Swearing on SyFy and USA

When it comes to broadcast and basic cable channels, television programming has always had to be more careful about what it says on the air. However, in recent years, basic cable has cared less and less about saving the sensitive ears of the viewing public. No, they’re not just swearing willy-nilly during daytime television, but some of the more late night programming on basic cable has started to care less and less about tiptoeing around language.

In fact, SyFy and USA, both networks owned by NBCUniversal (a subsidiary of Comcast), are now throwing caution to the wind and will be dropping f-bombs without censoring them on air, and they already started to let them fly earlier this year.

Previously, swearing on SyFy and USA stuck to the guidelines laid out by the Federal Communications Commission, but as a basic cable channel, their Standards and Practices division was not actually beholden to follow those rules strictly. Instead, they answer to their advertisers, who traditionally don’t like it when things get controversial on television programming, and that includes salty language, especially when it comes to network television like NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX. So they’ve kept things clean for the most part.

However, basic cable channels have started to push the envelope. The word “shit” has been thrown around a lot more on networks like FX, AMC, and Comedy Central. The latter was even the first to bring uncensored usage of “fuck” to basic cable by creating their late night programming block called “The Secret Stash,” which began with the airing of the R-rated film adaptation South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. They don’t have that block anymore, but their late night programming still airs the uncensored versions of movies and stand-up specials.

The only thing holding back basic cable networks from using what is considered to be more vulgar language is their advertisers. To keep things clean, they usually dip the audio of either the “f” or the “k” whenever “fuck” is said in an episode. But according to Buzzfeed, USA and SyFy have worked that all out because their stance now is “when language — ‘fuck’ specifically — is deemed important to the style or plot of a show, Syfy and USA now allow it.” That means the episode gets slapped with a TV-MA rating so audiences know it’s intended for mature audiences only.

Fans of The Magicians on SyFy might have already noticed this change. Ever since the third season premiered on SyFy back in January, they’ve been dropping f-bombs uncensored, a change that was celebrated by the show’s co-creator Sera Gamble on Twitter:

There have been a few other instances of “fuck” being said on basic cable, one of them being USA letting the word drop clearly into an episode of Mr. Robot. AMC and FX have also thrown the word out there a few times during the first airings of new episodes of their hit TV shows like The Walking Dead or American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson, but this is the first time any networks have addressed an overarching change in their Standards and Practices when it comes to language.

American television has been behind the times on this principle for awhile. British television spouts off what would be considered vulgar language all the time, at least in their later programming hours. Meanwhile, American television still dips audio, bleeps curse words or dubs over vulgar language. It can be very jarring and really takes you out of the moment, although network comedies have been successful at using this for comedic effect. Otherwise, writers usually just come up with a more tame version of their vulgar intentions, something that really annoyed comedian Patton Oswalt when he was on network TV:

While some viewers will see this as the continued decay of western society and common decency, this is nothing to get up in arms about. Not only do shows reflect the way people actually talk in the real world, but hearing some naughty language is nothing compared to the violent imagery that is shown on television all the time. Is it really that much worse to hear “fuck” on a TV show than to see a human body gruesomely dismembered on The Walking Dead? The answer is fuck no.

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