What mattered about Sunday night's Emmy Awards telecast wasn't that The Sopranos won as best drama or that Ryan Seacrest was dubbed the worst host ever.
Instead, people yesterday were talking about what they didn't see or hear on the Fox telecast - the full acceptance speech from Sally Field after she won an Emmy as best actress in a drama series for Brothers & Sisters.
Toward the end of her anti-war-tinged speech, the telecast cut away and went silent as she said, "Let's face it, if mothers ruled the world, there would be no God damn wars in the first place."
Although it's been more than three years since Janet Jackson's infamous wardrobe malfunction heightened scrutiny of live broadcasts, media analysts say Sunday's erratic censorship shows that broadcasters are still clueless about what's acceptable when it comes to language and decency.
"Based on the Emmys and what happened to Field, I guess you can say `damn,' but not with the use of God's name in front of it. But, then, you hear that and worse all over cable - and often on the radio, too," said Douglas Gomery, professor and scholar in residence at the University of Maryland's Library of American Broadcasting.
"And when it comes to talk about sex, I guess anything goes except the use of a certain four-letter word. If you care at all about a coherent American communications policy, you have to wonder why we can't get this sorted out."
While Field's words were judged so far beyond the pale that the cameras cut to a disorienting overhead shot of the Shrine Auditorium rather than run the risk of anyone reading her lips, Brad Garrett, one of the presenters, was given free rein to make crude and lewd remarks to and about Joely Fisher, his co-star on the sitcom 'Til Death.
"Fox network was shamelessly hypocritical in choosing what to censor," said Tom O'Neil, author of The Emmys, the definitive book on the awards. "Carrying Garrett's remarks while muzzling Field was an outrage considering what she said was somewhat appropriate for the role she plays on Brothers & Sisters - a mother who sends her son off to Iraq."
The Field moment was clearly the focus of online interest. A video titled "Fox Cuts Off Sally Field's Anti-War Speech At Emmys" topped YouTube by last evening with more than 450,000 hits.
But other moments mattered as well, analysts said.
The first involved Ray Romano joking about Patricia Heaton, his former co-star on the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, sleeping with Kelsey Grammer, her new co-star in Back to You, a sitcom debuting tomorrow night on Fox. Romano used a crude term to describe the sex act, and Fox silenced the audio and cut away from Romano to the same disjointed overhead shot of the auditorium.
While the offensive term is used repeatedly on cable programs, which are not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, it is the one word that is clearly taboo on FCC-regulated network TV, according to Gomery.
But then came Garrett, making lewd comments about Fisher's breasts and offering a sexualized parody of the title of the HBO production that won an Emmy as best TV movie, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a saga about the mistreatment of Native Americans in the 19th-century West. Not a word of his invitation to engage in oral sex was censored.
"Beyond the crudeness of Brad Garrett's comments, the utter banality is offensive as well," said Shirley Peroutka, a popular culture professor at Goucher College.
"What an inappropriate place to make such a childish sexual innuendo," she said. "It makes you think there are no boundaries between the grunge culture and things we ought to be taking seriously any more."
While it seems clear from viewing Field's speech that the cut was triggered by the use of God's name, much of the discussion yesterday centered on whether she was censored for political reasons.
"Some language during the live broadcast may have been considered inappropriate by some viewers," Fox said in a statement yesterday. "As a result, Fox's broadcast standards executives determined it appropriate to drop sound [and picture] during those portions of the show."
While Fox executives declined further comment, TV industry sources said the network was broadcasting without a delay Sunday night.
"The Emmys were on Fox, and [its owner Rupert Murdoch] is a conservative guy, so that will undoubtedly be seen as having something to do with Field being bleeped," Gomery said.
"But you also have to look at the murky climate of government regulation, with the networks not knowing what is OK with the FCC these days. In that climate, instead of clarity, you are going to have censors bleeping stuff they shouldn't - and controversies like the one we are having today."
Beyond the controversy and withering reviews of Seacrest, the worst news for Fox came yesterday from Nielsen Media Research. Preliminary ratings made the telecast the lowest in Emmy history.
Up against an NFL football game on NBC, the award show drew 13.1 million viewers - down 3 million from last year and 700,000 from the previous low in 2004 on ABC. Final ratings will be available today.