Skip to main content

Stroud and TVWorks Ltd - 2013-044

Members

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

Complainant

  • Tracey Stroud of Auckland

Dated

19th November 2013

Number

2013-044

Programme

Futurama

Channel/Station

FOUR

Broadcaster

TVWorks Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Futurama – animated cartoon contained sexual references and innuendo – allegedly in breach of children's interests and responsible programming standards

Findings
Standard 8 (responsible programming) and Standard 9 (children's interests) – episode contained sexual content that was not suitable for unsupervised child viewers and so incorrectly classified G – should have been classified PGR – broadcaster did not adequately consider children's interests when incorrectly classifying the episode and screening it in G time – upheld under both standards

No Order

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Introduction

[1]  An episode of Futurama, an animated cartoon series, contained sexual references and innuendo. The episode was classified G (General) and screened on FOUR at 6.30pm on Friday 31 May 2013.

[2]  Tracey Stroud made a formal complaint to TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the sexual content, and in particular the reference to a “two-way mirror”, was unsuitable for children. She considered the episode was incorrectly classified G and should not have screened during children’s viewing times.

[3]  The issue is whether the broadcast breached the children’s interests and responsible programming standards, as set out in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

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

Was the programme correctly classified and screened in an appropriate timeslot, and did the broadcaster adequately consider children’s interests?

[5]  The responsible programming standard (Standard 8) requires broadcasters to correctly classify programmes and adhere to the time-bands set out in the Free-to-Air Television Code. The standard exists to create consistency and certainty for viewers, who rely on the classification of a programme and its time of broadcast to give them a fair indication of its content. The standard also plays an important role in the protection of children, because it assists parents and guardians in making informed choices about children’s viewing. The children’s interests standard (Standard 9) requires broadcasters to adequately consider children’s interests during their normally accepted viewing times.

[6]  The episode subject to complaint was broadcast at 6.30pm and was rated G. The G classification is defined as follows in Appendix 1 to the Code:

G – General

Programmes which exclude material likely to be unsuitable for children. Programmes may not necessarily be designed for child viewers but should not contain material likely to alarm or distress them.

[7]  TVWorks accepted that the episode contained content “designed for the amusement of adult viewers”, but argued that adult themes were not necessarily inappropriate for G-rated programmes, provided their presentation was not “unacceptably challenging”. It said the episode did not contain “explicit or otherwise inappropriate sexual material”, contending that the content was light-hearted and sarcastic, as opposed to titillating or salacious.

[8]  For the reasons expressed below we find that the episode contained sexual themes and innuendo that went beyond what was acceptable in a G-rated programme broadcast at 6.30pm. We emphasise at this point that our jurisdiction is limited to the specific episode subject to complaint, and we make no comment about the series as a whole or its designated timeslot.

[9]  The G classification signals, particularly for parents and caregivers of children, that a programme excludes material likely to be unsuitable for children, so that they can reasonably expect to leave their children to watch unsupervised, and be confident the programme will not contain anything which requires their guidance. A “child” is defined in Appendix 1 to the Code as a boy or girl under the age of 14 years. All G programmes must be suitable for unaccompanied children of any age, from teenagers to very young children.

[10]  The sexual content in this episode was not, in our view, suitable for unsupervised children. We refer specifically to material at the start of the programme where the characters entered the internet and came across sites advertising pornography and adult chat rooms. The sites were mostly portrayed through signs which read, for example, “Wireless Cyber Sex”, “Four Prostitutes Bridge”, “Asexual Reproduction”, and “Filthy Chat Room”. While the sexually suggestive nature of the signs would have gone over the heads of young children, they were likely to raise questions for older children who could read, therefore requiring adult supervision. The internet scene also showed a woman dressed in a nurse’s outfit, saying to a male character, “I’m a naughty nurse and I really need someone to talk to… $9.95 a minute”, to which he replied, “Oh, you’re a dollar naughtier than most”.

[11]  Later, a parody of the sitcom Married with Children involved the characters making crude jokes containing sexual innuendo, as follows:

Female:     Hey, where’d you get this couch and that TV set and all this stuff?

Male:         They were giving it away on the street corner, just like you Leela.

Female:     Too bad they weren’t giving away the three things you actually need:
                 mouthwash, a back wax and stain-proof underwear.

Male:         By the way your pal Fry fell into the dungeon, take him a taco so he doesn’t die
                 and stink up the place.

Female:     Come on Al, can’t you let the little guy out?

Male:         Jeez Leela, twice in one day, I’m not superman.

[12]  In a wedding scene toward the end of the episode, reference was made to a “two-way mirror”, as outlined in the complaint. It was discovered the groom had five brides, and in an attempt to explain himself, he said:

Well this is the real me, but I can explain. We all have needs. Mine was to make it with five weirdos and have them scrub my five castles. I gave you all what you wanted and of course I made a few bucks letting Pig watch through the two-way mirror. Can any of you say you wouldn’t have done the exact same thing in my position?

[13]  The Authority has previously held that sexual content or references 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.1 While we accept some of the content was innuendo-driven and may not have been picked up by younger children, other sexual material in this episode was not sufficiently inexplicit and would have raised questions for older children, particularly the early references to sex, prostitutes, and chat rooms.

