WWF Raw and WWF Summerslam were broadcast consecutively on TV4 on 11 September 1999, from 8.30pm to12.00am. These programmes featured professional wrestling bouts which had been staged in front of live audiences.
Mr Bridgman, Ms Crombie, Mr Little and Mr Bonner complained to TV3 Network Services Ltd, the broadcaster, that aspects of the behaviour shown in the programmes breached programme standards relating to good taste and decency, discrimination against women, and the effect of programmes on children and violence.
TV3 explained that the "fights" in the programmes were choreographed, not real. It described the WWF shows as "neither sport nor drama but a kind of pageant" which it compared to a magic show. TV3 rejected every aspect of the complaints.
Dissatisfied with TV3’s response, the complainants referred their complaints 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 the programmes complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.
The programmes WWF Raw and WWF Summerslam were broadcast consecutively on TV4 on 11 September 1999, from 8.30pm to12.00am. These programmes featured professional wrestling bouts which were staged in front of live audiences.
Mr Bridgman, Ms Crombie, Mr Little and Mr Bonner complained to TV3 that aspects of the behaviour shown in the programmes breached programme standards relating to good taste and decency, discrimination against women, the protection of children and violence.
The complainants submitted that standards G2, G12, G13, V2, V3, V4, V6, V10, V14 and V15 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice had been breached. The first three of those standards 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.
G13 To avoid portraying people in a way which represents as inherently inferior, or is likely to encourage discrimination against, any section of the community on account of race, age, disability, occupational status, sexual orientation or the holding of any religious, cultural or political belief. This requirement is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material which is:
i) factual, or
ii) the expression of genuinely-held opinion in a news or current affairs programme, or
iii) in the legitimate context of a humorous, satirical or dramatic work.
The remaining standards provide:
V2 When obviously designed for gratuitous use to achieve heightened impact, realistic violence - as distinct from farcical violence - must be avoided.
V3 Warnings should be given, at least at the beginning of a programme, when a programme contains material which is likely to be disturbing to the average viewer or which is unexpectedly violent for that programme genre.
V4 The combination of violence and sexuality in a way designed to titillate must not be shown.
V6 Ingenious devices for and unfamiliar methods of inflicting pain, injury or death, particularly if capable of easy imitation, must not be shown, except in exceptional circumstances which are in the public interest.
V10 The cumulative overall effect of violent incidents and themes in a single programme, a programme series or a line-up of programmes back to back, must avoid giving the impression of excessive violence.
V14 Care must be taken to ensure that violent incidents during or surrounding play are not repeated gratuitously.
V15 Sports announcers and commentators must avoid making comments which appear to approve of or glamorise any violent behaviour on or off the field which is not in accordance with the rules of the particular sport.
The complainants submitted that one sequence in WWF Raw and two sequences in WWF Summerslam showed behaviour which was outside accepted norms of good taste and decency. According to the complainants, in WWF Raw, a female wrestler was verbally abused and then repeatedly kicked in the breasts. The complainants then described the two incidents in WWF Summerslam which they said breached the good taste standard:
1. A person, covered by a blanket, was brought into the ring. She was an overweight woman, 40ish, plainly and conservatively dressed. One of the wrestlers threatened his opponent that he would be forced to kiss this woman’s bottom. Throughout the fight the commentators continuously humiliated and degraded (called disgusting) the woman because of her physical size. At the end of the fight the woman was brought into the ring bent over with her dress pulled up around her waist, baring her bottom (she was wearing a g-string or less). Further derogatory remarks were made regarding her appearance. The losing opponent, apparently semi-conscious, was physically forced to rub his face in her bottom while she laughed and smiled and the commentators said how disgusting it all was.
2. Male wrestlers were kicked in the crotch.
In the words of the complainants, the context in which these sequences were shown was:
one of approval, notwithstanding commentary to the contrary. The subtext is not "it’s disgusting (and it should be stopped)". It is "it’s disgusting (ha ha and let’s enjoy it)".
The complainants also submitted that the first Summerslam incident, which occurred during a bout described in the programme as the "Kiss My Ass Match", breached standard G13 as it was "nothing less than an endorsement for the abuse and rape of older women".
Furthermore, the complainants wrote:
The titillation generated by [the] incident is dependent not only on being deeply offensive to women, but also to mothers and old people.
Turning next to standard G12, the complainants contended that the two programmes were shown at a time when young children could reasonably be expected to be watching. They pointed out that the programme was screened on a Saturday night and said:
Although the watershed for AO programmes is set at 8.30pm this does not reflect viewing patterns on nights when school is not on the following day.
