The Book Group – drama – male sex scene – offensive
Standard 1 and Guideline 1a – context – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 The Book Group is a series about a group of people who regularly meet to discuss books, and is described by the broadcaster as a “quirky and unpredictable drama”. An episode broadcast on 24 September 2003 at 10.05pm on TV One included a scene of two men having sex.
 Michael Beedell complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the scene was offensive and “inappropriate for public viewing”.
 Declining to uphold the complaint, TVNZ said in context the scene did not breach current norms of good taste and decency.
 Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Beedell referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
 The members of the Authority have viewed a video of the programme complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
 The Book Group was described by the broadcaster as:
… a quirky and unpredictable drama about eight people who became friends through a book group which they regularly attended and at which they searched for the perfect book.
An episode broadcast on 24 September at 10.05pm included a scene that depicted two of the male characters having sex.
 Mr Beedell complained that he:
… was confronted with a sex scene involving two men; a man with his right leg in a plaster cast was engaged in a very graphic act of anal intercourse (buggery) with the other; it left very little to the imagination.
No doubt there was a warning at the beginning of this programme but that is of little use where a viewer changes channel part-way through such a programme, as I did last night.
 The complainant said that he did not “wish to see homosexual sex scenes on television”. Mr Beedell added that he found “this sort of depiction unnecessary, unwise and totally inappropriate for public viewing.”
 In view of the matters raised in the complaint, TVNZ assessed it under Standard 1 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The Standard and relevant Guidelines read:
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.
1a Broadcasters must take into consideration current norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs. Examples of context are the time of the broadcast, the type of programme, the target audience, the use of warnings and the programme’s classification (see Appendix 1). The examples are not exhaustive.
1b Broadcasters should consider – and if appropriate require – the use of on-air visual and verbal warnings when programmes contain violent material, material of a sexual nature, coarse language or other content likely to disturb children or offend a significant number of adult viewers. Warnings should be specific in nature, while avoiding detail which may itself distress or offend viewers.
 TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint. While it accepted that The Book Group would not be enjoyed by all viewers, TVNZ disagreed that the programme was “totally inappropriate” for broadcast. The broadcaster noted that it had an obligation to cater for a diverse range of tastes and community interests. TVNZ referred to awards and a favourable review that the series had attracted, and wrote:
In the view of the [complaints] committee the series is one of considerable quality. It is unusual and unconventional certainly, but demonstrates a level of creativity and sardonic humour which lifts it above the ordinary, sometimes formulaic, run of television programming.
 Dealing specifically with the scene complained about, TVNZ advised it involved the character known as Rab who “throughout the series had blundered through an increasingly complicated love life.” In the episode complained about he engaged in an affair with a Spanish goal keeper, who was unable to play soccer because his leg was in plaster. TVNZ continued:
Although this sex scene is somewhat explicit, it is brief and no genitals are shown. That the pair were going to have sex was well sign-posted. The [complaints] committee did not feel it was any more explicit than might be found in a late night drama featuring a heterosexual relationship.
 In relation to Standard 1, TVNZ referred to the following contextual factors:
 Taking all the above contextual factors into account, TVNZ found that the scene “would not have strayed beyond the expectations of the programme’s regular audience and did not breach standard 1.”
 TVNZ referred to previous Broadcasting Standards Authority’s decisions which had dealt with the depiction of male sex scenes. The broadcaster noted that the Authority had declined to uphold complaints about two programmes featuring male sexual activity, and which had screened earlier than The Book Group.
 Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Beedell referred his complaint to the Authority.
 Mr Beedell emphasised that it was the depiction of “homosexual” intercourse that he found so offensive. In his view, a late night drama depicting a “heterosexual relationship” would have been more acceptable than what was shown.
 The Authority observes that The Book Group, described by the broadcaster as social satire, was an unusual and capricious drama about a group of people who became friends after forming a book appreciation group. While the Authority accepts that the programme would not appeal to everyone, it notes that it does have a distinct following in New Zealand.
 When the Authority determines a complaint that a broadcast contravenes Standard 1 of the Television Code, it is required to determine whether the material complained about breaches currently accepted standards of good taste and decency, taking into account the context of the broadcast. The context is relevant, but does not determine whether the programme breaches the standard.
 The Authority accepts that on this occasion the contextual factors relevant to its determination include the nature of the programme (an adult drama series), the starting time of the broadcast (10.05pm), which was more than one and a half hours after the recognised adult watershed, the pre-broadcast warning, and the programme’s AO classification. The Authority notes that the programme had a recognised following and, as such, the content of the episode was unlikely to be outside the scope of the series’ regular audience’s notion of acceptability.
 The Authority refers to the complainant’s assertion that a drama which depicts a “heterosexual relationship” would have been more acceptable than that which was shown. It disagrees with this assertion and refers, in particular, to Standard 6 of the Television Code which specifically precludes a broadcaster from broadcasting programmes which discriminate against sections of the community on the grounds of sexual orientation.
 The Authority notes that the complainant came across the scene while “channel-surfing” and it accepts that in those circumstances, the unexpected content may be considered offensive to some viewers. However, the Authority must take the context of the broadcast into account. In the Authority’s view, by clearly notifying viewers that the programme contained “sexually explicit scenes and language that may offend some people” the broadcaster had satisfied the requirements of Guideline 1b of Standard 1.
 While the Authority acknowledges the explicit nature of the scene, it reiterates that its assessment of the material complained about is determined in the context of the programme as a whole. Accordingly, in view of the contextual matters referred to above, the Authority concludes that, while the scene was at the borderline of what is acceptable, Standard 1 has not been breached.
 The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to apply the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards and applies them in a manner which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.
For the above reasons, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
15 December 2003
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Michael Beedell’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 25 September 2003
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 15 October 2003
3. Mr Beedell’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 21 October 2003
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 29 October 2003
5. Mr Beedells Final Comment – 13 November 2003