The Detail: Swear words and slurs - What's offensive on TV and radio?

What swear words do broadcasters have to bleep?
What swear words do broadcasters have to bleep? Photo credit: Getty Images.

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What swear words do broadcasters have to bleep? Can you get away with saying 'shit' live on air? New Zealanders' attitudes towards offensive language are changing – The Detail finds out how that affects what we see and hear in the media

Most people swear, from time to time. That's all well and good, but plenty of people don't particularly like swearing, and certainly don't want to hear foul language in their free-to-air radio or TV programming.  

That's where the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) comes in. Among the standards the BSA is tasked with upholding is one about good taste and decency, which takes into account swearing and foul language.  

If you hear a word or phrase you don't like – whether it's on Checkpoint, Newshub Live at 6, Shortland Street or Radio Hauraki, you have the right, after first complaining to the broadcaster, to make a complaint to the BSA.  

But the words and phrases we find most offensive aren't static – they change and evolve over time.  

When the Toyota Hilux 'bugger' ad first aired in 1999, it attracted more than 100 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. These days, that word is said constantly on TV and in news broadcasts without an eye being batted. 

To keep up with societal sensibilities on swearing and offensive language, the BSA conducts a survey every three to four years, Language That May Offend in Broadcasting, the most recent of which was released in late March. 

The survey provides a list of 31 words and asks people to rank their unacceptability in various scenarios: in a TV drama airing after 8.30pm, for example, or when used by a sports commentator, or a talkback caller, or a morning news radio host. 

The words are also compiled into a final list of what people find mostoffensive, according to what percentage of people rank them as unacceptable in any broadcasting situation. 

Context, of course, is key: a big part of whether the BSA decides to take action about a complaint comes down to the context in which the word airs. 

You won't see many people getting upset about a load of f-bombs being dropped in an episode of The Sopranos, because people who watch The Sopranos generally know what they're signing up for.  

If you were to hear one on Morning Report, however, it'd be a different story. 

The BSA's chief executive Glen Scanlon says this takes into account the target audience of the programming, and what they'll be expecting to be exposed to.  

"After 8.30pm, children are expected to be in bed – apparently – and a lot of that programming will come … with a warning before it, telling you what might be offensive.  

"So you're getting quite a lot of information and warning about what's coming up."  

This year's survey contained a number of interesting trends: longstanding 'top-tier' swear words, such as 'f**', 'bitch' and 'arsehole' fell way down into the bottom third of the list, while the top seven positions were all taken up by racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs. 

Scanlon speculates this might be influenced by social and cultural movements, such as the Black Lives Matter protests, or events like the March 15 terror attacks, as people are more aware of bigotry targeting people due to their skin colour or sexual orientation. 

"New Zealanders are saying, we feel less offended by exclamatory swear words … but we don't accept language that is denigratory or discriminatory to certain groups of society."  

Words that might be offensive, but are largely exclamatory, are viewed as much more acceptable than in previous surveys – indeed, some words, like 'shit', 'bloody' and 'Jesus Christ', are no longer on the list of 31 offensive words people are surveyed about.  

Scanlon says this reflects changing attitudes, the non-targeted nature in which these words are mainly used, and the extent to which some words have simply been absorbed into the lexicon.

The Detail: Swear words and slurs - What's offensive on TV and radio?