Holy Shatner! The Curse of the Twitcom

Conservative TV watchdog group slams "$#*! My Dad Says." But are they full of it?

By Jere Hester
|  Sunday, May 23, 2010  |  Updated 10:00 PM EDT
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William Shatner would probably rather face the Klingons than the Parents Television Council.

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Alone, the dollar sign, the pound sign, the asterisk and the exclamation point seem harmless enough.

But combine them in a certain order and the morals of our children could be threatened.

That's the essence of the silly argument posed by the Parents Television Council, which is slamming CBS for daring to call a planned new sitcom "$#*! My Dad Says."

The show, starring William Shatner, is based on the popular Twitter account maintained by Justin Halpern, who was forced a couple years ago to move back in with his parents. He made the best of the situation by tweeting his cranky seventy-something father's often-profane bursts of armchair philosophy.

"The dog is not bored. It's not like he's waiting for me to give him a f------ Rubik's Cube," is just one earthy example.

The Twitter account has amassed more than 1.3 million followers, and Halpern's Boswellian efforts also filled a book called, "S___ My Dad Says."

That’s a somewhat bawdier rendering of the title than the symbol-laden version offered by CBS, which refers to the show, orally, as "Bleep My Dad Says" – and asks that journalists do the same.

All that, though, isn’t good enough for the PTC.

"CBS intentionally chose to insert an expletive into the actual name of a show, and, despite its claim that the word will be bleeped, it is just CBS’ latest demonstration of its contempt for families and the public,” PTC President Tim Winter said in a statement last week.

The conservative TV watchdog group is threatening to wage an “unrelenting campaign” against the show’s advertisers and will challenge the broadcast license of every network affiliate that airs the program before 10 p.m. (the show is scheduled to run Thursdays at 8:30 p.m.)

CBS responded with a promise that "$#*! My Dad Says" will “in no way be indecent and will adhere to all CBS standards.” The network also noted the show can be blocked using the VChip.

The flap marks the latest public outcry from the PTC, which has set itself up as the moral guide to all things TV – firing off press releases and, in some cases, calling on followers to flood the FCC with complaints.

The PTC most famously went after CBS in 2004 when the (apparently) accidental, momentary exposure of Janet Jackson's breast at the Super Bowl threatened to bring down western civilization. The PTC took credit for spurring 65,710 of the more than 500,000 complaints received by the FCC.

More recently, when Howard Stern mused about joining the judge's panel of "American Idol," the PTC launched a pre-emptive strike, warning to Fox to steer clear of the shock jock.

Another Fox show, "Family Guy," has been a repeat target of the PTC, which blasted this month's 150th episode special, an installment that reached new depths (or heights, depending on your view) in both scatological humor and mushy sentimentality.

"Family Guy" isn't for everybody, which is why the four words you hear before the theme song are "viewer discretion is advised." "$#*! My Dad Says" may not be everybody's preferred way of spending a half hour, with or without the kids. Watch or don’t watch.

Either way, it seems unlikely that exposure to the word “bleep,” a bleeping sound and a collection of symbols used for decades in comic strips to connote anger would do anyone irreparable harm.

There are rational discussions and reasonable disagreements to be had on whether some words are appropriate for primetime, commercial, television. The most absurd aspect of the fuss over the new Shatner show is that the controversy doesn’t center on a particular word as much as it does the suggestion of a word that isn’t seen or heard.

That’s a regression from the debate started nearly four decades ago when the late George Carlin’s "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine became fodder for an obscenity case that eventually wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled the FCC has a right to prohibit broadcasts with “indecent” content when children are likely to be in the audience.

Years later, Carlin noted in a routine about slurs, “They’re only words. It’s the context that counts. It’s the user, the intention behind the user that makes them good or bad. Words are completely neutral. The words are innocent.”

Sam Halpern, apparently reacting to the PTC complaints, expressed similar sentiments Friday, via his son’s Twitter account.

"They're offended? F---, s---, a-----e, s--tf--k; they're just words...Fine. S--tf--k isn't a word, but you get my point."

Somewhere, Carlin must be laughing his @$$ off.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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