BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Hooker and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2002-063, 2002-064

Members
  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • B Hayward
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor
Dated
Complainant
  • Michael Hooker
Number
2002-063–64
Programme
Friends
Channel/Station
TV2

Complaints
Friends two episodes – references to "peeing" in one and depiction of strippers in the other – offensive behaviour – actors involved aged twenty something – inappropriately classified G – broadcasters not mindful of effect on child viewers

Findings
Standard G2 – context – no uphold

Standard G8 – affirms positive values – appropriately classified – no uphold

Standard G12 – not alarming – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] Friends is a long-established sitcom involving the adventures and love lives of six young people living in New York City. A jellyfish sting sequence was dealt with in the episode broadcast on TV2 at 6.30pm on 29 November 2001 and one of the characters, Joey, recalled that "peeing" on a sting had been recommended as a remedy on the Discovery Channel. In the episode broadcast on 18 December, another character, Chandler, was taken to a strip club.

[2] Michael Hooker complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the reference to urinating and the depiction of strippers breached accepted community standards in the G time band. He also complained that the lifestyle issues dealt with in Friends were inappropriately classified as G, and by screening the series at 6.30pm, broadcasters were not mindful of the effect of the programmes on children.

[3] In response, TVNZ said that the reference to "peeing" was humorous and the strip sequence was not explicit. Describing the episodes complained about as typical of the series, TVNZ maintained that it was not unreasonable to screen the family series as family entertainment at 6.30pm. It did not accept that it would disturb or alarm young viewers, and declined to uphold the complaints.

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

For the reasons below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaints.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the programmes complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.

The Programmes

[6] The sitcom Friends was first screened in New Zealand in 1995, TVNZ advised, and all the episodes had been replayed – some on a number of occasions. TVNZ added:

… this sitcom is about six young people living in New York, their crazy adventures and their mixed up love lives. The dialogue is full of good-natured and what we used to call "goofy" humour.

The Complaint

[7] Michael Hooker complained that the episodes broadcast at 6.30pm on TV2 on 29 November and 18 December 2001 breached the standards relating to good taste and decency. He also maintained that the episodes were inappropriately classified as G, and that the broadcaster had not been mindful of the effect of the programmes on children.

[8] With regard to the standard relating to good taste and decency, Mr Hooker argued that it was breached in the episode broadcast on 29 November by the references to urinating, and in the 18 December episode by the depiction of female strippers.

[9] Turning to the classification of the series, Mr Hooker referred to an earlier decision (1996-135) when the Authority upheld a complaint that City Life was inappropriately classified PGR. Mr Hooker considered the approaches taken and the themes dealt with in City Life and Friends were similar, and thus the G classification for Friends was totally inappropriate.

[10] As the Authority upheld a complaint about the inappropriate classification of City Life, Mr Hooker continued, the broadcaster had not been mindful of the effect of the broadcast on children during their normally accepted viewing time and consequently, the broadcast breached standard G12.

The Standards

[11] As the complaint was received after the revised Code of Broadcasting Practice for Free-to-Air television came into operation on 1 January 2002, TVNZ assessed the complaint under the equivalent standards to those cited by Mr Hooker in the revised Code. They read:

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.

Guideline

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 (see Appendix 1). The examples are not exhaustive.

Standard 7 Programme Classification

Broadcasters are responsible for ensuring that programmes are appropriately classified and adequately display programme classification information, and that time-bands are adhered to.

Standard 9 Children’s Interests

During children’s normally accepted viewing times(see Appendix 1), broadcasters are required, in the preparation and presentation of programmes, to consider the interests of child viewers.

Guideline

9a  Broadcasters should be mindful of the effect any programme or promo may have on children during their normally accepted viewing times – usually up to 8.30pm – and avoid screening material which would disturb or alarm them.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[12] TVNZ explained that Friends was a long established sitcom and all the episodes had been replayed at least once. It wrote:

Throughout the time it has screened in this country (and world-wide) Friends has attracted big audiences, to the point where it is regarded as something of a television phenomenon and a model of the sitcom genre. The programme is clearly directed at family audiences, with particular appeal for teenagers and families containing teenagers.

[13] The references to "peeing", TVNZ said, arose when one of the characters was stung by a jellyfish, and one of the others said that he had heard on Discovery Channel that "peeing" on the wound would relieve the pain. As for the strip sequence, TVNZ pointed out that it occurred when the women characters took "Chandler" to a strip club to help him get over the break up of a relationship.

[14] TVNZ stated:

It seems to the [complaints] committee that these were typical examples of the situations that are presented in every episode of Friends and that viewers are by now thoroughly familiar with the characters, their foibles and their relationships with one another. Viewers turn on in their tens of thousands to watch – even though many have seen the episodes before.

It seemed to the committee that it was relevant in considering what constitutes "current norms of decency and taste" to consider the public reaction to the material in question. The committee is unaware of any other complaint in any form about either of the sequences your letter describes – either in relation to this screening, or any earlier screening.

[15] As for the G classification, TVNZ explained that its schedule was designed with different age groups in mind at different times of the day. On the basis that Friends provided entertainment and stimulation for older children and teenagers, and given viewers’ familiarity with the series, TVNZ maintained that it was not unreasonable to screen family entertainment at 6.30pm.

[16] Dealing with the complaint that it had not been mindful of children in screening Friends at 6.30pm, TVNZ noted that Guideline 9a made particular reference to the need to avoid screening material which might disturb or alarm children.

[17] TVNZ acknowledged some families might be embarrassed by some of the innuendo on Friends, but argued that adult embarrassment did not amount to disturbing or alarming children.

[18] It also observed that the humour in Friends operated at several levels and questioned whether young children who appreciated the "slap stick" aspects, would understand the sexual innuendo.

[19] TVNZ declined to uphold any aspect of either complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[20] Mr Hooker considered that the revised Code applied only to programmes broadcast after 1 January 2002, and persisted with his complaint under the standards nominated in his complaint.

[21] Mr Hooker disputed TVNZ’s statement that Friends was directed at family viewers. Rather, he argued, it was "clearly directed primarily at mature audiences".

[22] With reference to TVNZ’s comments on scheduling, Mr Hooker contended that such gradients within time bands would lead to the blurring of the demarcation within the classification codes. Focusing on the sequence which showed payment for sexual favours, Mr Hooker stated that it portrayed women as sexual objects. He wrote:

Because Friends may be regarded as a comparatively innocuous programme and therefore more readily accepted as legitimate, its detrimental effects are far more insidious and deceptive. The Authority needs to consider the impact of such material on the impressionable minds of very young children whose attitudes to women are at a critical formative juncture of their lives. As TVNZ correctly states in Decision No 1998-115 all material shown in G time bands needs to be suitable for very young children. Is it TVNZ’s position that programmes which show women being paid to perform sexual favours is suitable fare for very young children?

[23] Turning to the standard G12 aspect of his complaint, Mr Hooker argued that it did not apply only to material which was disturbing or alarming to children. He considered that the strip sequence was unacceptable for children.

[24] Finally, Mr Hooker argued that with the scheduling of Friends when the news was shown on TV One and TV3, it was probable that children were watching the programme by themselves in homes with two or more television sets.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[25] TVNZ dealt with the issue about the use of the revised Code against which it assessed the complaint.

[26] It pointed out that TVNZ had taken the decision in December 2001 to use the revised Code to consider all complaints considered by its Complaints Committee after 1 January 2002. Complainants had been advised on receipt of their complaints and asked to report if that was not satisfactory. TVNZ reported that Mr Hooker had been advised of TVNZ’s practice on receipt of his complaint in early January 2000, and had not expressed any concern at that time.

[27] TVNZ did not comment further on the substance of the complaints, other than to enclose an article from "The Observer", reproduced in "The New Zealand Herald", which noted the phenomenon of the widely enjoyed Friends.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[28] In his final comment, Mr Hooker repeated his concern about portraying the degradation of women during the G time band, and cited Authority decisions which also expressed such a concern (Nos: 1990-025 and 1996-066).

[29] He enclosed an article from "The New Zealand Herald" which, he said, reported that promiscuity was the central theme of Friends. In his view, promiscuity was an adult theme and the series noted in the article with the same theme were all classified as PGR.

The Authority’s Determination

[30] The episodes of Friends complained about were broadcast by TVNZ in November and December 2001, but as they were not considered by TVNZ until January 2002, the broadcaster assessed the complaints under the revised Code of Broadcasting Practice for Free-To-Air Television which came into effect on 1 January 2002.

[31] The revised Code was approved by the Authority on 13 August 2001 to come into effect on 1 January 2002. The Authority’s intention was the revised Code would be applied to broadcasts after 1 January 2002. Accordingly, the Authority has assessed the complaint under the standards nominated by Mr Hooker – standards G2, G8 and G12.

[32] These standards require broadcasters, in the preparation and presentation of programmes:

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 programme classifications.

G12  To be mindful of the effect any programme may have on children during their normally accepted viewing times.

[33] TVNZ and Mr Hooker were advised of the standards under which the Authority intended to assess the complaints, and were given an opportunity to respond. TVNZ did not oppose this action, writing:

We have nothing further to say. We believe that, given the precedents set by previous Authority decisions concerning G2, G8 and G12, there are no material differences between these standards, and those in the new code under which TVNZ considered the complaint. Standards 1, 7 and 9 derive directly from G2, G8 and G12, and the changed wording simply reflects what broadcasters have understood to be the Authority’s interpretation of the earlier code over the past dozen years.

[34] 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 determinative of whether the programme breaches standard G2.

[35] The relevant contextual aspects of the episode which referred to "peeing" on a jellyfish sting included the use of colloquial language to refer to an activity which had been spoken about on the Discovery Channel. The reference involved discussion only: there was no explicit behaviour. The Authority also regards the time of screening – 6.30pm – as relevant and notes that while this is G time, the schedule is designed for older children and teenagers at this hour.

[36] Most of these matters are also relevant aspects when considering the contextual issues in regard to the visit to the strip club, although that episode did not use similar colloquial language. The Authority considers that it is of particular relevance that the visit to the strip club was initiated by the women characters and there was minimal footage of any actual strip scenes.

[37] Having considered the contextual matters noted, the Authority concludes that neither episode of Friends breached standard G2.

[38] Standard G8 requires the Authority to consider whether Friends was appropriately classified as G, which reads:

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

[39] The Authority does not consider that the episodes of Friends complained about were likely to disturb or alarm children. As noted, there was little explicit behaviour which could offend. The Authority believes that younger children would be unlikely to understand the innuendo contained in the dialogue which, for the most part, reaffirms the values of friendship and constancy.

[40] For these reasons, the Authority concludes that standard G8 was not breached, and for similar reasons, it finds that standard G12 was not breached.

[41] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
23 May 2002

Appendix

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

  1. Michael Hooker’s Formal Complaints to Television New Zealand Ltd – 4 January 2002
  2. TVNZ’s Response to Mr Hooker – 30 January 2002
  3. Mr Hooker’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 4 February 2002
  4. TVNZ‘s Response to the Authority – 14 February 2002
  5. Mr Hooker’s Final Comment – 24 February 2002
  6. TVNZ’s Response on the Appropriate Standards – 4 April 2002