Two weeks ago, The Walking Dead sparked an enormous amount of controversy by airing a brutal season premiere that many thought went too far. Some viewers, fed up with what they regard as the senseless violence of the series quit, an opinion that I can fully appreciate despite believing that the level of violence was in keeping with the history of the show and the graphic novels upon which it is based.
Aside from the actual merit of the episode, what left many viewers confused was why AMC even allowed that level of violence on the same series that a season before had bleeped out the word f*ck. How does The Walking Dead get away with smashing a guy’s head in repeatedly, but not get away with an F-bomb?
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for regulating obscene, indecent or profane content. However, the FCC’s jurisdiction only extends to broadcast networks, like Fox, NBC, ABC or the CW because the government owns the broadcast network spectrum. In exchange for its use of those airwaves, those networks agree to abide by the FCC’s rules (note, however, that the Supreme Court in 2011 ruled that the FCC could no longer fine even the broadcast networks for “fleeting expletives,” i.e., a performer who drops an unexpected F-bomb during a live appearance).
The FCC does not have jurisdiction over cable networks, however, so they are free to inject as much indecency and profanity as they would like. On premium networks like HBO, Showtime, or Cinemax, nudity, violence, and profanity have long been accepted, while the level of violence, nudity and profanity on cable networks like FX and AMC has only relatively recently seen a dramatic uptick. However, in the abstract, AMC is as free as HBO to air nudity and violence.
In practice, however, there’s a huge difference between how HBO and AMC operate. HBO is a subscription service that does not air commercials. AMC, which gets a portion of its revenue from cable subscriptions, also receives a portion of its revenue from commercial advertising. That’s the key: AMC is beholden to advertisers, while HBO is not.
In recent years, however, advertisers have not taken as hard a line on series like The Walking Dead or Sons of Anarchy. Certain outside groups, like the Parent’s Television Council (PTC), often raise hell about the level of violence on television, but their only recourse is to appeal to advertisers by, for instance, boycotting their products.
That still doesn’t completely answer the question, though, does it? Why would AMC feature lengthy scenes involving brutal violence but bleep out the F-word? There’s two answers to that: First, advertisers take issue with profane language while they’re not as concerned with violence for the same reason that the MPAA gave Suicide Squad a PG-13 rating and Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice an R-rating:
It’s arbitrary, and kind of dumb.
Second, profane language is easier to define: It’s simple to compile a list of words advertisers won’t accept — f*ck, sh*t, c*ck — but it’s more difficult to define what crosses the line where it concerns violence. How much brain splatter crosses the line, for instance? Or how much exposed breast will a brand like Mercedes allow? In many cases, quite a bit. Last season, The Americans featured a daughter walking in on her parents in full-on 69 mode without a peep from advertisers.
My guess is that, where it concerns The Walking Dead, no attempt was even made to define where violence crosses the line. The Walking Dead is the most popular show on television, so it has the freedom to air whatever it wants. Advertisers — if they want to expose their products to the show’s sizable audience — have to be willing to accept the risks of upsetting groups like the PTC. For a product like Tostitos chips, it’s clearly a trade-off they’re willing to make.
Ultimately, the answer is this: It’s a judgement call. Cable networks, satellite radio broadcasts, and websites decide how much profane language or indecent content they allow, let the market dictate whether it’s an acceptable amount, and adjust accordingly.