The Sopranos – offensive language – fuck – suck your dick
Standard G2 – AO – warning – language appropriate to characters – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
An episode of The Sopranos was broadcast on TV2 on 18 May beginning at 9.30pm. The Sopranos is an award-winning series from the United States which focused on a mob family's involvement with organised crime.
J Lex Lawrence complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the language was offensive. He noted that he had been watching another channel and when he switched to TV2 he heard, in the space of about three minutes, the f word being used "at least 12 times".
TVNZ said it could understand how a viewer unfamiliar with the series could easily be offended by the content. However, it noted, the programme had been broadcast at 9.30pm, had been classified as AO, and had been preceded by a specific warning. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ's decision, Mr Lawrence referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the programme complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
A mob family's involvement with organised crime provided the background to the series The Sopranos. An episode broadcast on TV2 on 18 May 2000 beginning at 9.30pm was the subject of this complaint.
J Lex Lawrence complained to TVNZ that when he switched channels he was shocked to hear, in the space of about 3 minutes, the f word used about 12 times. He said he then switched back to the other channel, and when he returned to TV2 he heard one character say "You want I suck your dick" and "I wouldn't fuck her with your dick". Such language, he said, was offensive.
When it responded to the complaint, TVNZ assessed it in the context of standard G2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which requires broadcasters:
G2 To take into consideration currently accepted norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour, bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs.
It began by noting that it could understand how a viewer unfamiliar with the series could easily be offended when coming across the language used in one of the drama's most explosive moments. It apologised for any offence caused.
TVNZ advised that the decision to broadcast the drama series had always been a difficult one because of the "tough, gritty nature of the drama". However, it continued, it was keen to show the series because of the wide acclaim it had received. In reaching its decision that no broadcasting standards had been breached, TVNZ emphasised the context of the broadcast. First, it noted, the programme had been broadcast at 9.30pm, an hour after the AO watershed. It was classified as AO, and the AO certificate had been shown at the beginning of the programme and after each commercial break. At the beginning, a specific verbal and visual warning had been given, which said:
This programme, The Sopranos, is rated Adults Only and is recommended for a mature viewing audience of 18 years and over. It contains nudity and extensive use of offensive language. We advise discretion.
TVNZ said it was sorry Mr Lawrence had unexpectedly come across a sequence involving very strong language, but considered that in its context, it would not have exceeded the expectations of the greater part of the viewing audience.
When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Mr Lawrence observed that TV2 was in his view targeted mainly to teenagers and argued that if they heard this kind of language often enough, they considered it was "the macho way to behave." In his view, standards were slipping, and television, being a powerful medium, needed to ban such offensive language from our screens.
TVNZ advised the Authority that it had little to add. It said it was sorry Mr Lawrence missed the beginning of the programme and had not seen the language warning.
In his final comment, Mr Lawrence expressed his concern that the boundaries of language were being abused. He asked what standards would be like in 10 years' time if the trend continued. He maintained that the fact that there was a warning did not stop people or teenagers from watching, and suggested that in this instance the programme should have been screened after midnight.
The Authority begins with the observation that it has some sympathy with the complainant who, when he switched channels, was unexpectedly confronted with some of the strong language used in this programme. His reaction underscores why allegedly offensive language must be examined in its context. As a general principle, the Authority notes, language which on its own may be offensive can, in a relevant context, be acceptable. Conversely, language which on its own may be acceptable, may, when used in a specific context, such as in a threatening or abusive manner, breach broadcasting standards.
Here, the Authority considers, the context is of paramount importance. First, it notes, the programme complained about was the 11th in a series of 13 episodes, it was broadcast well into AO time, beginning at 9.30pm, and it was preceded by a specific warning advising that it contained "extensive use of offensive language". The language complained about was, the Authority believes, entirely consistent with the subject matter and was a credible aspect of the characters portrayed. Further, the Authority notes, the language, especially the word "fuck" and its derivatives, was not associated with denigration or violence. Even the sexual references to which Mr Lawrence objected were, when seen in context, not intended as insults. While such language might have been offensive in another context, the Authority considers that within the mob culture, it was acceptable everyday speech which reflected the values of that group. In the Authority's view, the language used was part of the natural milieu of the characters and appeared to add credibility and authenticity to the characterisation. Having considered these factors together, the Authority concludes that the language used in The Sopranos on 18 May 2000 in an adult time slot does not exceed community expectations when its context is taken into account. Accordingly, it declines to uphold the complaint.
The Authority cautions that this decision is not intended to be read as permitting potentially offensive language to be broadcast on television. It re-emphasises that the context is of overarching importance and will always be the determining factor when assessing broadcasting standards.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
3 August 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. J Lex Lawrence's Complaint to TVNZ – received 29 May 2000
2. TVNZ's Response to the Formal Complaint – 12 June 2000
3. Mr Lawrence's Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 18 June 2000
4. TVNZ's Response to the Authority – 27 June 2000
5. Mr Lawrence's Final Comment – 3 July 2000