The complainants argued that TV3 ought to have been mindful of the effect of the programmes on children, despite the fact that they screened after the 8.30pm AO watershed, as "many, if not most" children are able to watch television well after the watershed on the weekend. As to the effect the programmes might have, the complainants measured the violence contained in the programme using a particular methodology (Gerbner) and set out the results of this measurement in their complaints.
Next, the complainants listed 12 instances in addition to the three already cited, which they submitted breached standard V2. As recorded in the complaints, these were:
1. A wrestler removed a sock from his pants, which he proceeded to shove down his
opponent’s throat apparently causing suffocation.
2. Using stairs as a weapon.
3. Kicking unconscious people in the head.
4. Neck chops.
5. Using a guitar as a weapon.
6. Using a stick to attack back of head.
7. Jumping on throat.
8. Striking head with a chair.
9. Chair used to cause injury to leg.
10. Sock thrust down throat
11. Weapons used in a gratuitous, vicious fashion eg. striking the back of the head with
12. Wrestlers kicked "unconscious" by opponents wearing shoes.
The complainants submitted that these incidents involved negligible amounts of skill. In their view, they were intended to look realistic and they contended that this was evidenced by the street clothes worn in some sequences, the fact that much of the violence took place outside the wrestling ring and the use of everyday implements as weapons. The complainants also contended that:
There is much that is gratuitous – the very high overall level of violence, and actions like repeated kicking to the head, breasts and neck of people lying on the ground, seemingly incapacitated or unconscious.
Although the complainants acknowledged that much of the violence might be seen by adult viewers as farcical, they submitted that fans of the WWF shows were:
caught up in the rhythm of hate, vitriol and enjoyment of others’ pain and humiliation that is embedded in the commentary.
Turning next to standard V3, the complainants described the warning which preceded each of the programmes as inadequate because it gave no indication of the level of "violent and sexually violent and abusive" behaviour that occurred within the programmes.
The complainants next submitted that what they termed the combination of sex and violence breached standard V4 in an incident they described as:
In WWF Summerslam, a woman who accompanied a wrestler into the ring appeared in very revealing clothes and during the fight proceeded to remove her top using her breasts to distract the wrestler opponent.
The complainants also submitted that the first two incidents described in their complaints also breached standard V4.
Next, the complainants set out the reasons they considered that a breach of standard V10 had occurred. They maintained that the number of episodes of violence in the programmes was so high as to "render absurd" the standard and much of the effort to limit the amount of violence on TV. In their opinion, the WWF shows had to be categorised as either sport or drama. If the shows were indeed drama, they said that the programmes had "no apparent redeeming features that could justify the level of violence present in the two programmes".
The final two standards that the complainants alleged had been breached related to sports programmes, which would, according to the complainants, apply if the programmes were categorised as sports rather than drama. Standard V14 had been breached because all the violence was "staged and therefore gratuitous". Concerning standard V15, the complainants wrote:
The commentary encourages viewers to enjoy dirty fighting, flouting the rules of wrestling, intimidation and assault of the referee in addition to denigrating commentary about women already mentioned.
TV3 assessed the complaint under the nominated standards. It began by expressing its view that it was common knowledge that the "fights" and so-called "violent" episodes shown in the programmes were choreographed. TV3 maintained that:
the WWF shows are neither sport nor drama but a kind of pageant which, like a magic show, everyone understands is not real even if they cannot figure out how the stunts work.
TV3 then noted that both programmes were rated AO and that they were preceded by a written and verbal warning against attempting the stunts shown on the programmes at home.
TV3 then dealt with the complainants’ arguments under each standard in turn.
TV3 declined to uphold the aspect of the complaints concerning standard G2. In relation to the incident complained about on WWF Raw, TV3 said that it should be considered in the context of an AO rated WWF programme, where the audience understood that the action presented was not real. It said the woman wrestler featured in the sequence was:
quite clearly an experienced wrestling personality who gives as good as she gets and the blows/abuse she receives is no greater than what she gives.
TV3 then said that the "Kiss My Ass Match" sequence was also acceptable in the context of an AO rated programme and an obviously phoney situation. It noted that the woman was not coerced or upset by what was happening to her and disagreed with the complainants’ version of the sequence, saying that the woman "clearly" was wearing underwear and stockings and that the wrestler’s face was rubbed into the woman’s back.
Next TV3 disagreed that it had breached standard G12 by broadcasting the programmes. It said that the suggestion that the time of broadcast should be considered childrens’ viewing time was "nonsensical", noting its view that there is "wide understanding" of the meaning of AO time among the general viewing public.
