Beyond Scared Straight

Behind The Bars: Week 23

Behind the Bars | Season 4, #7: Censor-y Overload

Censor-y Overload

By Paul J. Coyne, Executive Producer

Hello fellow cellmates!

This week's episode of "Beyond Scared Straight" airs at a special time: Thursday, July 25th at 9pm/8c. We bring our roving cameras to Douglas County Jail in Georgia, where much of the episode revolves around the relationships between parents and their kids. As in all of our episodes, it is not hard to see that mistakes made in the past by parents are often passed down to their children. By the time the parents are old enough to realize how destructive their own mistakes were, they have found themselves with rebellious teenagers who have followed in their footsteps and are making those same mistakes.

I have a young child at home. (Yes, she's my own.) I try to keep discussion of the darker sides of prison life at the office because, at least for her, being locked up is something that only happens to Rapunzel and Dumbo's mom. Like any kid, if she overhears anything new, she'll repeat it at the most embarrassing time. I really don't want her telling the clerk at K-Mart that if he doesn't tighten way up, she'll "fold him like a piece of paper." I have successfully learned how to censor myself by the time I pick her up at pre-school. I mentally bleep myself.

Let's talk about bleeps. You know that quick, high-pitched sound that you hear whenever someone on the show swears or gets too graphic for prime time? In the TV business, that's called a bleep.

You hear it on every episode of "Beyond Scared Straight." Often. An inmate starts to get graphic about what it's like to survive behind bars, and about what it's like to get BLEEPED. A teen fights with his mother and calls her a BLEEP. A deputy tells a teen he's not going to take any of his BLEEP. That kind of thing.

A&E has always been incredibly supportive in allowing us to present an honest and raw depiction of what life is really like in jails and prisons across the country. We went through many edits of our pilot episode four years ago, trying to find the balance between honoring the reality of prison and hoping to find a tone that was acceptable for television audiences across the country on a weekly basis.

It's not always easy to do. To soften the experience too much would be to present an inaccurate portrayal of prison life. To broadcast the full extent of the harsh language, racial slurs, and graphic stories we hear would not only run afoul of federal broadcast standards, but it would also turn your stomach. I have heard tragic stories that will stay with me forever. You just can't un-hear something once it's tattooed onto your brain.

We bleep for you. I have no intention of ruining your dinner. I appreciate dinner far too much for that.

There are several words that the government does not allow on television at certain hours of the day. I will not list them here since my mother reads this blog--or so she tells me. We do have a little freedom with this since we air later at night and are on cable, but we still want our series to be one that families can watch together and talk about.

We keep this in mind while editing. There are times when a "colorful" sentence may be understandable in context, but when you add all the bleeps it no longer makes any sense, so we don't use it. There have even been a few times when adding a bleep has actually made things seem worse than they originally sounded!

With all of the inmates yelling in the background during filming days, I have had to become a true expert in the art of detecting swears and racist comments among the chaos. That word that Paula Deen got in trouble for? Inmates tend to use that one a lot, and we bleep that, too.

We also have other guidelines that we have imposed upon ourselves as filmmakers. We never state the name of people who are not cleared by our release forms. Sometimes inmates will talk about friends who are involved in a crime, or maybe the tragic experience of being molested in their youth by a family member that he then names. As much as we would like to put those names on TV, it is only one person's version of the story, so legally we can't. BLEEP.

Viewers may also notice that people's faces will occasionally be blurred onscreen. This is not because those inmates lack focus or because our camera crews had hangovers that day. Everyone that appears onscreen legally has to agree to be filmed. Because we shoot in crowded prisons and jails, and it's a bit of a rollercoaster while filming, we don't stop the cameras to tell that inmate walking by in the background to "please get out of our shot." We are their guests, not the other way around.

Believe it or not, there are a lot of people behind bars that are ashamed of being there. The inmate population knows that we are filming on that particular day and those who don't wish to be filmed usually keep out of sight. But occasionally one sneaks in by mistake and we must blur them.

There are other considerations we deal with, like not being able to show copyrighted artwork or family photos in the background during our location shoots. A little secret: I don't like blurring things onscreen. Even though it is necessary, I think it's a distraction for the viewer. There have been a few occasions where, instead of blurring a family photo that is prominent in the background, I instead digitally inserted a photo of my daughter into the frame instead. As far as I know, no one in my family has questioned why her baby photo is sitting on the desk of a teen gang member in Oklahoma.

The original "Scared Straight!", which aired nationally in 1979, was a landmark film not only for its subject matter, but also for its shocking language. The harshness wasn't bleeped out. I saw it then, and the power of hearing those words and stories for the first time hit me with unforgettable force.

I think our series stays true to the spirit of that film and I think mature audiences are smart enough to figure out what is being said. I hope our series is effective to today's audiences as the original was to me. That's my goal, anyway.

On August 1st, "Beyond Scared Straight" will premiere TWO brand new episodes, back-to-back, beginning at 9pm, for our season finale. You won't want to miss them.

I have to tell you, they are BLEEPING awesome!

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