[14]  In our view, the sexual references and innuendo in this episode were targeted at a more mature audience capable of appreciating their meaning, and we think the episode should have been rated PGR and screened in a later timeslot. The PGR classification alerts parents to programmes containing themes more suited for a mature audience, but not necessarily unsuitable for child viewers when subject to the guidance of an adult. While classifications must be assessed according to the specific content of each episode, we note that TVWorks previously accepted the PGR rating was appropriate for a different episode of this programme, saying its content “could be considered too sophisticated for very young children, but not so challenging that it could harm or disturb children with parental guidance”.2

[15]  In addition, we have regard to the Authority’s recent research into the public’s attitudes to our decisions, focusing in particular on the children’s interests and good taste and decency standards. The results of this research indicated that parents felt strongly that cartoons broadcast in children’s viewing times were very likely to appeal to children, and therefore that they should be able to expect such cartoons to be appropriate for children, whether or not they were targeted at them. Most participants objected to sexual and violent content in the cartoon episodes that were tested.3

[16]  In deciding whether to uphold the complaint, we must consider the right to freedom of expression, and balance this against the harm alleged to have been caused by the broadcast.

[17]  We accept that the broadcast had entertainment value. However, the episode’s incorrect classification and inappropriate time of broadcast meant that viewers were not properly informed of the likely content and were denied any opportunity to make a different viewing choice, or to exercise discretion with regard to their children’s viewing. Viewers should be able to rely on the classification system, and are entitled to expect they do not need to monitor their children’s exposure to G-rated content. 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.

[18]  The importance of protecting children from unsuitable content in our view outweighed the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression in relation to this episode. Upholding the complaint would not unreasonably restrict this right. We are not making a finding that the episode should not have been broadcast at all. The episode could have screened without breaching standards if it had been correctly classified and adhered to the time-bands in the Code.

[19]  We find that the potential harm caused in terms of the objectives of Standards 8 and 9 (adequately informing parents and protecting child viewers from unsuitable content) outweighed the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, and we uphold the complaint that this episode of Futurama breached the responsible programming and children’s interests standards.

Inconsistency of classifications

[20]  As an aside, Ms Stroud noted that Futurama was classified ‘14’ in the United States, and she asserted it was sometimes rated PGR on FOUR. Under our broadcasting standards system, broadcasters are ultimately responsible for their own programme appraisal and classification decisions. We understand Ms Stroud’s view that the ‘14’ rating allocated in the US, and the fact the programme is sometimes rated PGR on FOUR, supports the view that this episode was unsuitable for unsupervised children. Nevertheless, this discrepancy in classifications across different jurisdictions cannot be addressed here and has no bearing on our decision, and the alleged PGR classification of some episodes of Futurama on FOUR may reflect the level of content in different episodes and is not relevant to our assessment of the particular episode subject to complaint.

 

For the above reasons the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by TVWorks Ltd of Futurama on 31 May June 2013 breached Standards 8 and 9 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[21]  Having upheld the complaint, we may make orders under sections 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. We invited submissions on orders from the parties.

[22]  Ms Stroud submitted that, if the Authority decided to impose a fine, TVWorks should be ordered to pay the maximum possible, and suggested that, “perhaps the broadcaster would find it fortuitous to donate the same amount to ECPAT or a similar organisation assisting child victims of sexual abuse”. The complainant requested a broadcast statement at the start of the programme, including an apology to child viewers for the breach. She said the statement should also be aired in adult time, and on all of TVWorks’ channels. Ms Stroud said she would like to see broadcasters defining the meaning of classifications at the start of programmes, by reference to whether content is suitable for specified age groups.

[23]  TVWorks considered the Authority’s findings went beyond what was complained about. It maintained that the sexual content was of a “very passive nature” and would not have distressed or alarmed child viewers. However, it said the episode’s rating had been changed to PGR, and said that while Futurama was not currently being broadcast on FOUR, it would take the decision into account in broadcasting repeats in the future. The broadcaster considered that publication of the decision was sufficient to establish that sexually suggestive material of this nature was unsuitable for the G classification and a 6.30pm timeslot.

Authority’s response and decision on orders

[24]  We are satisfied that we have not, in our findings, ventured beyond the scope of the complaint. The complaint was general, stating, “the episode dealt quite casually about sex and included mention of… ‘threesomes’, ‘two-way mirrors’ etc”. We think this was broad enough to encompass the content we have considered, including the sexually suggestive signage in the internet scene.

[25]  Further, a breach of Standard 9 does not require that the content “distress or alarm” child viewers, but only that the broadcaster did not adequately consider children’s interests, which can include incorrectly classifying a programme and broadcasting it in an inappropriate timeslot. The reference to “distress and alarm” occurs in guideline 9a to the standard and is a guide only; it is the wording of the standard which is determinative.

[26]  We have considered the submissions on orders, and we are satisfied that in all the circumstances publication of our decision is sufficient and will serve to provide guidance to broadcasters about our expectations surrounding sexual content during children’s viewing times.

[27]  We acknowledge that TVWorks has taken on board our decision and reclassified the episode for future broadcast, as well as undertaking that it will have regard to this decision when considering repeat broadcasts of other episodes. We do not consider that a broadcast statement or costs to the Crown are warranted, taking into account that this is the first time we have upheld a complaint about Futurama. We do not have the power under the Act to order the broadcaster to donate money to any organisation.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
19 November 2013


Appendix

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

1                 Tracey Stroud’s formal complaint  – 1 June 2013

2                 TVWorks’ response to the complaint – 12 June 2013

3                 Ms Stroud’s referral to the Authority (including attachment) – 19 June 2013

4                 TVWorks’ response to the Authority – 30 July 2013

5                 Ms Stroud’s final comment – 22 August 2013

6                 TVWorks’ final comment – 27 August 2013

7                 Ms Stroud’s further comments – 28 August 2013

8                 TVWorks’ confirmation of no further comments – 3 September 2013

9                 Ms Stroud’s submissions on provisional decision and orders – 14 October 2013

10              TVWorks’ submissions on provisional decision and orders – 16 October 2013