As to standard G13, TV3 said that it was obvious in each sequence complained about that the women were active and willing participants. The woman in the "Kiss My Ass Match" was not, in its opinion "taken advantage of or coerced and no violence was directed towards her". What occurred would not, said TV3, lead to widespread discrimination against women.
Next, TV3 considered the complaints relating to the violence standards. In reply to the submission that standard V2 was breached, it said that the actions described in the complaint were all established actions of the programme genre. It considered that the actions fell within the description "farcical" and displays of "bravado rather than violent action".
As to standard V3, TV3 replied that the "fighting" in WWF programmes was neither disturbing nor unexpected.
TV3 also disagreed that standard V4 was breached, saying that it understood that the standard related to scenes where the viewer may be titillated in a sexual way by the combination of violence and sexual explicitness. It said this did not occur in programme.
Next, TV3 responded to the complainant’s submission on standard V6. It dealt with this briefly, saying that none of the examples cited were either ingenious or unfamiliar.
As to standard V10, TV3 took issue with the complainants’ method of counting acts of violence, describing their treatment of these programmes as absolute reality as "somewhat disingenuous". It reiterated of the acts being counted:
It is clear to the adult viewer that these acts are not authentic and are not meant to be viewed as such.
Finally in response to the aspects concerning standard V14 and V15, TV3 said that the WWF programmes were not sport programmes. The outcome of each match was predetermined and the moves choreographed.
In the referral of the complaints to the Authority, the complainants explained the method of coding violence which they had used. They then commented further on the standards they considered had been breached.
First, the complainants elaborated on the standard G2 and G13 aspects of their complaints. They contended that the language which had been "bleeped out" from the programmes was probably offensive. They then repeated their contention that "blows" to "sexual areas" were offensive. In their opinion, there were "20 sexual attacks" in a three-hour period, most involving a woman.
The complainants disagreed with TV3’s comments about the "Kiss My Ass Match", saying that it was clear the audience was expected to believe that the woman involved had no underwear on and that the "predicted indignity" had occurred. They added that "Treatment of women as chattels is a recurrent theme on Raw".
Turning to standard G12, the complainants said that they did not believe that the standard automatically excluded from consideration the impact on children of all programmes which screened after the 8.30pm watershed. In their submission, the complainants contended that children went to bed later, and might have televisions in their rooms. They also said they believed that the audience for the programmes would have included a "substantial and young" children’s audience.
The complainants went on to cite various research findings on violence and asked whether the "extreme violence" in the programmes could contribute to New Zealand being a violent society. The complainants also took issue with TV3’s description of the programme as resembling a "magic show" or "pageant".
The complainants’ comments in relation to standard G12 applied too, they said, to standard V3.
Next, the complainants commented further on their argument that standard V2 had been breached. They disagreed with TV3’s contention that the programmes were not unusually violent for their genre. The complainants submitted that the standard did not allow for a "genre defence of the kind ‘people expect it to be violent, therefore the standard should not apply’".
As to standard V4, the complainants said that they could not prove titillation without doing a survey, but considered that they had demonstrated that there was frequently a connection between sex and violence in the programmes and that this was something that the programme makers expected viewers would be excited about. In support of this the complainants cited a comment they said had been made by a WCW star in a Penthouse interview that "the public loves sex and violence and this is what we give them".
In addition to the comments made in their complaints about standard V6, the complainants said that the episodes of violence portrayed could be described as unfamiliar as they were very rarely portrayed on TV, video or film.
The complainants then disagreed with TV3’s conclusion on standard V10. They maintained that a reduction in high violence cartoons alluded to had occurred because the industry acknowledged that such violence might have strong negative impact on children and that this yardstick could also be applied to WWF. The complainants compared the programmes to childrens series The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which had been withdrawn by a broadcaster after complaints about violent themes, and said that, in their opinion, WWF was far more violent and far more approving of a culture of violence.
Finally the complainants accepted that WWF wrestling was not a sport and therefore said that it had to be judged as a drama.
In TV3’s report to the Authority it made the following points. First, it said that TV3’s response had been misquoted on occasions in the referral.
Secondly, in relation to the "bleeping of language" TV3 said it was "pointless" to complain about words that could not be heard or speculate as to what they were. With regard to the comments about standard G13, TV3 did not agree that comments would encourage discrimination against women, saying it was obvious that the scenario in question was staged and was meant to be amusing.
Thirdly, TV3 disagreed that children were targeted by the promos or advertising shown during the programmes.
Fourthly, TV3 noted that WCW was an entirely different company from WWF and comments made in relation to that organisation could not be applied arbitrarily to the WWF organisation.
