BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

PB and TVWorks Ltd - 2007-141

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • PB
Number
2007-141
Programme
South Park
Broadcaster
TVWorks Ltd
Channel/Station
C4

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
South Park – episode included reference to a prank in which the character Butters was sleeping and another character, Cartman, purportedly put Butters’ penis in Cartman’s mouth and took a photo – another scene involved Cartman blindfolding Butters and trying to trick Butters into letting Cartman put his penis into Butters’ mouth – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency and violence standards 

Findings
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – item had a complex and multifaceted storyline – acts were not intended to be sexual – contextual factors – not upheld

Standard 10 (violence) – broadcaster exercised sufficient care when dealing with the issue of violence – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   South Park is an animated satirical programme which highlights social, political and other current issues in a controversial and provocative manner. The main characters are four eight year-old children, who are foul-mouthed and engage in anti-social, disrespectful and sometimes illegal behaviour. The programme features two-dimensional cartoon characters who resemble paper cut-outs, with large heads on small bodies and short legs. The characters only have a small range of movement and the animation has limited detail.

[2]   On 13 November 2007 at 9.30pm, C4 broadcast an episode of South Park. In this episode, one of the characters, Cartman, told his friends that he had been inviting his friend, Butters, over to his house for sleepovers. Without Butters’ knowledge, Cartman had been taking photos of himself doing a variety of humiliating things to Butters while he was sleeping. These acts included putting a tampon in Butters’ mouth and smearing cat faeces over his face.

[3]   While showing his photo collection to other friends, Cartman boasted to them that Butters was coming for a sleepover again that night and that he was going take a photo of himself doing something even worse to him. Butters then arrived at Cartman’s house and Cartman offered him some cough mixture to help him sleep.

[4]   The next scene showed Cartman the following day, talking with his other friends and showing them a photo of what he had done to Butters the previous night. Cartman explained that the photo was of him putting Butters’ penis in his mouth while Butters was asleep. The photo was not shown.       

[5]   Another character then told Cartman that he was now gay and that the only way to “cancel out the gay polarity” was for Butters to put Cartman’s penis in his mouth. The following scene involved Cartman trying to trick Butters into allowing him to put his penis into Butters’ mouth. Cartman blindfolded Butters and told him that he had a “surprise” for him. Cartman then took down his pants and was about to put his penis into Butters’ mouth when Butters’ father walked into the room and saw what was happening. Butters was still blindfolded and he did not realise what Cartman had been trying to do to him. Believing his son was “bi-curious”, Butters’ father sent him to a Christian camp to “cure” him.

[6]   While at the camp, it became clear that Butters knew that he had been sent there to “cure” his bi-curiosity, but that he had no idea what the word bi-curious meant and he became increasingly confused. The camp was full of “bi-curious” boys who had been sent there to be “cured”. Many of them were unhappy and two committed suicide during Butters’ stay.

[7]   During his time at the camp, Butters saved the life of a young boy who was threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. While the boy was threatening to jump in front of the camp leaders, police and the other boys, Butters made a confused speech about tolerance and understanding of bi-curiosity. The speech coaxed the young boy off the bridge and Butters was celebrated as a hero.     

[8]   Because of the style of animation and the shape of the characters, Cartman’s “penis” was not shown to viewers at any time. Towards the end of the episode, Cartman showed his school classmates the photo at “show and tell”. The photo was projected onto the classroom’s wall, but viewers could only see the edges of the photo because Cartman was standing in front of it.

Complaint

[9]   PB made a formal complaint to TVWorks, the broadcaster, alleging that the programme had breached good taste and decency, law and order, children’s interests and violence standards.

[10]   The complainant argued that the character Butters had been raped while asleep by the “fat child” (Cartman). PB maintained that “the fat child said he was going to give Butters some cough mixture so that he would go to sleep...and the fat child performed oral sex [on Butters] and took a photo”.

[11]   PB noted that there was no mention during the programme that what had occurred was rape, that this point was minimized in the episode and that the characters then joked about whether this act meant Butters or Cartman was gay.

[12]   The complainant considered that Cartman sexually abused Butters again when he blindfolded and tried “tricking Butters into performing oral sex”. PB stated that “the act of child sexual abuse was trivialised and that the writers were insulting the gay community because sexual abuse has to do with power rather than sexual orientation”.

[13]   PB considered the “writers could have made their point about religion without trivialising sexual abuse”. 

Standards

[14]   TVWorks assessed the complaint under Standards 1, 2, 9 and 10 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. These provide:

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.

Standard 2 Law and Order

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the maintenance of law and order.

Standard 9 Children’s Interests

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

Standard 10 Violence

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to exercise care and discretion when dealing with the issue of violence.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[15]   TVWorks stated that for an item to constitute a breach of the good taste and decency standard, the material must be unacceptable to a significant number of viewers, in the context in which it was shown. It pointed out that South Park was rated AO and was broadcast at 9.30pm. The broadcaster considered that the “so-called sexual abuse was likely to be understood by the target adult audience in this context as an extension of the puerile practical jokes that Cartman played on Butters”.

[16]   The broadcaster maintained that Cartman’s behaviour was always placed in a context that highlighted his lack of ethics, as opposed to trivialising his lack of ethics. It argued that although Butters was unknowingly suffering abuse at the hands of Cartman, an adult audience would take it for granted that this occurred between two eight-year-olds and not an adult and a child. It considered that while still immoral, this made the item less sinister. 

[17]   TVWorks stated that “part of the comedy of Cartman’s character was the contrast between his sadistic nature and the innocence he has as an eight-year-old. It pointed out that Cartman was “initially naive to the impression that the photo of Butters’ penis in his mouth gave until his friends pointed out how it looked”.

