"Here in the US, we are so schizoid and deeply opposed to government censorship that we insist on having unaccountable private parties to do it instead."
— Bill Cole
There are rules of taste and decency on TV. There are also legal requirements to be followed.
In order to enforce these, governments set up media watchdogs. People (more often than not Moral Guardians) complain about a program, the body looks at it and rules whether their complaints are justified.
The current UK record for most complaints (over 39,000) about a TV program is held by Celebrity Big Brother, due to the bullying and possible racial abuse directed at eventual winner Shilpa Shetty.
The US version is the Federal Communications Commission, while the latest name for the UK television one is Ofcom (in addition there is the ASA for adverts and the voluntary PCC for print media). Many stations (in the US, at least) also have their own self-regulating "Standards and Practices" department (commonly known as "the network censors"). In Japan, the relevant body is the Eiga Rinri Kanri Iinkai, or Motion Picture Code of Ethics Committee (colloquially abbreviated as "Eirin;" don't ask it for help).
These Media Watchdogs are frequently subjected to Double Standards. In the U.S, sex and nudity, no matter how mild, will be censored and criticized to hell, even though huge and over-the-top violence is left alone (unless it's on a show targeted to children). In Europe, the opposite (and yet, similar) Double Standard happens: sex and nudity can be found easily, but any violence is censored to hell.
Getting Crap Past the Radar is the art of outsmarting the Media Watchdogs. See also: Executive Meddling.
Oruchuban Ebichu was designed to push the boundaries of the Japanese broadcast code, trying to get away with as much as possible without being censored. However, certain parts did end up getting censored, though a lot of edgy material made it in.
In Fushigi Yuugi, Miaka is told to remove her clothes as part of a test to see if she is worthy to receive an object of power; she starts stripping, but stops while still wearing a one-piece undergarment and says "This is the limit of what the broadcast code allows."
Notoriously, the final episode of Excel♥Saga was designed specifically to violate the standards of Tokyo Air Check (the Japanese version of the BS&P). Everything down to the length of the episode (one minute longer than normal) was designed to make it impossible to air. The episode was titled, appropriately, "Going Too Far" (and indeed, it didn't make the air in Japan; it ended up a Baker's Dozen).
Implied for dark humor in the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, when the news airs the Mutant Leader's ultimatum to Batman, but declares it "unfit for broadcast" past "...and then I'll find your new cop — your woman cop — and I will-"
In Wes Craven's New Nightmare there is a psychiatrist who blames violent movies to be the cause of the (pre-teen) protagonist's mental condition. Her name is Doctor Heffner, a hint at the MPAA's former chairman Richard Heffner, who gave Wes Craven a hard time repeatedly.
An extra Take That was in just how out-of-touch the psychiatrist was. She tells the actress who was in A Nightmare on Elm Street movies that her son apparently knows who Freddy Krueger is, and from this assumes the mother has been showing her child her old movies (all of this in a disapproving tone). The actress snaps back, in exasperation, "Every kid knows who Freddy Krueger is! He's like Santa Claus!"
Head of the British Board of Film Censors at the time, John Trevelyan, didn't like the early James Bond movies, making cuts to them. EON named the villain of GoldenEye after him.
Team America: World Police had a scene where two anatomically incorrect marionettes simulate various sex acts. The censors made them cut two extreme examples (both involving bodily waste), but allowed the rest of it...along with scenes of puppets being blown up, decapitated, eaten by live cats, shot to pieces and defenestrated. Evidently that was okay, but puppet scat was a no-no.
UHF: The film ends with the villainous Channel 8 getting its broadcasting license revoked by the FCC. Partly because they had failed to file paperwork to renew, but mostly because a recording of Channel 8 manager R.J. Fletcher giving a slanderous and negative appraisal of the population of the city was secretly recorded and rebroadcasted publicly (on Channel 8 no less). The FCC even tells Fletcher that they'd normally overlook a late filing, but considering his "latest comments", they're pulling the plug.
