BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Findlay and Television New Zealand - 2008-032

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • Rhonda Findlay
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Rome – two episodes contained offensive language – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency

Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – language was gratuitous and could have been edited without affecting the storyline – upheld

No Order

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1]   Two episodes of the historical drama Rome were broadcast on TV One at 10.25pm on 13 January and at 11.10pm on 3 February 2008. The 13 January episode contained the following lines:           

Caesar would’ve fucked Medusa if she’d had a crown.

Nice manners, for a whore.

Your son will eat shit and die before I make him legal.

[I swear] on Juno’s cunt.

I am a son of Hades! I fuck Concord in her arse!

You can tell your lawyer to shove a taper up his arse and set himself alight.

Mark Antony buggers boys like you for a morning snack.

I’ll do anything. I’ll suck your cock.

Oh, Juno’s cunt!

You stupid little shit!

Fucking whore!

[2]   The 3 February episode contained the following exchange:

You’re sucking slave cock at an orgy...

...I suck no slave cock...

[3]   The 13 January episode was preceded by the following warning:

This programme is rated adults only. It contains language that may offend, and violence that may disturb some people.

[4]   This warning was broadcast before the 3 February episode:

The following programme is rated adults only. It contains language and sex scenes that may offend some people.


[5]   Rhonda Findlay made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the episodes breached standards of good taste and decency.

[6]   Ms Findlay argued that “TVNZ has shown little regard for normally accepted levels of good taste and decency in the uncensored screenings of... Rome”. She said that the language in the two episodes (as well as another on 20 January 2008) was “obscene, including explicit or sexually violent language, that is frequently degrading to women, and boys/young men”, and that the pre-broadcast warnings for language were no justification. She also said it was absurd that a programme about ancient Rome would use examples of modern coarse language.


[7]   Standard 1 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice is relevant to the determination of this complaint. It provides:

Standard 1 Good Taste and Decency

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[8]   The broadcaster contended that to constitute a breach of Standard 1, the material shown must have been unacceptable to a significant number of viewers in the context in which it was shown, including the programme’s classification, the time of broadcast, the intended audience and the use of warnings.

[9]   TVNZ argued that the AO classification and pre-broadcast warnings gave a precise indication of the type of material the programme would contain, including frequent coarse language, and gave viewers ample opportunity to decide whether they wanted to watch the programme. As Rome screened at 10.25pm and 11.10pm, there was an expectation that the material shown was likely to be more challenging than material shown in an AO programme at 8.30pm, it said.

[10]   TVNZ maintained that there was considerable audience expectation regarding the type of storyline and language that might feature in Rome now that it had entered its second season. It argued that in the examples cited by Ms Findlay, the language and sexual inferences were important parts of the storyline. It said “at this late time of night there is no reason to remove the language and destroy the storyline and this is not required given the audience expectation of the series”.

[11]   With regard to the language, the broadcaster argued that the word “cunt” was not used frequently in the episodes, and was appropriate in the context of an AO programme with a warning for language, which was broadcast at least two hours after the AO watershed.

[12]   TVNZ cited the Authority’s Decision No. 2000-104, in which the Authority found that the frequent use of “fuck” in The Sopranos, broadcast at 9.30pm with a warning for offensive language, did not breach Standard 1 in light of contextual factors. The Authority found that it “[did] not exceed community expectations”, it said.

[13]   The broadcaster concluded that the language in the Rome episodes would not have offended a significant number of viewers in the context of the screening, including the AO classification, the time of the broadcast, the detailed warnings and the considerable audience expectation of the type of language used in the series as a whole. It declined to uphold the complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[14]   Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Ms Findlay referred her complaint about the 13 January and 3 February episodes to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[15]   Ms Findlay disagreed with TVNZ that the warning, time of broadcast and context justified the language in the programme. She accepted that Roman culture was “considerably violent and contained phallic symbolism”, but still felt that the language was indecent and in bad taste, and also “degrading and/or sexually violent”. She said that she strongly disagreed that a significant number of viewers would not have been offended.

[16]   The complainant also disagreed with TVNZ that the word “cunt” was not used frequently in the programme. She argued that the use of the word in the 13 January episode “as an oath to swear upon [was] especially offensive. If the god’s body part was seen as so sacred [as argued by TVNZ] it would also not be referred to with such degrading and extremely disrespectful terminology”. Ms Findlay expressed the view that the word “cunt” referring to a woman’s genitalia was highly offensive and she did not believe that most New Zealanders would want it to be used on television, as it was not consistent with normally accepted standards of good taste and decency.

Authority's Determination

[17]   The members of the Authority have viewed recordings of the broadcasts complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.

[18]   When the Authority considers a complaint that alleges a breach of good taste and decency, it is required to take into account the context of the broadcast. On this occasion the relevant contextual factors include:

  • Rome was broadcast at 10.25pm and 11.10pm on Sunday evenings
  • Rome was classified AO
  • Rome had an adult target audience
  • both episodes were preceded by visual and verbal warnings for language that may offend
  • the expectations of regular viewers.

[19]   The Authority notes that there are a number of contextual factors which favour the broadcaster’s position, including the late time of broadcast, a target audience of adult viewers, the visual and verbal warnings about the episodes’ content, and the fact that the language was used in the context of a historical drama. These factors, however, will not always be sufficient to prevent a programme breaching standards of good taste and decency.

[20]   Research published by the Authority in 2006 indicates that the word “cunt” was considered by New Zealanders to be the most unacceptable and offensive word in the broadcasting context.1 The use of the word has previously been found by the Authority to have breached Standard 1 (Decision Nos. 2001-131 and 2000-154).

[21]   The Authority considers that the broadcast of the word “cunt” in the 13 January episode of Rome was gratuitous. The broadcaster could easily have edited it out without affecting the programme’s tone or storyline. Taking into account the research on community attitudes, the Authority finds that the use of that word in these circumstances breached standards of good taste and decency.

[22]   Accordingly, the Authority upholds the complaint that the 13 January episode breached Standard 1.

[23]   However, taking into account the contextual factors described above, the Authority does not uphold the aspects of the complaint relating to the 3 February episode.

 Bill of Rights

[24]   The Authority records that it has given full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and taken into account all the circumstances of the complaint in reaching its determination. The  Authority considers that its exercise of powers on this occasion is consistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act’s requirement that limits on freedom of expression must be prescribed by law, be reasonable, and be demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society.


For the above reasons the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast of Rome on 13 January 2008 breached Standard 1 (good taste and decency) of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

 [25]   Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make orders under sections 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It does not intend to impose an order on this occasion. The Authority considers that the publication of its decision is sufficient to clarify its expectations surrounding the broadcast of this type of language on free-to-air television.

 Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Joanne Morris
4 July 2008


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

1.            Rhonda Findlay’s formal complaint – 5 February 2008
2.           TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 11 March 2008
3.           Ms Findlay’s referral to the Authority – 10 April 2008
4.           TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 18 April 2008

1Broadcasting Standards Authority, Freedoms and Fetters: Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand, (Dunmore Publishing Ltd: Wellington, 2006), 95-98.