Strassman – offensive language – "fuck" – interview with Rima Te Wiata breached her privacy – offensive behaviour
(1) Standard G2 – context – warning – AO time and classification – no uphold
(2) Privacy – no private facts revealed – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
An episode of the comedy programme Strassman was broadcast on TV2 at 9.30pm on 16 May 2000.
Brian Shearer complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about the repeated use of the word "fuck" during the programme, and an interview with Rima Te Wiata, which he considered breached her privacy and was in bad taste due to questions asked about her sex life.
TVNZ responded that the programme was intended as adult entertainment, began well after the watershed, carried an AO certificate and was preceded by a warning about strong language. TVNZ also considered that the set suggested "late night club comedy, which is traditionally of a risque nature". In addition, it considered that the word "fuck" was used in an understated way and "with comedic intent". In this context, TVNZ did not believe it had breached the good taste standard. As to the privacy issue raised, TVNZ disagreed that the interviewee had been embarrassed by the questions asked. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Brian Shearer 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 item complained about, and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
An episode of Strassman was broadcast on TV2 at 9.30pm on 16 May 2000. Strassman is a revue style comedy programme which is hosted by ventriloquist, David Strassman.
Brian Shearer complained to TVNZ about the repeated use of the word "fuck" during the programme. He also complained about an interview with actress Rima Te Wiata, during which she was asked questions about her sex life. He considered this was offensive and breached her privacy.
Mr Shearer subsequently referred his complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(b) of the Act, as he had not received a response within 20 working days of the broadcaster having received his complaint.
In its response to the Authority, TVNZ accepted that it had not complied with the statutory time limit, and advised that its Programme Standards Manager had been unaware that the complaint had been received by TVNZ.
TVNZ then assessed the complaint under standard G2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice and s.4(1)(c) of the Broadcasting Act. Standard G2 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.
Section 4(1)(c) provides:
4(1) Every broadcaster is responsible for maintaining in its programmes and their presentation standards which are consistent with –
(c) The privacy of the individual.
TVNZ began its response by observing that:
While shows by ventriloquists are traditionally aimed at the young and young at heart, Strassman is quite clearly adult entertainment. While the props may be reminiscent of children’s toys, the content of the programme is of an adult revue-nightclub genre with a range of risque jokes and double entendres arising from seemingly innocent studio interviews.
Next, TVNZ noted the contextual matters which it considered relevant to its assessment of whether standard G2 was breached. It maintained:
In this case, the context is an adult comedy programme, beginning well after the watershed, carrying an AO certificate and preceded by a warning which advised viewers that the programme contained strong language. The ambience of the set itself suggests late-night club comedy, which is traditionally of a risque nature.
It also considered that the word "fuck" was not delivered in such a way as to cause widespread offence, and was used in an understated way, with comedic intent. It did not consider that standard G2 was breached.
Turning to the aspect of Mr Shearer’s complaint which related to privacy, TVNZ said that it found no evidence that questions put to Rima Te Wiata during the programme had caused her embarrassment. TVNZ considered that Ms Te Wiata had "played along with the interview and made light of it, seeming to enjoy herself in the process". It added that guests on Strassman knew that the "interviews" were not traditional information-seeking exercises, but were a vehicle through which the host expressed his often risque humour. TVNZ declined to find that a breach of privacy had occurred.
In Mr Shearer’s final comment, he made the following points. First, he disagreed with TVNZ’s argument that the use of the subject word was acceptable in context. He considered that Strassman might have been acceptable if performed live in a theatre context, but was unacceptable as a television broadcast. In his view, the fact that Strassman was a comedy show hosted by a ventriloquist did not "make the use of stuffed toys to display language and behaviour unacceptable in humans any more acceptable".
Secondly, as to the reference TVNZ made to the programme’s AO certificate, Mr Shearer said that children did not stop watching television after the AO watershed began.
Thirdly, Mr Shearer commented that it was irrelevant to his complaint whether or not Ms Te Wiata had complained about the broadcast in which she was featured, or whether she had "seemed to enjoy herself". In his opinion, the questions asked of her were still unacceptable.
When it deals with complaints alleging a breach of standard G2, the Authority takes into consideration the context in which the language or behaviour complained about occurred and the wider context of the broadcast. On this occasion, the relevant contextual factors include the programme’s AO rating, its time of screening an hour after the AO watershed (9.30pm) and the warning about strong language which preceded the programme.
As to the language complained about, the Authority considers that the repeatedly gratuitous use of the word "fuck" could well have exceeded the audience’s expectations of the content of an adult comedy programme. The word’s use was scripted, not in any way spontaneous, and seemed to be used for the purpose of shocking the audience by showing how close to the line the performer was prepared to go. However, the Authority notes that the language was not used in a denigratory, sexually explicit or threatening manner. The Authority considers that there is a place for a range of programming types which includes adult entertainment of this kind, provided that it is scheduled appropriately. It also observes that viewers of such programmes which are screened late in the evening would, in the Authority’s view, be likely to have a higher tolerance for language of the kind used. On balance, although the repeated use of the language complained about came close to contravening the good taste standard, the Authority considers that there was no breach of standard G2 on this occasion.
The Authority turns next to Mr Shearer’s complaint that Ms Te Wiata’s privacy was breached by questions asked of her about her sex life. In the Authority’s view, there is no basis for a claim that there was any privacy breach on this occasion. Ms Te Wiata was a guest who had consented to take part in an interview. No private facts were revealed during the interview, as the information she gave was elicited from her freely and with her consent. The Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
P J Cartwright
28 September 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Brian Shearer’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 31 May 2000
2. Mr Shearer’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 13 July 2000
3. TVNZ’s Response to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 25 July 2000
4. Mr Shearer’s Final Comment – 1 August 2000