The slap heard round the world — except on ABC?

Since Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at The Oscars, everybody has had an opinion about Smith’s action, but what about ABC’s decision to censor Smith’s post-slap profanity? Center founder Jeffrey Cole weighs in.

By Jeffrey Cole

What did he say?

The adult audience viewing the 94th Oscar Broadcast on March 27 could tell that something had happened when Will Smith got out of his seat and approached Chris Rock as he was about to list the nominees for best documentary feature film.

Smith appeared to slap the comedian. It was difficult to tell if it was a staged bit or if something completely unprecedented had occurred. After Smith returned to his seat he was shouting at Rock, but it was impossible to hear what Smith said because ABC bleeped out the entire exchange.

Had the viewers at home been able to hear what those in the Nokia Theater heard (especially Lupita Nyong’o, sitting next to Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith), they would have known something intense and unpleasant had happened. Watching from afar, we could see the stunned look of Nyong’o and know it was not good.

If the Smith-Rock verbal altercation not been completely censored, viewers would have quickly realized that the slap was not comical. It was a physical assault. They also would have seen a side of Will Smith that might have been a once-in-his-lifetime outburst or a reflection of a deeper anger running through his personality that he has kept hidden until that moment.

In short, without bleeping, the audience would have understood what it saw. Instead, it had to wait for others to interpret it for them or go to YouTube or other places on the internet to see what they missed on the broadcast.

I was watching the Oscars live from Melbourne, Australia, where the event was not censored. I immediately understood what had happened, that it was not a joke, and that it would become the most remembered clip from 94 years of Academy Awards.

Channel 7 in Australia treated me and its other viewers as adults, so I was able to explain by phone and text to my friends in America what they saw but could not understand.

Did ABC have to censor this moment?

Is ABC trying to drive away what’s left of the Oscar audience (15 million people: an increase of 56% from last year)? That’s five percent of the country. The percentage of children likely to watch a show reaching so few of their parents—filled with long-speeches about films that only tiny slices of the audience have seen—is around zero.

What is ABC protecting us from? Language that we hear on every bus or subway, on the streets, in line at stores or at concerts and sporting events? In an odd twist of irony, the words ABC is trying to shield us from are in most of the movies nominated that night. Not once or twice as in the broadcast, but many times.

Does this still make sense in 2022?

Will Smith’s assault on Chris Rock on live television raises important issues about anger, marital relationships, chivalry, entitlement, the cost of fame, sexism, public vs. private images, and much more. The moment Will Smith’s hand touched Chris Rock’s face, it became an important news story. Over the three weeks since the slap, the only story that has received more coverage is the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

There was an immediate debate whether Smith’s actions were an appropriate response to an inappropriate joke about his wife’s appearance. Comedian Tiffany Haddish called it, “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen” when Smith “stood up for his wife.” Others saw a brutal assault prompted by a tame (and lame) joke that you needed a knowledge of 1997 movies to understand.

We needed to see and hear what was said to understood what was happening and the deeper issues surrounding the slap. Only by hearing the language Smith used—and his intensity when he shouted, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!”—could viewers outside the U.S. see that this was no rehearsed skit and that an entirely new image of Smith emerged.

American viewers couldn’t make that judgment because one of the three broadcast networks decided we needed to be protected from a word we hear many times a day. So, we had to try to lip-read. If we had a DVR to slow it down, we could try repeatedly. Later, we could go to YouTube to see the uncensored clip. Only then could understand what they had seen and were able to make a proper judgment.

ABC censored a news event.

Many have called for the end of broadcast censorship because of changing values and because streaming (which most of us now watch) is filled with those words. Perhaps that is one of the reasons streaming has grown so fast and Netflix is so much more popular than any of the networks. The streamers don’t treat us like children.

The networks can still make a case for restricting the content of its entertainment shows. Many of those programs do have young children watching. Most are scripted. The stories can be communicated, and the context understood, through good writing and acting. They are not news events.

What is ABC protecting us from? Language that we hear on every bus or subway, on the streets, in line at stores or at concerts and sporting events? In an odd twist of irony, the words ABC is trying to shield us from are in most of the movies nominated that night. Not once or twice as in the broadcast, but many times. Does this still make sense in 2022?

The chief beneficiaries of network nanny-ism are the internet and streamers. Both became places to see what broadcast television (still regulated by the FCC) will not let us see on their channels. The internet became the repository of news that could not be fully shown on television. The streamers became the sources you went to for the movies and television that were not censored.

In some appalling cases, it is fitting that some images are not shown. The internet (many fringe sites) is filled with terrible footage of ISIS beheadings and victims of school and other shootings. It is not only violence that is properly restricted. Accidents and suicides are also properly edited, as well as stolen sex tapes or images hacked from people’s phones, or genuine “wardrobe malfunctions.”

But it is almost never just words.

In the early 1970s, J.B. Stoner—an unrepentant racist running for the Senate in Georgia—aired political ads using the N-word. Angry viewers demanded the ads be censored or eliminated. The FCC ruled that under the Fairness Doctrine (since abandoned) the ads, even with that vile word, could not be censored. They added that it was important to voters to understand exactly who J.B. Stoner was: hearing him use that word was an important part of that message. Stoner lost, soundly.

Standards have changed. On I Love Lucy in 1952, Lucy could not tell Ricky on their show that she was pregnant. That word was considered inappropriate for CBS viewers. Instead, she had to let him know she was “expecting.”

What happened on the Oscars almost-live television (there’s a seven-second delay that creates the opportunity for censorship) was an important event. A news event.

Adults watching (once again nobody under 20, and few over 20, would have been watching) should not have had to read lips or go to the web later. We deserved the context.

It’s time broadcasters stop treating adults as children.


Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.



See all columns from the center.

April 19, 2022