Similarly, Tapeheads ends with Tim Robbins and John Cusack arrested by FBI agents for airing a sexually explicit video of a politician to discredit him. This includes a Shout-Out to Jello Biafra's PMRC-inspired obscenity case by Biafra himself, cameoing as an agent.
FBI Agent: Remember what we did to Jello Biafra?
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut got its name because of this: it was originally going to be titled either "South Park Goes To Hell" or "South Park: All Hell Breaks Loose", but the MPAA rejected the trailer because "hell" was in the title. So Matt and Trey changed it to a blatant innuendo... And it went through. This became a running theme in the editing process, because every time they were informed that something was too raunchy or excessive, they would replace it with something "ten times worse", and it would make it to the final cut. Parodied not only in the entire "Blame Canada" portion of the plot, but this infamous line from Sheila Broflovski:
Sheila: Because like the MPAA says, "Horrible deplorable voiolence is okay, as long as nobody says any doity woids!"
Painfully obvious in NCIS which depicts borderline realistic, and often gruesome, autopsy scenes...but the corpse's genitals are always conveniently blotched out by what looks like glare from a high-powered lamp.
In one episode, DiNozzo tests a theory by asking the coroner, Ducky, to see a deceased man's member.
Mrs Whitehouse is also satirized as one of the three "Pigs" in Pink Floyd's song of that name.
She was also satirized in an episode of The Goodies. It seems she wrote to the show to compliment them as being one of the few "clean" shows on TV. They didn't like that.
The Gong Show: Chuck Barris, producer and host, tired of network censors nixing acts which he thought were fairly innocuous, began throwing deliberately outrageous ones at them so as to distract the Watchdogs from the acts he really wanted to broadcast. Naturally enough, in accordance with Finagle's Law, several of these intentionally over-the-top acts were allowed on the air, including the infamous Popsicle Twins, a pair of women made up as teenaged girls who sat on stage and provocatively sucked popsicles while the audience howled.
It was allowed on the East Coast broadcast of the episode, but after the quick and predictable outcry it generated, NBC removed it from the West Coast broadcast that aired a few hours later.
Parodied in an old Smothers Brothers sketch where the Smothers Brothers hand their new script to a team of censors. Each one reads a page and laughs even harder than the last one, before throwing the page away and saying "no." Only the last page remained because it wasn't funny at all.
"Frak" is the last remnant of the Original BSG's habit of having alternate names for almost everything: seconds became centons, years became yahrns, fuck became frak. While the alternate time system was dropped, frak was specifically included as an homage to the original. Originally, there was some bowdlerization involved, but that's not the only reason its there.
In early episodes of LOST, ABC's Standards and Practices insisted that Charlie's heroin use could not be shown. Instead, it had to be implied with cutaway shots.
Les pieds dans la Marge, a Québécois TV show that collects various stunts for teenagers (in the large understanding that "teenage" extends at least to the mid-twenties) gives a meta example of media watchdogs and executive meddling. The show presenter and narrator is often shown during an executive meeting where he interrupts the sequence asking if the show is sending the right message to the teenagers. The funny part being that the actor that plays the complaining part is also taking parts in all of the stunts (such as trusting your friends blindly to choose a tattoo that will end on your bum, Skydiving, Forest survival and so on).
The production staff for Star Trek: The Original Series wanted to show a several-second blurb of (what was considered to be, at the time) excessive skin, but one member, knowing that the Media Watchdogs would disapprove, is reported to have told the rest of the staff to double the time of skin shown, so that they could "negotiate" the time down to half, thus keeping the amount of "Questionable Material" the same as they originally wanted, but also satisfying the Media Watchdogs.
Another case where they wanted to show more than what the censors allowed was resolved by taking the Standards & Practices guy out to lunch, while they quickly shortened the costume and shot the scene.
