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July 7, 2008 8:37 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for pointers on whether TV programs which are subject to censoring of obscene language have to also look out for obscenity in foreign languages.

So the other night I was sitting up with a nasty cold and watching the hilariously-redubbed US TV edit of a movie that contained a fair amount of naughty language which, of course, had to be dubbed over to protect all the little kids who were undoubtedly up watching it at 2AM.

But there was a scene in a nightclub, where a Spanish-language song was playing, and that got me wondering: if that song contained obscenity, would the censorship regulations require it to be edited as well? I don't speak Spanish so I don't know what was actually being sung, but the beat certainly sounded as if the song had some, um, sexual connotations.

So... anybody know offhand (or have pointers to resources for looking up) how censorship applies to foreign-language content (a term which applies rather loosely to Spanish in the US, of course)? I'd be pretty amused if you could genuinely get away with nastiness by doing it in a different language...
posted by ubernostrum to Law & Government (8 answers total)
Well, judging by Firefly, no. I also have a feeling those translations are toned down a bit.
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:49 PM on July 7, 2008

I am almost positive I have seen an American primetime show censor obviously objectionable Spanish before; maybe a Saturday afternoon rerun of Scarface or something.

My guess is that it would be censored if the censors knew the foreign language or had reason to suspect it contained something they might find objectionable. So a main character cursing in Spanish would be censored, while obscene background music in Quechua or a street sign in Malayalam might not. That is, unless the censors had reason to look into it further.
posted by tomwheeler at 8:51 PM on July 7, 2008

One other thing... As I understand it, FCC licensees must conform to "community standards." What is obscene is (in theory) defined and judged by the community, so when the community does not understand indecent phrases in a foreign language, they could not be offended by them. Therefore, since Spanish is widely spoken in the US, there is a greater chance that someone would understand it and complain. Since Xhosa or Basque is less widely spoken, there is less likelihood that a censor would be concerned about it.

Of course, many people like to be offended and indecency fines can be stiff. I doubt that many censors get fired for being overzealous.
posted by tomwheeler at 9:02 PM on July 7, 2008

My friend worked with a band who were disturbed to learn that some Japanese text graphics in their video had to be translated and checked for obscenity prior to being shown on MTV.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:49 PM on July 7, 2008

Network television is, in theory, on the hook for everything. If you're swearing in Spanish, music or not, in theory, you could get popped by the FCC just the same as you would if it were English.

But it wouldn't happen very easily in the first place. Every significant television show has a standards and practices review process as part of the script development and filming processes. The more significant and higher rated the show, the more attention is paid, to the point where a show might have a full-time S&P producer assigned. Like it or not, it's these folks jobs to ask questions about the meanings of various turns of phrases, if it's something new or unusual, and with the advent of Google, research is easier and easier. If it's in a foreign language, it's very easy for a S&P producer to simply ask, "Hey, what does this mean?" or Google anything that appears in a script.

So, it's unlikely (but certainly possible) that the writers could literally pull a fast one on a censor by hiding the material in a foreign language. More likely, if something is risque, the producer was well aware of it and decided to take a risk with it because he/she felt it was sufficiently oblique. My favorite recent one like this was this clip from 30 Rock. Clearly, the producer was in on this joke ...

With regard to music, most of the music you hear these days on network TV is actually published by the parent company of the network and inserted for specific promotional purposes.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:53 PM on July 7, 2008

It's funny working in TV in another country where we aren't so uptight about this stuff. The show I'm working on at the moment has all sorts of swearing (where appropriate). There's even a pretty direct reference to 'Two Girls One Cup'.
posted by sycophant at 3:21 AM on July 8, 2008

Captain Picard used to curse in French on "Star Trek: The Next Generation".
posted by Asparagirl at 5:22 AM on July 8, 2008

This report [pdf], which appears to have been put together by a law firm for the Univ. of California Office of the President, indicates that the FCC will translate foreign language material to determine if it violates indecency standards. That said, the FCC only investigates complaints made about offending material after the fact, so if no one in the audience recognizes the indecent material, then they got away with it.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 9:26 AM on July 8, 2008

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