BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Hooker and TV4 Network Ltd - 2002-029

Members
  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • B Hayward
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor
Dated
Complainant
  • Michael Hooker
Number
2002-029
Programme
South Park
Broadcaster
TV4 Network Ltd
Channel/Station
TV4 # 3

Complaint
South Park – necrophilia – offensive theme

Findings
Standard G2 – offensive material notwithstanding context – uphold

No Order

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] An episode of South Park was broadcast on TV4 at 9.00pm on 13 September 2001. South Park is a cartoon comedy series.

[2] Michael Hooker complained to TV4 Network Ltd, the broadcaster, that the "entire episode was based on the theme of necrophilia" (sex with a dead person), which he considered to be outside the accepted norms of taste and decency in the context of a comedy.

[3] TV4 declined to uphold the complaint. It did not consider that the programme breached standards relating to good taste and decency.

[4] Dissatisfied with TV4’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 South Park was broadcast on TV4 at 9.00pm on 13 September 2001. TV4 said of the series:

SOUTH PARK is an adult cartoon, which has a loyal following of adult viewers and is well known for its outrageous and irreverent humour.

The Complaint

[7] Michael Hooker complained to TV4 that "the entire episode was based on the theme of necrophilia". He considered that the programme was outside accepted norms of good taste and decency in the context of a comedy.

The Standards

[8] Mr Hooker asked that his complaint be assessed under standard G2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Standard G2 requires 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.

TV4’s Response to the Complaint

[9] TV4 declined to uphold the complaint. In its response it explained to Mr Hooker:

The episode which is the basis of your complaint (Korn’s Groovy Pirate Ghost Mystery) is the Halloween episode of series three. It follows the adventures of the band, Korn (who are trying to solve the mystery of the pirate ghosts), and the kids of South Park (who are trying to scare the fifth graders). As part of their plans to scare the fifth graders, the South Park kids dig up the body of Kyle’s deceased Grandma, to use as a prop. Unfortunately, the kids do not hide Grandma’s remains properly and she is taken by a dog. As a side plot, some of the townsfolk leap to the worst conclusion and assume a necrophiliac took her body.

[10] TV4 maintained that, since it began screening South Park in 1998, the series had become extremely well known, and popular, for its "off colour" themes and jokes, which it described as defining characteristics of the series. TV4 explained that the programme had always been rated AO and said it took care to screen the series where it was not readily accessible to child viewers. It also noted that the series had its own warning, which read:

The following program contains coarse language and due to its content it should not be viewed by anyone.

[11] TV4 concluded:

In this case while the tone of the humour in SOUTH PARK is not to everyone’s taste, the context of its AO rating, the hour of screening, the warning, and the substantial audience expectation of the show, means that Standard G2 has not been breached.

As part of the overall context, the Committee also takes into account that TV4 is a niche channel with different expectations and norms than other more mainstream channels. The "off colour" humour in SOUTH PARK is appreciated and accepted by the TV4 viewer.

While there were some jokes regarding the possible fate of Kyle’s Grandma, the theme of the episode was not necrophilia. The theme was in fact Halloween and the discussion about what could have happened to Kyle’s Grandma was part of many different horror stories told in the episode all of which, in good Halloween fashion, turn out to be untrue.

Mr Hooker’s Referral to the Authority

[12] In his referral to the Authority, Mr Hooker reiterated that the theme of the programme was necrophilia. He then referred the Authority to Decision No. 2001-071, and submitted:

… irrespective of what the rating of the programme is, what warnings preceded the programme, what time the programme screened and what the audience expectations are, any claim that jokes about necrophilia are not a breach of good taste is indefensible.

[13] Mr Hooker requested that the Authority direct the broadcaster to withdraw the programme. He considered that the programme:

had absolutely no merit, value or importance in relation to artistic, social, cultural, educational, scientific or any other matter.

[14] Mr Hooker also said that, in his view, the programme was intended for young audiences, commenting that TV4 had not disputed his contention that "as the programme is a cartoon, it would be highly attractive to children".

[15] Mr Hooker also asked that his complaint be considered under G5.

TV4’s Response to the Authority

[16] In TV4’s response to the Authority, it disagreed with Mr Hooker’s assessment of the programme, commenting:

Many other viewers enjoy the humour of the SOUTH PARK series and should be allowed to continue to do so. The episode in question does not condone or give even tacit approval to the act of necrophilia (in fact the joke relies on the "gross out" – the fact that necrophilia is disgusting). Such humour is acceptable for an adult audience.

TV4 has always shown an awareness that this programme is not a "children’s cartoon" by playing the many series at a later time (at least ½ an hour after the AO watershed). The Committee disagrees with Mr Hooker’s contention that a show must be aimed at children because it is cartooned; the nature of the cartoon genre as a whole has undergone a revolution since the early days of Disney’s Mickey Mouse. There is now a thriving adult comic industry and SOUTH PARK is part of this genre.

