Strassman – ventriloquist – offensive language – fuck – wank – blasphemy
Standard G2 – AO – warning – context relevant – no uphold
Decision No: 2000-137
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
A ventriloquist in Strassman, broadcast on TV2 at 9.30pm on 18 July 2000 used the word "fuck" and its derivatives when in conversation with his puppet characters.
Paul Schwabe complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the language was offensive. In particular he said he was offended by the use of the word "fuck", which he said was a macho term which unashamedly denigrated women and instilled an "antisocial and dangerous attitude towards women". As he had received no response from TVNZ, he referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
TVNZ apologised to Mr Schwabe for its failure to respond to the complaint, which it acknowledged had been correctly addressed to its Chief Executive. It submitted that the context of the broadcast was all-important, noting that the programme began at 9.30pm, had an AO certificate and was preceded by a warning advising viewer discretion. Further, it submitted that the series was now well-established as containing risque humour and blunt language. It did not agree with Mr Schwabe that in the context the language exceeded community standards of good taste.
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 summarised in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
An episode of Strassman was broadcast on TV2 on 18 July 2000 beginning at 9.30pm. Host David Strassman is a ventriloquist and entertainer who has a number of puppet characters in his show.
Paul Schwabe complained to TVNZ that the programme contained blasphemy, a reference to masturbation with the use of the word "wank" and other obscenities, and included the word "fuck". In Mr Schwabe’s view, "fuck" was the most offensive word which any New Zealander was ever likely to be exposed to. He wrote:
I believe that it is a macho term which unashamedly denigrates women, is used mostly by men to boost their own image of themselves and insidiously imparts in the user and those exposed to language containing the word, a highly antisocial and dangerous attitude towards all women, young and old.
As Mr Schwabe did not receive a response from TVNZ within the statutory time-frame, he referred the complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
In his referral, Mr Schwabe acknowledged that this complaint was very similar to a previous one relating to a broadcast of Strassman on 4 July. However, he said it differed in that on this occasion, he had watched the entire programme, and that there had been at least 12 occasions of "gratuitous use" of the word "fuck". He argued that the show appeared to have been intended to glamorise offensive language by masking it with "a clever mix of make believe and charming, successful, influential young idols from the entertainment industry." He said he believed that young viewers "were intended to be subconsciously conditioned into accepting that offensive language is both ‘cool’ and perfectly acceptable." Mr Schwabe said he could not believe that TVNZ was not party to "the unscrupulous intent" of the programme.
When the matter was referred to TVNZ for response, it advised that it had no record of having received the complaint. Nevertheless, it proceeded to deal with it as required by the legislation.
First, it submitted, the context of the broadcast was all-important. It noted that it started an hour after the "adults only" watershed, that it had an AO certificate and was preceded by a verbal and visual warning advising that it contained language which might offend. It further submitted that the series was now well-established as "ventriloquism presented in the ambience of an adult night-club". The humour, it noted, was risque, and the language blunt.
TVNZ strongly disagreed with Mr Schwabe’s assertion that Strassman was not an adult programme, but rather a children’s programme full of obscene language. It maintained that it was quite definitely an adult programme, and suggested that part of the humour was built around the "adult utterances" of characters which were more normally associated with children’s programming. TVNZ denied that the programme was intended to glamorise offensive language.
With respect to Mr Schwabe’s contention that the word "fuck" was the most offensive word any New Zealander was likely to be exposed to, TVNZ responded that while it accepted that the word should be confined to programming where it could be justified in context, that according to the Authority’s research, it was rated fourth on the list of offensive words.
TVNZ’s view was that the use of the word "fuck" and its derivatives did not breach statutory requirements to maintain standards of good taste and decency given the context in which they were used. The context, it noted, included the time of the broadcast, the programme type, the warning and the expectations of the audience.
In his final comment, Mr Schwabe observed that TVNZ had justified the "acknowledged offensive language" using the criteria of the expectations of the audience. He suggested that if the Authority condoned this use of language, then TVNZ in future would broadcast programmes with even more offensive language. He said he was "thoroughly ashamed" of what he called the dramatic decline in the standard of decency in language broadcast.
When the Authority considers a complaint alleging a breach of standard G2, it takes into account the context in which the broadcast complained about occurs. The context is relevant, but not decisive, to the Authority’s determination of whether the programme breached standards of good taste and decency.
The relevant contextual factors on this occasion are the programme’s AO classification, its broadcast at 9.30pm, and the visual and verbal warning about language which preceded the programme and reminded viewers that it was deemed suitable for an adult audience. To a lesser extent, it is relevant that this was a comedy programme devised in a night-club setting which was clearly presented as adult entertainment. As such, the Authority considers that its content would have been within the expectations of the audience.
The Authority notes that Mr Schwabe has provided a number of examples of language which he deemed to be inappropriate for broadcast. In addition, it observes, the exchanges included some sexual and racist innuendos. While it acknowledges that such language is not to all viewers’ taste, the Authority does not consider its use in the context of this programme breached the good taste standard. In reaching this conclusion the Authority is also mindful of Mr Schwabe’s argument that the programme was targeted at children. It does not accept that proposition. The time of the broadcast clearly indicated that the programme was aimed at adults. Furthermore, the Authority considers that despite the use of techniques used in children’s programming, the structure of the dialogue and the verbal and visual jokes were clearly adult-oriented. Accordingly, it declines to uphold the complaint.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
6 November 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Paul Schwabe’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 3 August 2000
2. Mr Schwabe’s Referral of the Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority –
1 September 2000
3. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 15 September 2000
4. Mr Schwabe’s Final Comment – 4 October 2000