Maria Bustillos' "Curses! The birth of the bleep and modern American censorship" has a blacked-out subhed. Mouse over the black virtual ink and you see "Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits," George Carlin's original list of Seven Dirty Words that can't be said on radio or television.
How'd we get here? Supposedly it was because of a nursery rhyme vaguely referencing contraception read live on a Newark radio station by actress Olga Petrova: "There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, She had so many children because she didn't know what to do." The rhyme wasn't censored, but engineers later built a switch to turn on music in case anyone recording went blue.
In the US, the government owns the airwaves and regulates their content, and bases its criteria for obscenity in part on past court cases regulating print.
In order to be considered obscenity, the material in question must pass a three-pronged test: first, it has to "appeal to the prurient interest," or be be liable to turn the average person on sexually; secondly, it must describe sexual conduct "in a patently offensive way;" and finally, "the material taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." The last is how both Ulysses and Lolita slide out of being considered "obscene."
But in addition to obscenity, the FCC also has rules governing "indecency" and "profanity"; all three are technically distinct in the same way that a moron is different from an imbecile, which in turn is different from an idiot. And most of the censorship action happens within TV or radio networks' standards and practices departments anyways.
Once the bleep is introduced, however, it takes on its own meaning. It's a kind of zero-sign that artists can use deliberately for effect.
The writers of Arrested Development are masters of this comic technique, repeatedly pushing the envelope. They snuck the word "fucking" past prime time television censors by putting half the word at the beginning of the show, and half at the end.
But it was with the aid of censor bleeping that Arrested Development reached the summit of its satiric genius. The show's creator, Mitch Hurwitz, told Neda Ulaby of NPR, "We realized, you know, it's more fun to not know exactly what it is that we're saying ... It becomes kind of a puzzle for people. And I think it's about, you know, letting your imagination do the work."
The full essay tracks the legal and cultural history of the bleep from its high-analog origins up to its culmination/obsolescence in the digital dump track. Now if a producer really wants to keep you from hearing something that might make someone uncomfortable, they just cut it right out of the audio, and you'd never know it was there.
Disclosure: I worked at The Verge and discussed this feature when it was in development. Also, freelance writer Maria Bustillos is