[18]   The broadcaster pointed out that South Park was in its eleventh season and that it was “unlikely that any regular viewers would have been offended by the programme”.

[19]   TVWorks stated that “the tenuous connection between Cartman’s practical joke and homosexuality” rested on two aspects of South Park that were well known to its regular audience. The first being that Cartman is a bigot and that he is only labelled gay by his friends because they know his bigoted attitude will put him at their mercy. It maintained that nothing in the episode seriously suggested “that sexual abuse happens because of sexual orientation”. Second, the broadcaster stated that “the assumption by Butters’ father that his son is bi-curious was a story-telling device that set up the satirical content of the episode, which in turn questioned a section of society’s attitude towards homosexuality”.

[20]   The broadcaster argued that there was a strong audience expectation to see satirical social comment in South Park and “far from insulting the gay community, the intention was to question the arguably prejudiced attitudes towards it”. TVWorks declined to uphold the good taste and decency complaint.

[21]   In response to the law and order complaint, TVWorks stated that in order for an item to breach this standard the broadcast “must not only implicitly condemn a particular law, but also actively promote disrespect for it”. It considered that South Park did not contain any material of this nature, as the storylines were “housed in a satirical context” that did not promote breaking the law. The broadcaster declined to uphold the complaint that the item breached Standard 2.   

[22]   In respect of children’s interests, the broadcaster argued that South Park had an adult target audience and was not aimed at children. TVWorks pointed out that the programme had screened at 9.30pm and was rated AO. It stated that South Park was well known for its adult content and that it had adequately considered the interests of child viewers. The broadcaster declined to uphold the complaint that the item breached the children’s interests standard.

[23]   TVWorks did not consider that the episode involved a rape. It maintained that the practical joke executed by Cartman would have been understood by an adult audience as “a misguided attempt to humiliate Butters”. It stated that the premise of the episode was Cartman’s naivety as an eight-year-old child to the sexual nature of the practical joke.

[24]   The broadcaster argued that “while it was abuse, it was inferred” and that this inference was appropriate in the context of the programme. It pointed out that viewers did not see Cartman’s photo or any detail of the scene where “Butters was convinced to open his mouth while blindfolded”. TVWorks declined to uphold the complaint.   

Referral to the Authority

[25]   Dissatisfied with TVWorks’ response, PB referred her complaint to the Authority under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[26]   The complainant stated that she was convinced by TVWorks’ decision that Standards 2 (law and order) and 9 (children’s interests) were “probably” not breached. However, PB maintained that the episode contained “gratuitous sexual abuse” and that Standards 1 (good taste and decency) and 10 (violence) had been breached.

[27]   The complainant maintained that the episode contained rape and scenes of sexual violation, and that the actions of Cartman came under the broad definition of rape on the Wikipedia website.

[28]   PB argued that Cartman’s photo was shown “with the sexual violation blurred” and that Cartman “gave a full description that left little to the imagination”.

[29]   In response to TVWorks’ statement that Cartman was only eight years old and playing a practical joke, PB argued that “neither age nor ignorance is a defence to sexual violation”.

[30]   The complainant believed that the item should have been preceded by a warning advising viewers that the item contained scenes of sexual abuse. PB also stated that after the programme had finished, viewers should have been provided with “relevant phone numbers for people who had been sexually abused”.  

Authority's Determination

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

Standard 1 (good taste and decency)

[32]   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 item. On this occasion the relevant contextual factors include:

  • the programme was broadcast at 9.30pm 
  • the programme was classified AO (Adults Only) 
  • the expectations of the programme’s regular viewers 
  • South Park is well-known for its challenging content
  • C4, and South Park in particular, target an audience under 30 years of age
  • the satirical nature of the programme
  • the programme is a simplistically drawn and entirely unrealistic cartoon.

[33]   At the outset, the Authority notes that the complainant has described the programme as including depictions of “oral sex”, “rape” and “sexual abuse”. However, Cartman’s actions were implied rather than explicit; viewers were not shown Cartman putting Butters’ penis into his mouth, or attempting to put his own penis into Butters’ mouth. For the following reasons, the Authority has interpreted the character’s actions differently to the complainant.

[34]   First, the Authority considers that because Cartman is eight years old, his actions were not intended to be sexual, but were misguided child-like pranks. This is evident from the fact that Cartman did not realise the implications of his conduct for people’s perceptions of his sexuality until after his friends pointed it out to him.

[35]   Second, the Authority observes that this episode of South Park had a complex and multifaceted storyline. It points out that Cartman’s actions were used to set up the moral of the story, which was one of tolerance and understanding.

[36]   The Authority concludes that the programme’s adult viewers would have understood Cartman’s actions were intended as an introduction to, and counterpoint for, the episode’s deeper meaning. Taking the above contextual factors into account, the Authority declines to uphold the good taste and decency complaint.        

Standard 10 (violence)

[37]   The violence standard requires broadcasters to exercise care and discretion when dealing with the issue of violence.

[38]   The Authority notes that South Park is a cartoon which uses simplistically drawn and stylised pictures, and that the incidents complained about were implied rather than explicitly depicted. Further, the scenes complained about were not gratuitous; they were an integral part of the storyline.

[39]   In these circumstances, the Authority considers that the broadcaster exercised sufficient care and discretion when dealing with the issue of violence. Accordingly, it declines to uphold the complaint that the item breached Standard 10 (violence). 

Name Suppression

[40]   On request from the complainant, the Authority granted name suppression based on the complainant’s personal circumstances.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
19 February 2008

Appendix

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

1.            PB’s formal complaint – 13 November 2007
2.           TVWorks’ response to the formal complaint – 17 December 2007
3.           PB’s referral to the Authority – 20 December 2007
4.           TVWorks’ response to the Authority – 14 January 2008