Television is in danger of plunging into a linguistic race to the bottom, as the major networks try to keep pace with their cable competitors.
The prize, supposedly, is greater audience share. But there's also a price: the coarsening of society and the courting of a public and political backlash.
Cable channels have an advantage when it comes to foul language. They're free from network censors or government decency standards. And, without question, cable outlets such as HBO have broken new ground - creative and linguistic - with programs like "The Sopranos" or this season's "Band of Brothers."
The once-dominant broadcast networks, which still are legally bound to consider questions of taste as they fill the public airwaves, plead the need to follow suit. ABC, CBS, and NBC executives charged with enforcing standards wrestle with what's acceptable in the name of creative freedom at a time when, all around them on TV, nearly anything goes.
This fall's lineup of shows raises anew the question of how many taboos will fall. Will more formerly banned four-letter words join those already contributing to the "realism" of on-air dialogue? Will nudity become less partial and sex even more explicit on everyone's screen?
The medium simply reflects evolving public tastes, say the producers of today's edgier fare. Two points here: First, the prevalence of ever-more-foul language and themes on the tube is hastening that evolution, not just reflecting it. Second, millions of viewers still try mightily to maintain standards of clean language for themselves and their families.
Many of these viewers realize there are time slots and dramatic themes that may justify words they wouldn't use themselves. But they'd like to see a reasonable line maintained, at least on the public airwaves.
Viewers aren't powerless. They can file a complaint. The website of the Federal Communication Commission (www.fcc.gov) tells how. Click on "television" and "questions most frequently asked." But this will take some effort. Viewers have to supply the FCC with a tape or transcript of what offended them.
And, yes, viewers can vote with their remotes. They can also tell advertisers what they think of the shows advertisers sponsor.
Much of the TV industry, meanwhile, is proceeding on the assumption that dirty is cool, if not indispensable - or, as one network producer put it, that adult themes demand "the language of adulthood."
Obscenity is more often the language of immaturity and moral decay. If TV producers are finding that their creative efforts usually dip in that direction, they might ask themselves whether their definition of what's "adult," what's serious, and what's attractive to viewers is off the mark.