Mr Hooker’s Final Comment

[17] In his final comment, Mr Hooker submitted that:

his nomination of a further standard should be regarded as a relevant "submission" under s.10(b) of the Broadcasting Act

dealing with necrophilia "in such a way that attempts to evoke positive emotions (ie humour)" gives tacit approval to the activity.

The Authority’s Determination

[18] As a preliminary matter, the Authority deals with the matter of the additional standard which was raised by Mr Hooker at the time he referred his complaint. The Authority does not accept Mr Hooker’s submission that the nomination of an additional standard to that mentioned in his original complaint is a "relevant submission" under s.10(b) of the Broadcasting Act. Accordingly, it assesses this complaint under standard G2 only.

[19] When it determines a complaint about whether a broadcast contravenes standard G2, the Authority is required to determine whether the material complained about breaches 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 breaches standard G2.

[20] Accordingly, the Authority considers the context of the programme. The Authority considers that relevant contextual matters include the programme’s AO rating and time of broadcast (9.00pm), and viewer expectations both of the programme and of TV4 as a niche channel. The Authority also considers it relevant that no warning about the programme was given by the broadcaster. It notes that the warning cited by TV4 was a "joke" which was included as part of the show’s introduction and consequently was of no value whatsoever as a caution to viewers.

[21] The Authority also considers that the nature of the programme is relevant to its determination. It notes that South Park is a cartoon satire primarily aimed at adult viewers. The main characters are four eight year-old children, who are foul mouthed and engage in anti-social, disrespectful and sometimes offensive and illegal behaviour. South Park appears to reject the notion that children are innocents. This has been viewed by some commentators as a challenge to the "cult of childhood" (the elevation of children’s rights to a position of such influence that even longstanding constitutional rights can face erosion when issues pertaining to children are involved). South Park is also a cynical and ironic commentary on life in the United States and traditional American values. The Authority notes that South Park is broadcast in the United States on Comedy Central, a cable network which is not subject to the Federal Communications Commission’s regulation of indecent broadcasts.

[22] Turning now to the subject matter of the complaint, the Authority disagrees with the complainant that the theme of the episode was necrophilia. It considers that the programme had a number of "themes", including tolerance, Halloween and people not being what they might seem. Necrophilia was discussed in the context of the alarmist reaction of the people of South Park to the children digging up Kyle’s grandmother. They are quick to jump to the wrong conclusion that her corpse has been taken and abused by a necrophiliac.

[23] The Authority recognises that the episode’s treatment of necrophilia was intended as a mockery of middle-American moral panic, and in no way endorses the behaviour. It also notes that it is an example of the "gross-out" humour which has come to be expected by viewers of the series. However, it considers that two aspects of the episode breached standard G2. First, the Authority considers that the scene in which two cemetery watchmen visit Kyle’s mother crossed the threshold of good taste. In this scene the men tell Kyle’s mother about Kyle’s grandmother in the following terms:

"…somebody’s probably making love to her corpse as we speak"

"…by now he’s probably removed her eyes and made love to the empty sockets as well"

"your mother’s body would be stiff and dry he would have to have it soaked in warm water for hours before making love to it"

"It is highly possible that he has created new orifices in her decomposing body leaving her to look something like an over loved hunk of Swiss cheese".

[24] The Authority also considers that a scene in which the cemetery workers address the people of South Park and make sound effects of what having sex with a dead body might sound like (accompanied by visual images of a fist and a mayonnaise jar) breached standard G2. In the Authority’s opinion, both these scenes could have been edited without compromising the episode’s storyline. The Authority considers that they were graphic descriptions of necrophilia which were not essential to the development of the storyline.

[25] As to Mr Hooker’s argument that jokes about necrophilia are always in bad taste irrespective of the context in which they are broadcast, the Authority reiterates that context is always relevant, though not necessarily decisive, to the Authority’s determination of questions of taste and decency, regardless of the subject matter complained about.

Bill of Rights

[26] In reaching this decision, the Authority records that it has considered whether the limits placed on the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, as contained in s.14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, are demonstrably justified, as required by s.5 of that Act. The Authority is satisfied that its decision to uphold this complaint is 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 the upholding of this complaint is reasonable and demonstrably justified in particular as the abovementioned two graphic scenes dealing with necrophilia were not essential in the context of the broadcast. In coming to this conclusion, the Authority has taken into account all the circumstances of this complaint.

 

For the above reasons, the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by TV4 of South Park on 13 September 2001 breached standard G2 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. After considering all the circumstances of this complaint, including the fact that this is the first time the Authority has considered a complaint about South Park, the Authority does not consider that a penalty is warranted.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
14 March 2002

Appendix

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

  1. Michael Hooker’s Formal Complaint to TV4 Network Ltd – 18 September 2001
  2. TV4’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 17 October 2001
  3. Mr Hooker’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 27 October 2001
  4. TV4's Response to the Authority – 21 December 2001
  5. Mr Hooker’s Final Comment – 20 January 2002

ERRATUM TO DECISION NO: 2002-029

[1] Decision No. 2002-029 contains a typographical error. Accordingly, the word "considered" in paragraph [28] is replaced by the word "upheld".

Peter Cartwright
Chair
8 April 2002