The Chimp Channel – animals trained to perform unnatural behaviours – bad taste – bad effect on children – insensitive
Standard G2 – not in bad taste – no uphold
Standard G12 – broadcaster apparently mindful of children – no uphold
Standard V17 – animals not humiliated or badly treated – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
The Chimp Channel was screened weekly on TV2 at 5.30pm on Saturdays. It was a comedy series set in a television studio in which most of the actors were animals.
Melanie Vivian complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that it was contrary to animal welfare for animals to be trained to perform "unnatural behaviours". She considered that the programme breached the standards relating to good taste and decency; to the awareness of the effect of the programmes on children; and to the requirement for sensitivity in programmes with animals.
In reply, TVNZ said the series, while anachronistic, had been supervised by the American Humane Association which recorded no instances of animal cruelty. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Ms Vivian referred her 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 tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
The Chimp Channel was screened on TV2 at 5.30pm on Saturdays. It was a comedy series set in a television studio in which the actors were mostly apes.
Melanie Vivian complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme was "unacceptable at a number of levels". She noted that the apes (chimpanzees and orang-utans) were shown dressed in clothing, walking bipedally and were trained to perform "unnatural behaviours", including jaw movements to mimic speech. She also pointed out that animal welfare organisations in the United States had opposed the programme. In addition to the animal welfare issues involved, she said that the programme provided a negative view of animals. She considered that the broadcasts breached standards G2, G12 and V17 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
Explaining that the thesis for her Masters degree in psychology concerned the care of captive chimpanzees, Ms Vivian also said that young New Zealanders would not realise the extent of the training which was necessary to ensure that the chimpanzees displayed the behaviour screened. As the emphasis now in keeping animals in captivity was to encourage natural behaviours, she described The Chimp Channel as "a step backwards".
TVNZ assessed the complaint under the nominated standards. The first two require 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.
G12 To be mindful of the effect any programme may have on children during their normally accepted viewing times.
The other reads:
V17 Scenes and themes dealing with disturbing social and domestic friction or sequences in which people – especially children – or animals may be humiliated or badly treated, should be handled with great care and sensitivity. All gratuitous material of this nature must be avoided and any scenes which are shown must pass the test of relevancy within the context of the programme. If thought likely to disturb children, the programme should be scheduled later in the evening.
TVNZ acknowledged that the series had "a somewhat anachronistic look about it". Nevertheless, TVNZ continued, the producers had gone to some lengths to ensure that the animals were not ill-treated. TVNZ observed that representatives from the American Humane Association had been present on the set when the programme was made, to ensure that there was no cruelty to the animals.
While accepting that the series had been the subject of criticism, TVNZ said there was no evidence that the animals had been mistreated in any way.
Turning to the standards, TVNZ again described the programme as "anachronistic maybe". In conclusion, TVNZ said it recognised Ms Vivian’s concern but maintained that the broadcasts did not breach broadcasting standards.
When she referred the complaint to the Authority, Ms Vivian declared the programme to be "an unfortunate blast from the past" and focused on the requirement in standard V17 to treat animals with care and sensitivity. She considered TVNZ’s decision did not concur with the views of animal behaviourists.
In her final comment, Ms Vivian pointed out that exotic animals did not appear in circus acts in New Zealand any more and asked why was it acceptable "to have such treatment of animals on a television programme?"
Ms Vivian complained that the training of chimps for participation on The Chimp Channel involved methods which were unfair to the animals, and which did not allow viewers to appreciate the natural behaviour of animals. TVNZ acknowledged that the programme was "somewhat anachronistic" but pointed out that the American Humane Association had been present on the set to ensure that the animals were not treated cruelly.
Approaching the series from the viewers’ point of view, the Authority acknowledges the validity of both contentions. It accepts that the animals were trained to perform behaviours which were not natural to them, while it also notes the involvement of the Humane Association.
Turning to the standards raised, the Authority is unable to conclude that the programme breached accepted norms of decency or taste, or that the broadcaster, in screening the series, had not been mindful of its effect on children. Further, bearing in mind the Humane Association’s involvement, there was no evidence that the animals were being humiliated or badly treated.
The Authority has taken into account the arguments advanced by Ms Vivian and the apparent international concern about the series. It notes that one member would have been inclined to uphold the complaint had it focussed on the sexual themes of the dialogue and the domestic violence portrayed in some scenes. However, focussing on the issues raised in the complaint, the Authority is of the view that the standards nominated were not breached.
For the reasons above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
23 August 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: