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Holding and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2004-061

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • Doreen Holding
  • Dunedin
Serial Mom

Complaint under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Serial Mom – movie – language – included repeated use of “fuck” – allegedly bad taste

Standard 1 (good taste and decency) and Guidelines 1a and 1b – context – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1] Serial Mom, a satirical movie about a murderous suburban mother in America, was broadcast on TV2 from 10.30pm on 26 January 2004. Early in the movie, the lead character makes an obscene telephone call. During the call the word “fuck” is spoken repeatedly and other offensive language is also used.


[2] Doreen Holding complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about the use of the word “fuck”.

Standards or Principles

[3] TVNZ assessed the complaint against Standard 1 of the of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which reads:

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.


1a  Broadcasters must take into consideration current norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs. Examples of context are the time of the broadcast, the type of programme, the target audience, the use of warnings and the programme’s classification. The examples are not exhaustive.

1b  Broadcasters should consider – and if appropriate require – the use of on-air visual and verbal warnings when programmes contain violent material, material of a sexual nature, coarse language or other content likely to disturb children or offend a significant number of adult viewers. Warnings should be specific in nature, while avoiding detail which may itself distress or offend viewers.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[4] TVNZ considered that the strong language which was used formed an integral part of the story and to remove it would substantially weaken the film’s satirical message. The broadcaster explained:

The film, while based on a true story about a seemingly ordinary American mother who became a serial killer, is also a dark satire about demented lifestyles in United States suburbia.

The language was used by the director to tear away the veneer of social respectability which is implied through the neatly cut lawns, tidy houses and picket fences of city suburbs in America. The “Mom" of the title is outwardly the essence of a contented American housewife; but behind a smiling face lurks obscene and murderous fantasies, and these raise questions about “the American dream”.

[5] In addition to the dramatic context in which the word was used, the broadcaster noted that the film:

  • began at 10.30pm;
  • was classified AO (Adults Only) and the AO classification symbol appeared at the beginning of the film and after each commercial break;
  • was preceded by a verbal and visual warning which specifically drew viewers’ attention to the presence of “sex, violence and language”; and
  • was recommended for an audience 18 years and over and urged viewer discretion.

[6] TVNZ did not uphold the complaint. However, it apologised to the complainant for offending her.

Referral to the Authority

[7] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response to her complaint, Mrs Holding referred it to the Authority.

Authority's Determination

[8] The members of the Authority have viewed the film complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

[9] The complainant complained specifically about the repeated use of the word “fuck” during a telephone conversation that occurred early in the broadcast. The Authority must consider the context of a broadcast to determine whether it breaches Standard 1 (good taste and decency). On this occasion it agrees with the submissions made by the broadcaster about the context of the broadcast. It notes the following relevant matters about the use of the word “fuck” in Serial Mom:

  • the time of the broadcast (10.30pm);
  • the classification of the programme (AO);
  • the relevance of the language in the dramatic context of the film; and
  • the verbal and visual warning.

[10] The Authority concludes that the language on this occasion did not breach current norms of good taste and decency.


For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold this complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Joanne Morris
27 May 2004


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

  1. Doreen Holding’s Formal Complaint to Television New Zealand Limited – 2 February 2004
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 20 February 2004
  3. Mrs Holding’s Referral to the Authority – 8 March 2004
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 31 March 2004