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Coburn and TVWorks Ltd - 2011-173

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
  • Leigh Pearson

Complainant

  • Natalie Coburn of Christchurch

Dated

27th March 2012

Number

2011-173

Programme

Family Guy

Channel/Station

FOUR

Broadcaster

TVWorks Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Family Guy – cartoon comedy – contained sexual content and innuendo – allegedly in breach of standards relating to good taste and decency, responsible programming and children’s interests

Findings
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – sexual content was subtle and inexplicit – nature of sexual innuendo would have gone over the heads of younger viewers – not upheld

Standard 9 (children’s interests) – content was not unsuitable for supervised child viewers – broadcaster adequately considered children’s interests – not upheld

Standard 8 (responsible programming) – the episode was correctly rated PGR and screened in appropriate time-band – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision. 


Introduction

[1]  An episode of the cartoon comedy Family Guy was broadcast on FOUR at 7.30pm on Thursday 20 October 2011. The episode contained sexual content and innuendo, including the following scenes:

  • The main character Peter seeing his wife Lois in her underwear and commenting, “Something’s happening in my pants”.
  • Peter and Lois on a bed in their underwear kissing before Lois disappeared from the shot and Peter was shown with an expression of pleasant surprise.
  • A live action scene in which actor Dwayne Johnson was shown playing with Family Guy figurines in a crude depiction of a sex scene in which he hit one figurine against another on a table.
  • Peter and Lois in bed under the covers making sounds of exclamation, and Peter saying, “Wow, that was what they call sex?” and “Can we do it again?”
  • In the process of teaching Peter about sex after he suffered amnesia, Lois explained to Peter that it was not suitable for him to have sex with his children. Their daughter Meg joked “I wish you’d told him that before he lost his memory”.
  • Peter bringing a woman into his bedroom and telling Lois that she is the woman he is going to have sex with that night.
  • Lois and another character Quagmire in bed under the covers when Quagmire impliedly lost his erection, leapt from the bed and tried various methods to regain his erection, off screen.

[2]  The episode was rated PGR and preceded by the following visual and verbal warning:

This programme may not be suitable for younger family members and parental guidance is advised.

[3]  Natalie Coburn made a formal complaint to TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the programme contained sexual content that was “totally inappropriate” to screen during children’s normally accepted viewing times, in particular given its animated style, meaning it was more likely to attract a younger audience.

[4]  The issue is whether the programme breached Standards 1 (good taste and decency), 8 (responsible programming) and 9 (children’s interests) of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[5]  The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Nature of the programme and freedom of expression

[6]  Family Guy is an American animated sitcom which centres on the dysfunctional Griffin family and their anthropomorphic pet dog Brian. It is now in its tenth season on New Zealand television and has become well known to its regular audience for its gag humour and slapstick. TVWorks explicitly acknowledged that the series is “risqué and rebellious” and often contains content which some may consider challenging and controversial. While the programme appeals to a wide range of viewers, we consider that the type of humour employed is primarily aimed at adults and would go over the heads of younger viewers.

[7]  In this episode, the allegedly objectionable content stemmed from a storyline in which the main character Peter suffered from amnesia and his wife Lois had to teach him about sex. As discussed in more detail below, we consider that the sexual content and innuendo was subtle and discreet rather than overly confrontational or explicit.

[8]  While Family Guy is primarily an entertainment show, we recognise that it also has elements which are valuable to society. It injects unconventional ideas through the use of humour and satire which often makes reference to current events and modern cultural icons. We consider that the values underlying free speech are engaged to a moderate degree on this occasion, and that any restriction on the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression therefore requires an adequate justification under the Bill of Rights Act 1990.

[9]  We express our reasons below for finding that the content subject to complaint did not reach the necessary threshold to warrant upholding the complaint.

Did the programme breach standards of good taste and decency?

[10]  Standard 1 states that broadcasters should observe standards of good taste and decency. The primary objective of this standard is to protect against the broadcast of sexual material, nudity, coarse language or violence.1 The Authority will also consider the standard in relation to any broadcast that portrays or discusses material in a way that is likely to cause offence or distress.2 In this respect, the standard is intended to ensure that programmes reflect community norms of decorum and civility.

