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When it comes to obscenities on TV, the rules are feckless

Last week in Ireland, land of my youth, there was a small outbreak of conniptions.

At issue was an advertisement for Crown Paints that had appeared on the sides of buses for some months. The ad featured the caption "Feck Off Rain" beside an ice-cream cone with two chocolate flakes "which protruded from the cone in a manner similar to the V-sign gesture." Exactly what this had to do with paint is elusive, but I got the description of the ice-cream cone thingy from the website of the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland.

Yep, that's why there were conniptions. A total of 12 people complained about "Feck Off Rain." The authority had to rule, and did so to the sound of much giggling from an amused population.

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The word "feck," as anyone who has seen Father Ted (Vision TV, Thursdays at 8:30 p.m.) will know, is part of the Irish vernacular. It can be a polite or tongue-in-cheek alternative to the other f-word. More often though, its meaning is elastic. My mother, who never swears, is likely to say, "feck off rain" in inclement weather. She is also likely to describe an annoyingly small object as "a fecky little thing."

Thanks to Father Ted and its vast international TV audience, the word in question is now much more widely known than before and is much less likely to be interpreted as offensive. Familiarity with the TV show gives it the context of wacky, tongue-in-cheek humour.

My point, and I do have a fecky little one here, is that the old rules about obscenity and offensive language are now hard to discern. Nobody knows where a line is drawn. It's all a muddle. For instance, there are words and phrases commonly used on network TV programs airing at 8 p.m. that would not appear in this newspaper. Our guidelines prohibit them but they are part of family entertainment aimed at a mass audience.

Meanwhile, when I caught up with the new, Ashton Kutcher-era Two and a Half Men last week, I was taken aback by the crudeness of the language and jokes. Not offended, but startled by the witless avalanche of penis jokes, unfunny double-entendres and emphatically harsh putdowns. Somebody, somewhere, is probably bothered about these jokes too, but mainly because the third major character on the show is supposed to be a child.

And yet there's no major outcry. The Parents Television Council might have a statement on it, but it's plausible that the PTC's 15 minutes of fame are over. Viewers switch easily from cable to network TV and, after a while, barely notice the difference. There are plenty of incidents of the f-word on cable, plus those "scenes of sexuality and nudity" that the on-screen warnings proclaim. But, because it all gets muddled up, there is much less shock value to what is said and done on network TV.

Back in January, 2008, on the late-night Jimmy Kimmel Live show, Kimmel's then girlfriend Sarah Silverman appeared in a video that announced she was, ah, having regular coitus with Matt Damon. The video went viral and millions of all ages saw it on YouTube. Being offended was a pointless endeavour. Late-night humour is now all-day humour thanks to the Internet and, at the same time, anyone can watch a compilation of Tony Soprano using the f-word on a cable drama, at any hour of the day or night, on a computer.

Mind you, as arguments and complaints about foul language morph into confusion or irrelevancy in a digital world, what has not been thwarted or diminished is complaints about being insulted by this or that bit of humour.

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Tongue-in-cheek humour has largely disappeared from print media but exists in fine fettle on TV, especially here in Canada. What is done on Rick Mercer Report (CBC, 8 p.m.) or 22 Minutes (CBC, 8:30 p.m.) hardly amounts to savage humour, but it does irritate some viewers of a conservative persuasion. To judge by the mail I receive sometimes, there is a feeling out there that if one federal political leader is mocked, "fairness" demands that all political leaders be mocked. Anything less is what is known as "bias." That, my friends, is the next great battle.

In the matter of Crown Paint and the "Feck Off Rain" complaint, the ad agency in charge of the campaign argued that the Crown campaign was done in a "light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek" style. They also pointed out that Magners Cider had used ad posters wherein the phrase "feck off bees" was used and found not to have contravened any laws or standards.

A rum business, you'll agree. In the end the authority upheld the complaint, but decided not to take action. After all, the campaign had concluded and it noted that in a previous case, where a handful of complaints had been made about a mobile-phone company using the phrase, "What's the feckin' story?," it had declined to take action.

But the complaint was upheld because "the use of the two chocolate flakes in the form of a V-sign had stronger and more offensive connotations than the use of the word 'feckin' ' in the context of the earlier advertisement."

And a nation laughed. It wasn't the words – it was the implied gesture in the form of chocolate flakes. The rules are now mad, changing and laughable, everywhere.

Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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