BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Hooker and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2002-008

Members
  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • B Hayward
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor
Dated
Complainant
  • Michael Hooker
Number
2002-008
Programme
The Sopranos
Channel/Station
TV2

Complaint
The Sopranos – scene in which man attacks and kills pregnant woman – offensive – violence against woman and unborn baby – horrific – unjustifiable – gratuitous

Findings
Standard G2 – unacceptable material – uphold

Standard V1 – scene not essential or justifiable in context of programme – uphold

Standard V2 – realistic violence used gratuitously for heightened impact – uphold

Standard G8 – subsumed

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] An episode of The Sopranos was broadcast on TV2 at 9.30pm on 6 September 2001. The Sopranos is a drama about an American-Italian mafia family living in the eastern United States.

[2] Michael Hooker complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about a scene in which a pregnant woman is beaten and killed, which he considered breached standards relating to good taste and decency, violence and appropriate classification.

[3] TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint. It did not consider that that the attack fell outside the AO classification guideline or breached standards relating to violence or good taste and decency.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Hooker referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons given, the Authority upholds the complaint.

Decision

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

The Programme 

[6] An episode of The Sopranos, an American drama series about a mafia family, was broadcast on TV2 at 9.30pm on 6 September 2001. According to TVNZ:

The series, now in its third season on television in New Zealand, reflects the raw and brutal attitudes and behaviour of the crime family members, and sets in contrast the regular encounters the leading character, Tony Soprano, has with his female psychologist – encounters which reveal a man riven with self-doubt and consumed with introspection.

The Complaint

[7] Michael Hooker complained to TVNZ about a scene in which a pregnant woman was beaten and killed. He considered that the attack was "horrific", "gratuitous", beyond community standards of good taste and decency and not essential in the programme’s context.

The Standards

[8] Mr Hooker asked that his complaint be assessed under standards G2, G8, V1 and V2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Standards G2 and G8 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.

G8 To abide by the classification codes and their appropriate time bands as outlined in the agreed criteria for classification.

Standards V1 and V2 read:

V1 Broadcasters have a responsibility to ensure that any violence shown is justifiable, ie is essential in the context of the programme.

V2 When obviously designed for gratuitous use to achieve heightened impact, realistic violence – as distinct from farcical violence – must be avoided.

TVNZ’s Response to the Complaint

[9] TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint. It considered that the scene in which the attack on the pregnant woman occurred was:

in keeping with the uncompromising mafia-styled themes which run through The Sopranos.

[10] TVNZ also considered that the violence was "mainly in the minds of the viewers", explaining that:

…viewers heard the sound of the assault while shadowy figures were seen moving about in the darkness. The actual blows were not seen, nor was there any focus on the injuries to the woman.

[11] TVNZ said that it did not accept what it regarded as Mr Hooker’s suggestion that the scene should not have been screened because the victim had been a woman and pregnant. It then explained that the programme was a work of fiction, was broadcast a full hour after the 8.30pm AO watershed, had carried an AO classification certificate and had been preceded by a very strong warning about its content. According to TVNZ, the warning and classification symbol had been screened before the broadcast and after each commercial break. Furthermore, it was TVNZ’s view that regular viewers of The Sopranos would have been familiar with "the usually brief flare ups of violence that occur as each story unfolds".

[12] Next, TVNZ considered standard G8. It considered that the scene Mr Hooker complained about fell within the AO guideline, and therefore concluded that the standard had not been breached.

[13] TVNZ also concluded that standards V1 and V2 had not been breached, disagreeing with Mr Hooker’s view that that the scene was gratuitous and not essential in the programme’s context.

Mr Hooker’s Referral to the Authority

[14] In his referral to the Authority, Mr Hooker disagreed with TVNZ’s description of the attack scene as having occurred in darkness and featuring "shadowy figures", maintaining that the characters and the action were clearly distinguishable. He also said he had not suggested that the attack scene should have been outlawed, but that it should have been implied instead of explicitly depicted. Mr Hooker described the scene as a graphic act of violence, and contended that exposing viewers to this material could desensitise some, and:

promote the use of violence, particularly in domestic situations, to resolve conflict in sections of the community predisposed to anti-social behaviour.

[15] Mr Hooker then reiterated his concern that aspects of the programme breached standards, in particular that the violence was not essential in the programme’s context and was gratuitous.