Finally, in relation to comments made comparing the WWF programmes to The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, TV3 disagreed with the relevance of the comparison, saying:
As the Authority is aware The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was a G rated programme playing, stripped across the week, in G time.
In their final comment, the complainants disagreed that they had misquoted TV3’s position, and repeated their belief that the "Kiss My Ass Match" sequence breached standards G2 and G13.
The complainants then disagreed that it was "pointless" to complain about words which had been masked in the broadcast by "bleeping". They maintained that if the bleeped words were not offensive, as TV3 had suggested, viewers were supposed to think that they were. They said that bleeping was used "to enhance the feeling of sexual aggression and to titillate the viewer".
Next, the complainants disputed what it considered to be TV3’s position that a "staged" broadcast could not be offensive.
The complainants repeated their view that the advertising and promos screened during the programmes were targeted at children. They added:
We believe that TV knows that a very substantial proportion of WWF viewers are children and teenagers and that it has chosen the 8.30pm Saturday slot, right on the watershed, to show this very violent AO18 programme, in order to attract the widest possible children’s audience.
Next the complainants disagreed with TV3’s conclusion that views expressed about WCW could not be arbitrarily applied to WWF, commenting that it saw the two as very similar.
As their penultimate point, the complainants listed what they considered were the similarities between the WWF programmes and The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, concluding that the WWF programmes were considerably more violent and:
… pernicious in [their] emphasis on hate, grudges, confrontation, rule breaking, enjoyment of another’s pain and dehumanisation of women to the exclusion of any positive "dramatic" features.
The complainants’ final comment concluded by lamenting what they called the "catastrophic" consequences for "the most susceptible and their victims" of viewing WWF programmes, referring specifically to a murder which they said had occurred at the hands of someone who modelled himself on one of the WWF characters.
The Authority begins with the good taste and decency provision in standard G2, which requires it to consider the context of the broadcast. On this occasion, the context includes the programmes’ AO timeslot and classification. Taking that into account as well as the fact that the wrestling bouts in the programmes are all obviously, and known to be, staged, the Authority does not consider that community standards of good taste and decency were transgressed by any aspect of the broadcasts.
Standard G12 requires broadcasters to be mindful of the effect of programmes on children during their normally accepted viewing time. The Authority notes that although neither programme screened before the AO watershed, they began at 8.30pm, directly after the commencement of AO time. While the Authority agrees that knowledge of the AO watershed is widespread, it observes that the programmes were screened on a Saturday night, when children might be expected to watch television later than on weeknights. It also records that its has some sympathy for the arguments the complainants raised about the programmes’ potential appeal to children. Nevertheless, the Authority considers that the format and content of WWF wrestling shows are well known, and that it is ultimately the role of parents to monitor their children’s viewing during AO time. This is of particular relevance in this instance as although the broadcasts began at 8.30pm, they did not finish until midnight.
The complainants considered that a sequence in the WWF Summerslam programme breached standard G13. Although the Authority acknowledges that the sequence involving the woman in the "Kiss My Ass Match" could have offended some viewers, it is not persuaded that this sequence represented women as inherently inferior or would be likely to encourage discrimination against them. As a further point, the Authority notes that the sequences involving women wrestlers portrayed women as equal to their male counterparts, and therefore those aspects of the programmes do not threaten the discrimination standard.
The remaining standards relate to the violence standards in the Code. The Authority notes, as it did in an earlier decision (Decision No. 1999-014), that programmes depicting professional wrestling inevitably include violence. In that decision, the Authority accepted that professional wrestling contains substantial elements of theatre which are included for heightened impact, and that such material was usually farcical.
The Authority’s task is to determine whether the choreographed behaviour contained in the programmes in question breached the violence standards. The Authority considers it crucial to its determination that the programmes are entirely play-acted. The characters featured are larger than life and they act in contrived situations. The violence is not realistic. The Authority finds it significant that the warning preceding each programme refers to the "stunts" which are performed by the professionals, which makes it obvious that the violence is not genuine.
In this context, the Authority finds that the "fighting" and other "violent" action in the programmes is not realistic, disturbing or unexpected, or ingenious or unfamiliar. The Authority concludes that none of the violence standards were breached on this occasion.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
17 February 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Geoff Bridgman, Kiri Crombie, Paul Little and John Bonner’s Complaint to TV3 Network Services Ltd – undated
2. TV3’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 8 November 1999
3. Geoff Bridgman, Kiri Crombie, Paul Little and John Bonner’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 8 December 1999
4. TV3’s Response to the Authority – 23 December 1999
5. Geoff Bridgman, Kiri Crombie, Paul Little and John Bonner’s Final Comment –
21 January 2000