 6 1.0 28 4.7 50 2.1
Sex Innuendo 17 1.4 4 0.7 3 0.5 12 2.0 2 0.3 21 0.9
Atypical 3 0.2 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0 6 1.0 6 0.3
Sex responsibility 0 0.0 1 0.2 11 1.8 1 0.2 0 0.0 13 0.5
Nudity 2 0.2 0 O.0 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0
Total 45 3.8a 28 4.7a 18 3.0a 19 3.2a 81 13.5b 146 6.1
Curse 10 0.8 1 0.2 1 0.2 0 0.0 4 0.7 6 0.3
Blasphemy 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0
Profanity 16 1.3 10 1.7 6 1.0 3 0.5 11 1.8 30 1.3
Obscenity 10 0.8 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0 1 0.2 1 0.1
Insult 44 3.7 0 0.0 1 0.2 1 0.2 5 0.8 7 0.3
Scatology 1 0.1 0 0.0 1 0.2 0 0.0 0 0.0 1 0.1
Taboo 3 0.3 0 0.0 1 0.2 2 0.3 0 0.0 3 0.1
Epithet 11 0.9 1 0.2 6 1.0 1 0.2 3 0.5 11 0.5
Total 95 7.9c 12 2.0ab 16 2.7ab 7 1.2a 24 4.0b 59 2.5
1 Three episodes of each show. Figures with different superscripts differ
by p < .05 by Newman-Keuls Test.
2 One episode of Moon over Miami, two episodes of Lois & Clark: Superman.
3 Six episodes of NYPD Blue.
4 Average per half hour.
NYPD Blue 20
Frequency of Sexual Acts and References and Offensive Language
NYPD Blue vs. Selected Comedy Programs
NYPD Blue2 Roseanne Love and War Wings Married with Children All
(ABC) (ABC) (CBS) (NBC) (Fox)
Type of Sexual Total Total Total Total Total
Content Incidents Average3 Incidents Average Incidents Average Incidents Avera
ge Incidents Average Incidents Average
Non-Criminal 1 0.1 10 3.3 7 2.3 7 2.3 1 0.3 25 2.1
Criminal 0 0.0 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 0.0
Sex Language 22 1.8 35 11.7 16 5.3 11 3.7 22 7.3 84 7.0
Sex Innuendo 17 1.4 9 3 3 1.0 6 2.0 24 8.0 42 3.5
Atypical 3 0.3 0 O.0 1 0.3 0 O.0 1 0.3 2 0.2
Sex responsibility 0 0.0 5 1.7 2 0.7 0 O.0 2 0.7 9 0.8
Nudity 2 0.2 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0
Total 45 3.8 59 19.7 29 9.7 24 8.0 50 16.7 162 13.5
Curse 10 0.8 3 1.0 0 O.0 1 0.3 0 O.0 4 0.3
Blasphemy 0 0.0 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0
Profanity 16 1.3 16 5.3 16 5.3 7 2.3 1 0.3 40 3.3
Obscenity 10 0.8 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0
Insult 44 3.7 0 O.0 2 0.7 2 0.7 1 0.3 5 0.4
Scatology 1 0.1 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0
Taboo 3 0.3 17 5.7 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0 17 1.4
Epithet 11 0.9 4 1.3 4 1.3 11 3.7 0 O.0 19 1.6
Total 95 7.9 40 13.3 22 7.3 21 7.0 2 0.7 85 7.1
1 Three episodes of each program.
2 Six episodes of NYPD Blue.
3 Average per half hour.
NYPD Blue 21
Frequency of Sexual Acts and Reference and Offensive Language
NYPD Blue vs. Selected Network Programs
All All All Other
NYPD Blue Drama Sitcom Programs Combined
Type of Sexual Total Total Total Total
Content Incidents Average1 Incidents Average Incidents Average Incidents Av
Non-Criminal 1 0.1 56 2.3 25 2.1 81 2.3
Criminal 0 0.0 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0
Sex Language 22 1.8 50 2.1 84 7.0 134 3.7
Sex Innuendo 17 1.4 21 .90 42 3.5 63 1.8
Atypical 3 0.3 6 .30 2 0.2 8 0.2
Sex responsibility 0 O.0 13 .54 9 0.8 22 0.6
Nudity 2 0.2 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 O.0
Total 45 3.8a 146 6.1b 162 13.5b 308 8.6
Curse 10 0.8 6 0.3 4 0.3 10 0.3
Blasphemy 0 0.0 0 O.0 0 O.0 0 0.0
Profanity 16 1.3 30 1.3 40 3.3 70 1.9
Obscenity 10 0.8 1 0.1 0 O.0 1 .03
Insult 26 3.7 7 0.3 5 0.4 12 0.3
Scatology 1 0.1 1 0.1 0 O.0 1 .03
Taboo 3 0.3 3 0.1 17 1.4 20 0.6
Epithet 11 0.9 11 0.5 19 1.6 30 0.8
Total 95 7.9b 59 2.5a 85 7.1b 144 4.0
1 Average per half-hour.
Note: Means with different superscripts differ significantly (p < .05) by the