Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
The Big Bang Theory – scene showed a male and female character drinking alcohol and then in bed together – allegedly in breach of law and order, responsible programming, children’s interests, violence and liquor
Standard 9 (children’s interests) – liquor consumption was borderline in a PGR programme but scene involved fictional adult characters in a comedic context – acceptable for children with parental guidance – not upheld
Standard 11 (liquor) – programme did not advocate liquor consumption – no liquor promotion – showing liquor was incidental to the programme – not upheld
Standard 2 (law and order) – programme did not encourage, promote, condone or glamorise criminal activity – not upheld
Standard 8 (responsible programming) – programme did not contain subliminal perception – not upheld
Standard 10 (violence) – programme did not contain any violence – not upheld
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 An episode of The Big Bang Theory, an American sitcom about two twenty-something male prodigies, was broadcast on TV2 at 8pm on Friday 26 February. Leonard, an experimental physicist, and Sheldon, a theoretical physicist, lived together in an apartment across the hall from Penny, who wanted to be an actress.
 In this episode, Leonard’s extremely intelligent mother came to visit. At approximately 8.20pm, Leonard and Penny were shown drinking wine, commiserating over how disastrous the visit was and discussing their parents’ lack of affection when they were children. Some time later, they were shown drinking tequila shots to the point of intoxication before kissing. They were then shown kissing in bed, both wearing underwear or clothes, before Penny kicked Leonard out because he refused to stop psychoanalysing the situation.
 Roderick Young made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the programme breached standards relating to law and order, responsible programming, children’s interests, violence, and liquor.
 Referring to guideline 2d to the law and order standard, Mr Young argued that the programme glamorised liquor abuse which invited young people to drink to intoxication. The complainant also alleged that the programme used “subliminal perception” to encourage young people to drink liquor. With regard to the children’s interests standard, he considered that 8pm was too early to broadcast The Big Bang Theory because it endorsed a drinking culture.
 Mr Young contended that the programme had breached Standard 10 (violence) because the scene showing the characters drinking led to a sex scene which he argued glamorised “the use of alcohol as a social/sexual lubricant... [which] is very dangerous” and which was inappropriate for broadcast.
 Finally, the complainant argued that the programme breached Standard 11 (liquor) because it contained liquor promotion and was aimed at child viewers, and because it advocated excessive liquor consumption.
 TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 2, 8, 9, 10 and 11 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provide:
Standard 2 Law and Order
Broadcasters should observe standards consistent with the maintenance of law and order.
Standard 8 Responsible Programming
Broadcasters should ensure programmes:
- are appropriately classified;
- display programme classification information;
- adhere to time-bands in accordance with Appendix 1;
- are not presented in such a way as to cause panic, or unwarranted alarm or undue distress; and
- do not deceive or disadvantage the viewer.
Standard 9 Children’s Interests
During children’s normally accepted viewing times (see Appendix 1), broadcasters should consider the interests of child viewers.
Standard 10 Violence
Broadcasters should exercise care and discretion when dealing with the issue of violence.
Standard 11 Liquor
Broadcasters should observe restrictions on the promotion of liquor appropriate to the programme genre being broadcast. Liquor Promotion should be socially responsible and must not encourage consumption by people who are under the legal age to purchase liquor.
 TVNZ alleged that the Authority had previously stated that, to breach Standard 2, a broadcast must not only implicitly condemn a particular law, but also actively promote disrespect for it. It maintained that The Big Bang Theory did not glamorise crime or condone the actions of criminals. The drinking shown was minimal, it said, and was intended to be humorous. TVNZ considered that the scene, in the context of a PGR-rated programme, would not be seen by viewers to be a realistic portrayal of the abuse of liquor in a way that glamorised that behaviour. It declined to uphold the Standard 2 complaint.
 Turning to Standard 8, TVNZ maintained that the programme did not include any content that was presented in a way that could cause alarm or distress. It pointed out that “subliminal perception” involved the use of flash frames of information, too quick to consciously see, to “somehow hypnotise the viewer”. TVNZ concluded that it was not relevant in the circumstances, and declined to uphold the Standard 8 complaint.
 Looking at children’s interests, TVNZ noted that the programme was rated PGR indicating that it was intended for a mature audience, but was not necessarily unsuitable for child viewers in the company of an adult. It considered that “the alcohol consumption portrayed... fits on the extreme lower end of the spectrum of this behaviour and is unlikely to have disturbed children”. The broadcaster argued that the scene was intended to be humorous and noted that “physical comedy and multi-layered verbal meaning [was] a well-established component of The Big Bang Theory”.
 TVNZ maintained that the scene, involving casual alcohol consumption and kissing, was not gratuitous or intended to promote alcohol to children, and was consistent with audience expectations. It concluded that the programme was correctly classified PGR, and that the broadcaster had adequately considered children’s interests.
 With regard to Standard 10 (violence), TVNZ asserted that the programme had not contained any violence. It said that Leonard and Penny’s kiss was consensual, instigated by Penny. “There was certainly no ‘sexually violent’ content,” TVNZ said. It declined to uphold the Standard 10 complaint.
