NBC and ‘Southland’ producers worried about the bleeping FCC

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Can bleeps be indecent?

That’s what NBC and the team behind ‘Southland,’ the network’s gritty cop drama, are trying to figure out.

Worried about increased scrutiny of program content by the Federal Communications Commission, NBC executives and the show’s top staffers including creator Ann Biderman and executive producer John Wells have discussed whether the show’s gimmick of bleeping out swear words could put the network afoul of indecency rules. The reason for the sudden concern is because ‘Southland,’ which is made by Warner Bros., is moving from its current 10 p.m. time slot, which is safe from the FCC’s indecency rules, to 9 p.m. this fall, which does fall under the commission’s purview.


We’ve posted a clip below to give you a flavor of what ‘Southland’ does (pay attention at 2:13). It is similar to what Fox did years ago with its short-lived Hollywood comedy ‘Action,’ which starred Jay Mohr as a studio executive with a blue streak that made Ari Gold of ‘Entourage’ look like Mr. Rogers.

So if there is already a precedent for bleeping, what’s the big deal? Well it was a different world back in 1999 when Fox premiered ‘Action.’ Bill Clinton was president and it was five years before Janet Jackson had the wardrobe malfunction that rocked the world. Since then, the broadcast networks have been pressured by the commission and advocacy groups to steer clear of anything remotely risque. At the same time, cable continues to push the envelope (yes, we just used that tired cliche) and get rewarded with Emmys and ratings. Cable content does not fall under the FCC’s purview.

Although worrying about bleeped words sounds a little extreme, the fines for indecency have gone from $32,500 per incident to $325,000, and even if the networks do fight fines and win the legal costs are huge. In other words, NBC’s right to be a little paranoid.

Among the ideas said to be floating around were possibly pixilating the mouths of the characters while they were being bleeped or finding other ways to obscure their faces at the crucial moment so it would be harder for all those lip readers out there to figure out just what the bleep is being said.

We suggest having the characters say something that will look like the real thing when it is bleeped, although that might lead to a lot of reshoots when cast members burst out laughing while saying, ‘what the fudge was that?’

-- Joe Flint