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WRAL explains why it muted parts of Dave Chappelle episode of ‘SNL’

Host Dave Chappelle during his “Saturday Night Live” monologue on November 12, 2016.
Host Dave Chappelle during his “Saturday Night Live” monologue on November 12, 2016. Will Heath/NBC

Days after portions of an episode of “Saturday Night Live” were muted in the Triangle – angering some viewers and bringing national attention to WRAL – the station stands by its decision. And it notes that it has muted portions of network programming about 25 other times in the past two years.

Saturday’s episode, the first after an especially contentious presidential election, was hosted by comedian Dave Chappelle, who used a racial slur and other profanities several times in his monologue and in three sketches, including a digital short spoofing the AMC TV series “The Walking Dead.” NBC bleeped one use of the “f-word” by Chappelle in that short.

Beyond that one network decision, WRAL on several other occasions muted 8-second portions of dialogue containing the words. The length of the muted portions left many viewers confused and angry. Some criticized the station over Twitter for being the “moral police” of a show that airs after 11:30 p.m., and others went after WRAL for what they saw as censorship of Chappelle’s political viewpoints.

The local NBC affiliate has emphasized that it never intended to censor Chappelle’s opinions. In a statement released Sunday and again in an interview Wednesday, Steven D. Hammel, vice president and general manager at WRAL, said the station was trying to silence two words on their list of 10 unacceptable words. They say Chappelle used the words – a racial slur and a more profane version of gosh-darn – nine times over the course of the program.

Hammel said that the station has master control operators who monitor the feed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on a 10-second tape delay. When they hear an objectionable word, a button gets pushed and the result is about 8 seconds of silence. Hammel said that on Saturday night, that “8-second net” meant a number of Chappelle’s words in addition to the targeted words were silenced.

“It unfortunately impeded the flow of the monologue,” he said.

Hammel said the station has pushed the button “probably 25 different times” for programming airing at all times of the day. He said a number of the instances were during sporting events, when microphones pick up sideline chatter or upset coaches or players.

Dave Chappelle has a right to speak his mind about the campaign and (Donald) Trump. But that’s not what this is.

Douglas Spero, associate professor of communications at Meredith College

Douglas Spero, an associate professor of communications at Meredith College and a 30-year veteran of broadcast journalism, said WRAL did the right thing.

“WRAL did exactly what a responsible broadcaster should do,” Spero said.

Spero also said that Chappelle, who had his own show on Comedy Central from 2003-2006, was “totally unprofessional” and “showed a lack of respect” for the fact that he was on a mainstream, over-the-air broadcast.

“Dave Chappelle has a right to speak his mind about the campaign and (Donald) Trump,” Spero said. “But that’s not what this is.”

‘Not a pardon’

Viewers’ personal opinions about Chappelle’s language aside, Spero stressed that over-the-air stations are closely regulated by the FCC and are responsible for what goes out, even if it’s content fed from a network.

“Just because our standards change, that’s still not a pardon from the FCC,” Spero said, adding that he thinks other markets should have done the same thing.

Hammel said he isn’t aware of any other markets who silenced portions of “Saturday Night Live” and said he thinks part of the reason is that few stations have the technology or manpower to monitor programming the way WRAL does.

Andrea Parquet-Taylor, the news director at WNCN in Raleigh, said that her station never censored any “Saturday Night Live” programming when they aired the show. (WRAL and WNCN switched networks in February, with WRAL going from CBS to NBC, and WNCN going from NBC to CBS.)

And the late hour – “Saturday Night Live” airs from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. – is not a free pass, according to Spero, despite the FCC’s Safe Harbor rules, which allow for content considered unsuitable for children to be aired between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“That might get some consideration, but don’t think (the late hour) weighs heavily enough to erase the crime that was been committed here,” Spero said.


Local viewer Brent Myers disagrees. Myers wrote a letter to WRAL on Sunday, objecting to the station’s “paternalistic approach” to monitoring content. He wrote that he believed Chappelle’s words were used “in an eloquent manner to both inform and entertain,” and that “the bar to censor must be high and used only in the most dire circumstances.”

WRAL said in a message to viewers Sunday evening the incident provided an “opportunity for us to review those policies and procedures” and that officials would consider viewer input. Hammel said Thursday that one thing the station is reviewing is its technology, to see if there’s “a better way to silence offensive words more surgically.

“I am also considering the FCC’s safe harbor rules . . . and the implication that would have for SNL beginning this Saturday,” Hammel said.

NOTE: Videos here are not censored.