When a TV movie about the life of basketball coach Bobby Knight airs Sunday, the most colorful aspect of the drama won't be his signature red sweater. It'll be the language.
Actor Brian Dennehey, who portrays the ex-Indiana University coach, will paint the air blue with 15 uses of the f-word in the first 15 minutes alone.
While the profanity in "A Season on the Brink" might not have made Tony Soprano blush if it had been shown on HBO, the debut of the expletive in ESPN's TV movie is a first for an advertiser-supported broadcast or cable network.
Since the 1970s, when Archie Bunker first broke an unwritten law of TV language by saying "hell" and "damn" on the air, the boundaries of what can be said on television have been loosening - particularly lately. From selective swearing on NBC's "The West Wing" to CBS's unedited use of the s-word during "On Golden Pond" last year, language once considered too obscene, indecent, or profane for broadcast into people's living rooms is reviving a debate over standards for the small screen.
Realism, some believe, demands that TV mirrors the language of life as it is actually lived. But critics - including religious groups and children's advocates - are concerned about the impact of coarse language in homes and on the culture in general. Stories on TV, they argue, ought to be told with thoughtfulness and reserve - especially since children may be watching.
"When you are a guest in a family home - which television is - you should show respect for the family you're visiting," says Parents Television Council president Brent Bozell, whose group monitors instances of offensive language on network and cable TV.
Though it is a violation of federal law to broadcast obscene programming according to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations, it can only investigate the content of a program in response to viewer complaints. Of late, the regulatory agency has exhibited a more laissez-faire attitude toward mainstream television's content.
In the "good old days" of TV, stories weren't about realism at all, says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular TV at Syracuse University. The problem, Dr. Thompson says, is that viewers began to believe in that TV world - so when its language and topics began to change, "a lot of people totally panicked." He worries that those old TV shows may have done more harm than good: by sanitizing a powerful medium, and limiting the topics it was allowed to treat seriously.
It's a viewpoint mirrored by Chris LaPlaca, a spokesman for ESPN. Knight's story couldn't be truly represented, he says, without an uncensored portrayal of the language the man used.
A similar argument is being offered by CBS to explain its choice to include uncensored language from on-the-scene footage of the World Trade Center attack in "9/11," a news special airing Sunday.
Critics of the amount of swearing on television admit that it's much easier to make the case for leaving sensitive language in a historical documentary. Writers and producers of fictional or fictionalized TV drama, on the other hand, aren't just documenting an event, they're making conscious choices about how to tell stories. Mr. Bozell says that ESPN's decision to broadcast the Knight biography, and its plans to simultaneously air a version on ESPN2 with the f-words bleeped out, is "the height of irresponsibility."
Lexicographer Anne Soukhanov worries that increasing linguistic permissiveness on television may have dangerous consequences for societal standards. "If swear words become de rigeur," she says, "what about the racist and sexist epithets that will surely come next?"
But others argue that TV isn't the main culprit in society's coarsening of language.
"TV and movies didn't teach us how to swear," says Mr. Thompson. "But if movies and television don't push envelopes, they do lick envelopes: they do take subcultural things and make them totally normal. And while there were a lot of people doing a lot of swearing before TV ... when it started to happen there, it became much more mainstream."