 Finally, looking at liquor, the broadcaster maintained that The Big Bang Theory was not directed at child viewers, the programme did not encourage alcohol consumption by underage people, and the scenes were brief and did not dominate the episode. TVNZ maintained that the storyline was humorous and that there was no socially irresponsible liquor promotion in the programme. It declined to uphold the Standard 11 complaint.
 Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Mr Young referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
 The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
 Standard 9 requires broadcasters to consider the interests of child viewers during their normally accepted viewing times – usually up to 8.30pm. Mr Young argued that the programme glamorised drinking in a timeslot when many young people would be watching. The Big Bang Theory was classified PGR and screened at 8pm. The PGR classification is defined in Appendix 1 of the Code as follows:
PGR – Parental Guidance Recommended
Programmes containing material more suited for mature audiences but not necessarily unsuitable for child viewers when subject to the guidance of a parent or an adult.
 In our view, the scene complained about by Mr Young, in which Leonard and Penny were shown drinking wine and shots of tequila, was borderline in terms of acceptability during children’s viewing times because it had the potential to convey to children that drinking alcohol was an appropriate or acceptable method of coping with a difficult situation.
 However, we note that the scene involved fictional adult characters in their 20s, of legal drinking age, and that it was relatively brief in the context of a half-hour comedy programme. In our view, the remainder of the programme material was fairly innocuous and was not unsuitable for children. The programme contained sophisticated humour which largely derived from contrasting the characters’ levels of intelligence, much of which was likely to go over the heads of child viewers.
 We have therefore reached the conclusion that the scene was not unsuitable for child viewers under the supervision of an adult. Accordingly, we find that the broadcaster adequately considered the interests of child viewers in screening the programme at 8pm and we decline to uphold the Standard 9 complaint.
 The Authority must first decide whether the broadcast constituted “liquor promotion” in the form of advocacy of liquor consumption.
 On this occasion, we consider that showing the characters consuming alcohol was incidental to the storyline of the episode, in which Leonard expressed his frustration with his mother, and Leonard and Penny finally acted on their feelings for each other. The scene in which Leonard and Penny were shown drinking alcohol was relatively brief in the context of the programme, and it was presented in a comedic setting which culminated in Leonard being kicked out of the bedroom. Further, both characters were adults in their 20s, and of the legal age to drink alcohol.
 We do not consider that this short, fictional scene, which was intended to be humorous, resulted in the programme advocating liquor consumption in a manner that amounted to liquor promotion.
 With regard to Mr Young’s arguments under the Standard 11 guidelines, we do not consider that liquor promotion dominated the programme as the scene was relatively brief and alcohol was not shown at any other point in the programme (guideline 11b). Nor was the programme specifically directed at children, given that it was classified PGR (guideline 11a).
 Having reached the conclusion that the programme did not contain liquor promotion, we decline to uphold the Standard 11 complaint.
 Mr Young’s concern was that the programme contained a realistic depiction of liquor abuse. He referred to guideline 2d which states:
The realistic portrayal of anti-social behaviour, including violent and serious crime and the abuse of liquor and drugs, should not be shown in a way that glamorises these activities.
 In our view, while Leonard and Penny were shown drinking alcohol, the programme did not glamorise the abuse of liquor. As already stated, the scene involved fictional adult characters and was clearly intended to be humorous. Viewers were encouraged to laugh at Leonard and Penny who were portrayed as drunk and silly, and who were shown making regrettable decisions which led to an undesirable outcome.
 In any case, the Authority has stated on a number of occasions that the intent behind the law and order standard is to prevent broadcasts that encourage viewers to break the law or otherwise promote, glamorise or condone criminal activity (e.g. Findlay and TVNZ1). In our view, the programme did not contain anything that encouraged or glamorised criminal activity in breach of Standard 2.
 We therefore decline to uphold the Standard 2 complaint.
 Mr Young argued that the programme used subliminal perception to encourage young people to drink alcohol. Guideline 8f to Standard 8 states:
Broadcasters should not use the process known as “subliminal perception” or any other technique which attempts to convey information to the viewer by transmitting messages below or near the threshold of normal awareness.
 The Authority has previously considered this guideline where a programme contained a flash frame which was too quick for viewers to see without pausing the programme.2 Having viewed The Big Bang Theory, we are satisfied that it did not contain any flash frames of this nature. We therefore decline to uphold this part of the complaint.
 Standard 10 states that broadcasters should exercise care and discretion when dealing with the issue of violence. Mr Young argued that the programme contained rape and sexual violence. In our view, two adults kissing consensually could not be considered sexual violence, and the programme did not contain any other violent material.
 Accordingly, we decline to uphold the Standard 10 complaint.
For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
6 July 2010
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Roderick Young’s formal complaint – 27 February 2010
2. TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 29 March 2010
3. Mr Young’s referral to the Authority – 29 March 2010
4. TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 20 May 2010
1Decision No. 2008-100
2E.g. Bennett and TVNZ (Decision No. 2008-015) in which Eating Media Lunch contained a flash frame which said “Kill yourself now”.