[11]  When we consider an alleged breach of good taste and decency, we take into account the context of the broadcast. The relevant contextual factors include:

  • Family Guy was rated PGR
  • it was broadcast at 7.30pm during children’s normally accepted viewing times
  • it was preceded by a warning for content that may not be suitable for younger viewers and advising parental guidance
  • the programme’s target audience
  • FOUR’s target audience
  • Family Guy was in its tenth season on New Zealand television
  • the expectations of regular viewers.

[12]  TVWorks argued that the content in this episode did not fall outside the programme’s PGR rating because it was unrealistic and not likely to harm or disturb children. While it conceded that the humour employed by Family Guy was not to everyone’s tastes, it described the programme as a “cult” or “niche” show, and maintained that regular viewers were likely to have found the content humorous, rather than surprising. It also cited the long-running nature of the show and the pre-broadcast warning as relevant contextual factors.

[13]  The Authority has previously stated that any sexual content or references broadcast during children’s normally accepted viewing times should be subtle and inexplicit, or in the nature of sexual innuendo that would be likely to go over the heads of child viewers.3 While we accept that, on occasion, the themes portrayed in Family Guy are close to the borderline of what would be considered acceptable during those times, the content on this occasion largely consisted of characters in their underwear kissing and making obscure comments about sex (see paragraph [1]). We are satisfied that this content was subtle rather than explicit and that apart from the use of the word “sex”, younger child viewers were unlikely to understand, or draw any meaning from, the sexual innuendo.

[14]  In addition, the programme was rated PGR and preceded by a visual and verbal warning which informed viewers of its likely content and advised parental supervision. The classification and warning provided parents with an opportunity to exercise discretion with regard to their children’s viewing. We consider that the warning could have been more specific in that it could have referred to sexual content, and in this respect we hope that this decision will provide guidance to broadcasters in the future.

[15]  Taking into account the relevant contextual factors, in particular that the show is now in its tenth season and that it is well known for its sometimes challenging content, and the subtle nature of the sexual content on this occasion, it is our view that the potential harm to the values underlying standards of good taste and decency was relatively low and did not outweigh the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression.

[16]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold the Standard 1 complaint.

Did the broadcaster adequately consider children’s interests?

[17]  Standard 9 requires broadcasters to consider the interests of child viewers during their normally accepted viewing times – usually up to 8.30pm. Guideline 9a states that broadcasters should be mindful of the effect any programme or promo may have on children during these times, and avoid screening material that would disturb or alarm them.

[18]  In the Authority’s 2006 publication Freedoms and Fetters, it was observed that:

...children are worthy of special protection. Whether about radio or television, the BSA’s decisions emphasise its strong expectation that material likely to be heard or seen by children should recognise their innocence and vulnerability. The television classification and watershed systems underpin this special protection.

[19]  This episode of Family Guy was rated PGR and screened at 7.30pm. The PGR classification explicitly allows for programmes containing material more suited for mature audiences, though not necessarily unsuitable for child viewers when subject to adult supervision (see Appendix 1 to the Code). While the episode subject to complaint was broadcast during children’s normally accepted viewing times, we do not consider that it contained any content that was likely to disturb or alarm children, for the reasons expressed in relation to Standard 1.

[20]  Accordingly, we find that the broadcaster adequately considered children’s interests and we decline to uphold the complaint that Standard 9 was breached.

Did the item breach the responsible programming standard?

[21]  Standard 8 requires that programmes are correctly classified and adhere to the time-bands set out in the Free-to-Air Television Code.

[22]  For the reasons discussed under Standard 1, we consider that the programme’s content was not unsuitable for supervised child viewers, and therefore was appropriately rated PGR. We do not consider that the programme contained any material which warranted a higher classification of Adults Only, or a restriction to a later time of broadcast.

[23]  Accordingly, we are satisfied that this episode of Family Guy was correctly classified, and we decline to uphold the complaint under Standard 8.

 

For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
27 March 2012

Appendix

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1                  Natalie Coburn’s formal complaint – 4 November 2011

2                 TVWorks’ response to the complaint – 1 December 2011

3                 Ms Coburn’s referral to the Authority – 19 December 2011

4                 TVWorks’ response to the Authority – 13 January 2011


1Turner and TVNZ, Decision No. 2008-112

2Practice Note: Good Taste and Decency (Broadcasting Standards Authority, November, 2006)

3Cross and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2008-059