TVNZ’s Response to the Authority

[16] TVNZ disagreed with Mr Hooker’s assertion that he had "seen" the attack, maintaining:

What he saw was a pair of actors performing a fictional fight sequence in semi-darkness. We do not deny that there is an impression of strong violence – but it is in the mind of the viewer.

Mr Hooker’s Final Comment

[17] In Mr Hooker’s final comment he reiterated that he had seen the attack, and rejected its submission that the violence was in the minds of viewers.

The Authority’s Determination

[18] Mr Hooker complained to TVNZ about a scene which he said showed a man beating a pregnant woman to death. He asked TVNZ to assess his complaint under standards G2, G8, V1 and V2. TVNZ considered Mr Hooker’s complaint under three of the four nominated standards, omitting to provide a response to the standard G2 aspect. When Mr Hooker referred his complaint to the Authority, he reiterated that it had been made under all four of the standards. As Mr Hooker specifically nominated standard G2, the Authority considers that it is appropriate to determine whether the material Mr Hooker complained about breached that standard.

[19] The Authority is also satisfied that the concerns Mr Hooker raised under standard G8 are best dealt with under standards G2, V1 and V2. The matters relied upon as constituting a breach of standard G8 overlap with matters considered under the other standards, and the Authority has subsumed them accordingly.

Standard V1

[20] Standard V1 requires broadcasters to ensure that any violence which is shown in a programme is justifiable. That is to say, it must be essential in the context of the programme. Accordingly, the Authority has considered the context of the programme. The Authority considers that relevant contextual matters include the programme’s AO rating, time of broadcast (9.30pm), pre-broadcast warning, viewer expectations and the nature of the programme.

[21] The Authority has considered these contextual matters carefully and concludes that they did not justify the broadcast of the attack scene. The Authority does not consider that the material was essential in the context of the programme. In its view, the violence was gratuitous. In the Authority’s view, the fact that the blows were not seen connecting was outweighed in this instance by the realistic and horrific nature of the assault scene reinforced by the visuals of the bloodied woman’s body shown afterward. The Authority also considered the broadcaster’s argument that the scene was important to the character development of Ralph, the instigator of the attack. In its view, it was not. Ralph’s character seemed apparent to the Authority without the need for the scene complained about.

[22] For the reasons noted in the above paragraph, the Authority concludes that standard V1 was breached on this occasion.

Standard V2

[23] The Authority’s task in determining whether standard V2 was breached is to consider whether the material Mr Hooker complained about was realistic violence which was obviously designed for gratuitous use to achieve heightened impact.

[24] In the Authority’s view, the attack scene was gratuitous. For the same reasons that it found standard V1 was breached, the Authority also considers standard V2 was breached.

Standard G2

[25] When it determines a complaint about whether a broadcast contravenes standard G2, the Authority is required to determine whether the material complained about breached currently accepted standards of good taste and decency, taking into account the context of the broadcast. The context is relevant, but not decisive, to the Authority’s determination of whether the programme breached standard G2.

[26] The Authority considered the contextual matters noted above at paragraph 20. Again, for the same reasons that it found standard V1 was breached, the Authority also concludes that the broadcast breached standard G2.

Bill of Rights

[27] In reaching this decision, the Authority records that it has considered whether the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, as contained in s.14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 is unjustifiably infringed. The Authority is satisfied that its decision to uphold this complaint, and the resultant order, are made under its empowering legislation. The Authority is also satisfied that the exercise of its power on this occasion does not unduly restrict the broadcaster’s right to express itself freely. Indeed, it considers that while still giving effect to the intention of the Broadcasting Act, the upholding of this complaint is reasonable and demonstrably justified in particular as the material was brutal, prolonged and gratuitous. In coming to this conclusion, the Authority has taken into account all the circumstances of this complaint, including the nature of the complaint, and the potential impact of an order.

 

For the above reasons, the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by TVNZ of The Sopranos on 6 September 2001 breached standards G2, V1 and V2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[28] Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make an order under ss. 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It invited submissions from the parties and considered those submissions.

[29] Having considered all the circumstances of the complaint and taking into account that this is the first occasion on which a complaint about this programme has been upheld, the Authority does not consider that a penalty is warranted.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
7 February 2002

Appendix

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

  1. Michael Hooker’s Formal Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 4 October 2001
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 15 October 2001
  3. Mr Hooker’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 27 October 2001
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 14 November 2001
  5. Mr Hooker’s Final Comment – 26 November 2001
  6. TVNZ’s Submission on Penalty – 17 January 2002
  7. Mr Hooker’s Submission on Penalty – 20 January 2002