Star Trek: The Original Series was subjected to what would today be considered a quite extraordinary degree of censorship. (You can still make old-line Trekkies laugh with the phrase "Avoid the open-mouth kiss", which NBC's Broadcast Standards department rubber-stamped onto any mention of kissing in a script.) In the episode "That Which Survives", Lee Meriwether wears a crop-top and bell bottom pants — with a rectangular tab about four inches by five extending up from the waistband to conceal the forbidden sight of her navel.
In 2002, The View had a recurring segment on weight loss, for which the hosts weighed in periodically. The day after the final segment, Meridith Viera stated that the scale had been removed from the set, to which Joy Behar replied "Thank you, Jesus." This was broadcast live to the U.S. East Coast, which prompted a moral outcry about using His name in a joke. ABC responded by bleeping "Jesus" out of the West Coast broadcast, which prompted another moral outcry for treating the name, in Jerry Falwell's words, "as if it were profanity."
According to Andrew W.K., this is the reason Destroy Build Destroy was cancelled.
In the Philippines, the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board not only administers TV and film ratings, but also has the power to temporarily suspend shows from being aired for violating rules.
Though in one awkward incident, the MTRCB banned Entourage on HBO for not being properly classified, but only on one cable provider (the largest one, yes, but still)
In a Dilbert comic, the syndicate made Adams remove a police officer's gun, which he replaced with a doughnut. This would be pretty standard, except for the fact that the punchline was the officer shooting an unarmed suspect, which he still does...with the doughnut. Someone get Dunkin' to start selling those.
Adams was also told that he couldn't use the Devil as a character. Thus was born the Prince of Insufficient Light, who rules Heck with a pitchspork. Adams admits that this was a case of the syndicate being right, as Phil has been a much funnier addition than the Devil would have been.
After being repeatedly badgered by the Parents Television Council (PTC) for its raunchy programming, WWE (WWF at the time) lampooned the organization with a wrestling stable known as Right to Censor (RTC). Clad in business suits, the RTC would openly harass any wrestlers who acted too profane, sexy, etc. Of course, they weren't above using violence to get their point across. For the record, despite the parody, Right to Censor pretty much did exactly what the PTC wanted, and many of the edgiest elements of the WWE are gone to this day.
Similarly, the radio comedy Round the Horne (itself a victim of overzealous censorship) aimed a number of Take Thats including one where a team of censors object to the title of a then popular TV Show 'Have A Go With Wilfred Pickles' (the joke being that it's not the obvious innuendo in 'have a go' but the name 'Pickles' was promoting alcohol abuse).
Horne: Will you take my case?
Julian: Well, it depends on what it is. We've got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time.
Horne: Yes, but apart from that? I need legal advice.
Sandy: Ooh, isn't he bold?
Parodied by Stan Freberg in his classic Elderly Man River sketch.
Stand Up Comedy
American stand-up comedian and social commentator George Carlin famously dealt with the situation soon after its inception in the U.S. by making it part of one of his concerts.
"How about this? The FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, decided all by itself that radio and TV were the only two parts of American media not protected by the free speech provisions First Amendment to the Constitution. I'd like to repeat that because it sounds vaguely important. The FCC, an appointed body, not elected, answerable only to the President, decided all on its own that radio and TV were the only two parts of American media not protected by the free speech Amendment of the Constitution. Why did they do that? Because they got a letter from a minister in Mississippi! A Reverend Donald Wildmon heard something on the radio he didn't like. Well hey, Reverend, didn't anybody ever tell you that there are two knobs on the radio? Two! Knobs! On the radio! However, I'm sure the Reverend isn't too comfortable with anything that has two knobs on it anyway. Anyway, Reverend, there are two knobs on the radio. One of them turns the radio off, and the other one, changes the station! Imagine that, Reverend! You can actually change the station! It's called freedom of choice, and it's one of the principles this country was founded upon. Look it up at the library, Reverend, if you have any left when you finish burning all the books!"
Of course, do we HAVE to mention the skit that made him famous, the "Seven Dirty Words", which is the skit that GOT said words onto the FCC's "do not say" list? Do we have to mention what those seven words were?
This line is actually missing in the PAL version (though the game retains its fourth-wall wonders), and Klein simply answers with a flustered "...you're joking..."
"The PEGI and both OFLCs would go nuts!" doesn't quite have the same ring to it.
No More Heroes parodied the censorship issue by joking that putting anything more extreme into the game would get the game an AO rating. (An Adults-Only rating is suicide for a game, because a certain large retailer refuses to stock games with the AO rating.) In the dialogue before the final battle, no less. There's also the implication that the game would have to be re-edited if the plot point referenced was actually uttered, thereby delaying the game. To top it off, this is all followed by the line, "You don't want this game to become No More HeroesForever, do you?" This line is in the original Japanese version as well, since CERO (Japan's equivalent of the ESRB) is similar in how they act.
They also went for broke in the dialogue that they skip through. It's a REALLY, REALLY bad story!
America just barely avoided this. The MPAA (a non-government organization) along with VIACOM, Disney, and several other companies wanted to pass SOPA/PIPA. This would have allowed corporations to pull down entire websites without any due process what-so-ever if a website so much as had a link to a link to a link to a link to a link to a link to a website with a few blurry images of copyrighted material. One of the excuses used was 'it stops pirating' (it wouldn't since piraters have found ways to hide their websites due to fear of being sued) and 'it's good for the economy' (even though less than 400,000 are employed by the movie/TV industry while literal millions are employed or have their own businesses online). Luckily millions of Americans called bullshit on this and constantly pointed out how large corporations could use this to simply crush their legal online competitors and the bill has since become dead-in-the-water.
Less fortunately, that didn't stop a few video websites like Megavideo from getting cracked down as retaliation.
Ironically, while France has some "classical" media watchdogs, some of them actually complain because they believe that French TV and movies are not bold enough.
Possibly because without bold programs, they'll be out of a job.
Familles de FranceTrans. Families of France regularly bashes material it view as obscene and sued Second Life (with the net providers) for promoting gambling, paraphilias, pornography and having on line sex shops.
In Canada, broadcasters have to present a certain minimum amount of Canadian content. While there has been some griping about it, these rules worked wonders for Canadian popular music over the years. Once, before these regulations, Canadian artists were so ignored that radio broadcasters literally broke records in front of some musicians pleading for some airtime; now the Canadian music scene has flourished to the point where all Canadian music stations exist with big international stars who wouldn't think of leaving the Great White North.
In 2011 a documentary film about bullying in U.S. schools called Bully was released. The reason the film was made was to encourage inspiring advocacy, engagement, and empowerment not just in people who are being bullied and in their families, but by those of us who all too often stand by and do nothing. In other words, one of the target audiences were young people being bullied in order to let them know they can get help. However, the MPAA rated the movie "R" for language, as a few kids interviewed say "fuck". Because of the R rating, no one under 17 would've been allowed to see the movie, and the film wouldn't have been allowed to be screened in American middle schools or high schools. Only through massive protest and slight editing (which did not involve the most important scenes) were the producers able to get it changed to PG-13.
Quite a number of writers mentioned that had Bully been produced by a major studio (they run the MPAA), there would have been no problem. However, the MPAA always sets ratings to favor the large studios over the small independent ones and there is no way to hold the MPAA accountable.
Also worth noting: anothermovie which came out around the same time was all about children brutally murdering each other, but only got a PG-13.
The fundamental silliness of the original R rating for Bully is underscored when you realize that it was based on the presumption that the teenagers interviewed for the film were too young to watch themselves describing their own experiences in their own words.
Compare the rating of The Kite Runner: "Rated PG-13 for...the rape of a child."