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McCoskrie and CanWest TVWorks Ltd - 2004-201

Members

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Paul France
  • Tapu Misa
  • Diane Musgrave

Complainant

  • Bob McCoskrie of Papatoetoe

Dated

18th February 2005

Number

2004-201

Programme

The Simpsons

Channel/Station

TV3

Broadcaster

CanWest TVWorks Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
The Simpsons – use of the words “wanker” and “ass” – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency

Findings
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – PGR classification – PGR timeslot – words used in satirical rather than abusive manner – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] An episode of The Simpsons screened on TV3 at 7pm on 30 September 2004. At the beginning of the programme Homer Simpson described his favourite programme about a family of English soccer hooligans, saying “if they’re not having a go with a bird they’re having a row with a wanker”.

[2] Later in the episode another character said “it’s a beautiful day to kick your ass”.

Complaint

[3] Bob McCoskrie complained to CanWest TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, that the use of the words “wanker” and “ass” was offensive to normal New Zealanders. He contended that the standard of good taste and decency had been breached.

[4] The complainant argued that the words were totally inappropriate for supposed child and family friendly viewing time, and that they would be unacceptable in a school or employment setting.

Standards

[5] CanWest TVWorks Ltd assessed the complaint under Standard 1 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provides:

Standard 1 Good Taste and Decency

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[6] In its response to the complainant, CanWest noted that this episode of The Simpsons was rated PGR, meaning that it contained “material more suited for mature audiences but not necessarily unsuitable for child viewers when subject to the guidance of a parent or adult”. It stated that this rating did not mean the episode was intended primarily for a child audience.

[7] Referring to Standard 1 (good taste and decency), the broadcaster contended that a breach would only occur where the material was “unacceptable to a significant number of viewers in the context in which it is shown”. CanWest considered the relevant contextual factors in this case to be the time of screening, the programme classification and the context of the language.

[8] The broadcaster observed that the programme was screened at 7pm on a Thursday night. This was not “the children’s cartoon time slot”, it said, which screened on TV3 from 3pm to 5pm.

[9] CanWest then considered the PGR rating of the episode, and argued that the intended “older audience” would have been able to readily understand the satire of the scene. It said:

Often, The Simpsons contains ideas and themes that require a higher level of sophistication and understanding than a cartoon which is aimed at a child audience, which is why the programme was rated PGR and screened in PGR time.

[10] The broadcaster said that The Simpsons was “well known for its sophisticated and anarchic humour and has been screening in NZ for 15 years”. In the case of the scene where Homer Simpson is describing his favourite British sitcom and uses the word “wanker”, CanWest argued that the line served “to poke fun at clichés of modern British culture”. The language was at odds with the “common perception of the British as being polite but also, paradoxically, swearing far more than their American counterparts”, it said.

[11] CanWest then considered the use of the word “ass” in the episode. It explained that the line “it’s a beautiful day to kick your ass” was uttered by a character intended to represent the host of a now defunct American children’s programme. The humour was caused, it said, because the man was famous for his “It’s a beautiful day” line and would never say such a thing in real life. The broadcaster argued that the word “ass” was not a swear word and had been used humorously.

[12] In this context, it said, the words “wanker” and “ass” were not unexpected or unsuitable - nor would it be likely to “disturb children or offend a significant number of adult viewers”.

[13] CanWest also referred to previous decisions of the Authority where profanity had been used on episodes of The Simpsons. It pointed out that the phrase “go to hell you old bastard”, used in a G rated episode screened at 5.30pm, was considered by the Authority not to have “any adverse effect on the older children who are expected to watch the programme”.

[14] Taking the above factors into consideration, the broadcaster was of the opinion that no breach of Standard 1 had occurred in this case. It declined to uphold the complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[15] Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Mr McCoskrie referred his complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He reiterated the points made in his original complaint to the broadcaster.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[16] The broadcaster added nothing further to its original reply to the complainant.

Authority's Determination

[17] The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.  The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

[18] The Authority does not uphold the complaint and accepts the reasons advanced by TV3 in its decision. When the Authority considers complaints which allege a breach of good taste and decency, it takes into account the context in which the broadcast complained of occurs. In the present case, there are a number of contextual factors that operate to keep the programme within the boundaries of the good taste and decency standard:

  • The show was rated PGR
  • The item was broadcast in a PGR timeslot
  • The Simpsons is a well-known show with a highly satirical tone that is aimed at a more mature audience than other cartoons
  • The references were used in an ironic and satirical, rather than abusive, manner

[19] The Authority has previously considered complaints about the use of language in The Simpsons.  In Decision No. 1997-040/1997-041 it held that the phrase “go to hell you old bastard”, used in a G-rated episode screened at 5.30p.m, did not have “any adverse effect on the older children who are expected to watch the programme”.   In another decision (No. 1998-019)  the Authority determined that the phrase “you smarmy little bastards”, also broadcast in a G-rated timeslot, did not breach standards of good taste and decency, and again noted that older children constitute the programme’s target audience.

[20] The Authority thinks that a similar approach is appropriate to the present situation.  This is reinforced by the fact that, in contrast to the earlier decisions, the programme was rated PGR and broadcast in a PGR time-slot.  Accordingly, taking into account the contextual factors discussed above, the programme did not breach Standard 1.

 

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
18 February 2005

Appendix

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

  1.    Bob McCoskrie’s formal complaint – 4 October 2004
  2.    CanWest TVWorks Ltd’s decision on the formal complaint – 5 November 2004
  3.    Mr McCoskrie’s referral to the Authority – 19 November 2004
  4.    CanWest TVWorks Ltd’s response to the Authority – 30 November 2004