Sex and the City – fuck – offensive language
Standard G2 – context – 9.30pm – AO Classification – warning verbal and written – well known series – not offensive in context – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
An episode of Sex and the City told the story of a man who exclaimed the words "fucking bitch" during sexual intercourse. Sex and the City was broadcast weekly on TV3 at 9.30pm and the episode complained about was screened on 5 June 2001.
Grant Nesdale complained to TV3 Network Services Ltd, the broadcaster, that the language was offensive.
In response, TV3 referred to viewers’ expectations of the well-known series, the rating, the time of broadcast and the warning. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TV3's response, Mr Nesdale referred the 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 episode complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
The series Sex and the City was broadcast by TV3 Network Services Ltd each Tuesday evening on TV3 at 9.30pm. The series had been screened since 1999 and dealt with the lives and loves of four single women living in New York City. The series was rated AO and was screened one hour after the Adults Only watershed at 8.30pm. Where appropriate, TV3 advised, episodes were preceded by a warning.
Grant Nesdale complained to the broadcaster about the episode broadcast at 9.30pm on 5 June 2001. Referring to the use of the word "fuck", Mr Nesdale argued that it was irresponsible to allow its broadcast on television as it resulted in the word becoming more acceptable in society.
Mr Nesdale complained specifically about the broadcast of the word "motherfucker", a word he found highly offensive. He contended that as television was a powerful tool, it should be used to "upgrade" society’s standards rather than to "denigrate" them.
TV3 assessed the complaint under standard G2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which 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.
TV3 acknowledged that the episode of Sex and the City complained about included the words "fuck" and "fucking", but had not contained the word "motherfucker". It reported that its appraisers made cuts where appropriate, and included warnings to advise that some viewers might find the content offensive.
Explaining that standard G2 required context to be taken into account, TV3 wrote:
As Sex and the City is an established series, there is high degree of viewer expectation about the content. The programme is well known for featuring strong language and sexual themes. Other contextual factors relating to G2 include that the series screens on Tuesday nights at 9.30pm, an hour after the AO watershed, and that the episode had a warning specifically relating to its adult nature and use of coarse language.
Given the time of screening and the expectation of mature viewers, TV3 maintained that the content was appropriate and declined to uphold the complaint.
As he was dissatisfied with TV3’s response, Mr Nesdale referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
Mr Nesdale said he continued to object "to the casual and flippant use of the ‘F’ word", adding that its ongoing use would lead to society becoming desensitised. He advocated the return to standards where sex was special to two people who had chosen to spend their lives together. He observed:
I do not believe that television broadcasters deliberately intend to downgrade society but unfortunately this is probably what happens as these programmes become more common and available. So the engineering process continues...!
As humorous as these programmes may be to some people we must also ask ourselves to what expense are we prepared to pay in down-grading our society with such flippant and irresponsible use!
The Authority’s task in assessing this complaint under standard G2 is to determine whether the language complained about breached currently accepted norms in the context in which it occurred. The context is relevant, but not decisive, to the Authority’s determination of whether the programme breached standards of good taste and decency.
The Authority considers that the relevant contextual factors include the programme’s rating (AO), the time of broadcast (one hour after the watershed), the verbal and written warning, and the theme of the series. The sex lives of the four single women in New York City is integral to the programme.
These factors are relevant to the Authority’s decision as to whether the occasional use of the word "fuck" in a way which is neither aggressive nor gratuitous would breach standard G2. However, that is not the situation which applies on this occasion. While the programme did not contain the word "motherfucker" there were some eight occasions when the words "fuck" or "fucking" were used. The Authority considers its use was bordering on the gratuitous.
One of the stories being told in the episode involved the exclamation of the words "fucking bitch" by one of the four women’s partners during sexual intercourse. The episode showed him using the language and the woman talking about her distaste at the practice with her friends.
The discussion among the women acknowledged that the man’s behaviour was problematic and when it was explained to him, he accepted that some type of treatment was appropriate. Given that the use of the word was shown to be a behavioural problem, rather than gratuitous or frivolous, the Authority finds that this contextual factor was sufficient not to constitute a breach of standard G2.
The Authority also observes that to find a breach of standard G2 would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to place too great a limit on the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression contained in s.14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and prefers to adopt an interpretation of the standard 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
25 October 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: