Strassman – fuck – offensive language
Section 4(1)(a) – assessment of context required by standard G2
Standard G2 – acceptable in context – no uphold; comment – offensive language in end credits bordered on the gratuitous
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
An episode of Strassman broadcast on TV2 at 9.30pm on 5 June 2001 included the word "fuck" as part of the dialogue. Strassman is a comedy series featuring ventriloquist David Strassman.
Grant Nesdale complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the language was offensive. He argued that television should "upgrade" values, rather than denigrate them.
In response, TVNZ contended that the language was not unacceptable in context, and declined to uphold the complaint. It also said that television’s role was to reflect society’s values.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Nesdale referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given 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 listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
Expressing concern about the "numerous occasions" when programmes on TV2 had used what he described as the "F" word, Grant Nesdale complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about a broadcast of Strassman 5 June. Mr Nesdale acknowledged that programmes which used such language might be rated "AO" and accepted that viewers might use such language personally. Nevertheless, because television was a powerful tool in society, he argued that it should be used for upgrading values, rather than denigrating them.
TVNZ advised that Strassman was a New Zealand made comedy series featuring ventriloquist David Strassman filmed in front of a night-club audience. It assessed the complaint under s.4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, along with standard G2 of the Television Codes of Broadcasting Practice. Section 4(1) provides:
(1) Every broadcaster is responsible for maintaining in its programmes and their presentation, standards which are consistent with -
(a) The observance of good taste and decency;
Standard G2 requires 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.
TVNZ acknowledged that the language complained about was used "occasionally". It then noted a number of contextual matters it considered relevant. They included the points that the complaint referred to a late night comedy programme set in the surroundings of a night club, which was broadcast at 9.30pm (AO time) and which was preceded by verbal and written warning which drew specific attention to the language.
TVNZ also cited from Authority decision No: 2000-118 where the Authority declined to uphold a complaint about the use of the word "fuck" in an earlier episode of Strassman.
Taking the above matters into account, TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint. In regard to Mr Nesdale’s comment about television’s role in relation to values, TVNZ wrote:
In reference to your comment about the role you believed television should play in upgrading standards, it was the [complaints] committee’s opinion that it is very important that television reflect standards rather than try to change them. If ‘bad’ language is heard more often in the media it is because it is become more common in everyday idiom. We feel it would be very dangerous to have a television service which engineered social change. Shades of ‘Big Brother’.
When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Mr Nesdale stated that most of his friends opposed the broadcast use of the language complained about. He responded to TVNZ’s comment about its role, writing:
My view on this [social engineering] is that this is exactly what they are doing by "reflecting" these practices and thereby making them even more so-called "acceptable". As the majority of society becomes more and more desensitised they will also become more degraded and perverted. What may be the so-called "Norm" now will not be later as we can already attest to. And so the "engineering" and "programming" continue…I strongly oppose and object to their views. Keep it wholesome!!! PLEASE.
In its response, TVNZ drew to the Authority’s attention Decision No: 2000-156 which declined to uphold as a breach the similar use of the word "fuck".
In determining a complaint which alleges a breach of s.4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act, the Authority acknowledges the requirements contained in standard G2
When the Authority considers a complaint alleging a breach of standard G2, it takes into account the context in which the material 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 which 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.
Similar observations were made by the Authority last year when it determined a complaint about the use of the word "fuck" in the Strassman programme (2000-156, 6 November 2000). They remain applicable to this complaint.
However the Authority notes one difference between the broadcast last year and the programme which is the subject of the current complaint which is of concern.
Strassman is presented as if in a night-club location where the studio audience does not object to the language used. However, in the episode complained about, the Authority notes, there are comments from Mr Strassman and his dummies both during and after the credits at the end of the programme. These comments include the use of the word "fucking". In the Authority’s view, this sequence does not fit into the night-club setting and the use of such language at this end point in the programme borders on the gratuitous. The contextual factors which save the subject language from a standards breach do not, in the Authority’s view, extend easily when juxtapositioned in the credits.
The Authority observes that to find a breach on this occasion, without first issuing a warning, would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to unreasonably restrict the broadcaster's statutory right to freedom of expression contained in s14 of the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990. On this occasion, the Authority will adopt an interpretation of the standard which is without constraint and which is consistent with the Bill of Rights.
For the reasons above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
20 September 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: