On Monday, drag racing statistician, historian, and announcer Bret Kepner, in a conversation regarding John Force and his milestone 150th career victory with Brian Lohnes on his NHRA Insider Podcast, noted the reason for which profanity is so carefully kept from network television.
And that reason: hefty fines from the Federal Communications Commission. How hefty? We’ll get to that in a second.
On Sunday afternoon, the ever-energetic and rarely contained Force, in vintage John Force, unloaded a profanity-laced, jubilant celebration for the ages after he scored his 150th national event event win at the NHRA Northwest Nationals in Seattle, which included two F-bombs and the use of the word sh*t. It’s worth noting that Force, who — like every other driver, we’d imagine — has likely been schooled by the NHRA on the ramifications of profanity on television, was quick to apologize for his F-bombs, but soon lost his cool and let the S-bomb fly, too.
Unfortunately for Force, the Northwest Nationals was one of the few NHRA national events of the 2019 season broadcast live, with no delay, on the FOX national broadcast network….not on the FS1 cable channel. And the FCC tightly regulates the major broadcast networks because they utilize public airwaves licensed from the government to transmit their content — meaning they are beholdened to FCC regulations on profanity.
The FCC, as of 2016, enacts penalties of $47,340 for each violation. It passes that violation to FOX, which then passes it to the NHRA — which is now the producer of its own programming — which then passes it down to John Force. Whether the FCC considers Force’s triad of curse words a single violation or three (which would then amount to $142,050), it still makes for an expensive couple of seconds for John Force. At minimum, somewhere around the amount of money he made for winning that race.
At Englishtown in 2017, Alexis DeJoria uttered f*ck twice on camera, but doing so on FS1 (not under FCC regulation) may have gotten her a free pass. But likely not so for Force.
For high-paid athletes and celebrities who can weather the cost of “meager” fines, singular moments of personality and authenticity (which may include profanity) can potentially establish or further their notoriety. Janet Jackson is better remembered today for her split-second of nudity in 2004 than for her music. NASCAR, as another example, still often cites the fist-fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison on television in 1979 for putting it on the map. The latter incident, of course, was not subject to any violations or fines from the FCC, but you get the point. In any sense, for a drag racer who makes peanuts relative to a top athlete, the benefits of airing some uncaged personality and “letting it fly” on television may not outweigh the cost of doing so.
That said, cable TV networks, in competition with streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu that are not bound to any regulations, are increasingly allowing the use of such terms without censorship, perhaps paving the way for more colorful episodes of unadulterated personality in motorsports in the future.