Would you call "penis" an obscenity? It was for "NewsRadio"


It was less than 15 years ago when the sitcom “NewsRadio” could not say “penis” and be aired. “Really?” you say? Yes. Is it censorship? Well, the episode did eventually air, with some “penis” remarks still missing, but the heavy-handed editing has never really been undone — Hulu’s perpetuating it, and many of the DVD copies do.

Was this move pandering and fear disguised as caution and careful editing? Absolutely.

But let’s step back a bit. We all know George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” and how cable television, outside the FCC’s scope, regularly uses many of those words — TBS even aired extra “penis” references. But even there, except for premium networks, the f-word and its derivatives remain much more rarely spoken.

Still, much has changed. In 2010, we’re at the point where live events every year feature spontaneous cursing, where it seems quaint when, say, the New York Times (which apparently never had a problem using “penis,” even in 1996) tries to awkwardly write around a public figure’s newsworthy cursing. Hell, the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal made a dictionary’s worth of sexually related words a part of casual conversation. If you couldn’t say “penis” during that saga, when could you ever say it?

But in 1996, we were in a different time, particularly on broadcast television, where the Big 3 (and, sort of, Fox) were still kings, and where outside of sports and weather, cable was a land of reruns and a slightly more sophisticated version of “UHF.”

As for “NewsRadio,” the show in question, it was a haphazard affair. A young writer, Paul Simms, and his ragtag band of writers, with a largely unknown and raucous cast, made for a show that seemed like the perfect NBC comedy yet did its best to endlessly frustrate the network in story-telling and ratings.

As the commentaries on the DVDs have revealed, it was a show that was written, acted and edited at the last possible moment each week, and as such, the “penis” episode wasn’t viewed by NBC executives until close to airing. Despite the fact that Phil Hartman, and old NBC hand from “SNL,” is the one delivering the lines, that wasn’t enough to calm the suits.

Nor was the network courageous or reasoned about it. The man who announced the postponement, Don Ohlmeyer, is a man ever lacking in bravery — as demonstrated recently in his latest role, ESPN ombudsman, where he tackled the pay-for-journalism LeBron James “Decision” special — 13 days after it aired. His condemnations were tardy, without teeth and mostly parroted the points made by others in the hours and days after the special aired.

In censoring “NewsRadio,” he defended American sensitivities, and phantom fear of common medical terms, with such stirring words as, “The question is, what are appropriate words and inappropriate words for network television, and what’s the context?”

Did he try to find an answer? Well, no. He and NBC just pulled the episode. Fortunately, it later aired, but the situation is an easy lesson learned for any editor or decision-maker: Edit or censor because of a real danger, not because you’re afraid of the unknown — or of making a decision at all.

As Phil Hartman’s character, Bill, says, context is what matters. Much like Bill, though, many editors will then go on to ignore context, clinging to the safer option of rigid rules. Whether it’s grammar or alleged obscenity, rules are guides, not substitutes for judgment.

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