BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Smits and TV3 Network Services Ltd - 2001-207

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • B Hayward
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor
  • Phillip Smits
Sex and the City

Sex and the City – fuck – offensive language – used by 13 year-old female characters

Standard G2 – context – morality message – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1] A number of episodes of the series of Sex and the City have been screened by TV3 since 1999. The series deal with the lives and loves of four single women living in New York City. The episode broadcast at 9.30pm on 7 August 2001 included instances of 13 year-old girl characters using the word "fuck".

[2] Phillip Smits complained to TV3 Network Services Limited, the broadcaster, that three of the 13 year-old female characters used the words "fuck" and "fucking" on several occasions. In addition to finding offensive the use of such language by children, Mr Smits said that there were ethical issues involved in requiring child actors to use such language.

[3] In response, TV3 argued that the use of such language in context did not breach the standard.

[4] Dissatisfied with TV3’s response, Mr Smits referred the complaint 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 complaint.


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

The Programme

[6] A number of episodes of the series of Sex and the City have been broadcast by TV3 at 9.30pm since 1999. The series deal with the lives and loves of four single women living in New York City. The series was rated AO and was screened one hour after the Adults Only (AO) watershed at 8.30pm. Where appropriate, TV3 advised, episodes were preceded by a warning.

The Complaint

[7] Phillip Smits complained to the broadcaster about the episode broadcast at 9.30pm on 7 August 2001. At one stage, three 13 year-old female characters use the words "fuck" and "fucking" when talking to some adult characters. Later they talk about "fucking" men. Mr Smits complained that the language was offensive, especially when used by child actors.

The Standard

[8] TV3 assessed the complaint under standard G2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which requires 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.

The Broadcaster’s Response

[9] TV3 acknowledged that the episode of Sex and the City complained about included actors playing 13 year-old girls using the word "fuck", and talking about who they were going to "fuck". TV3 continued:

The Standards Committee has reviewed your complaint and finds that, in the context of viewer expectation of the programme, its rating, screening time, and warning for potentially offensive material, the content was acceptable. Accordingly, the Committee declines to uphold your complaint.

The Referral to the Authority

[10] When Mr Smits referred his complaint to the Authority, he argued that TV3 was irresponsible and incompetent in screening a programme which showed child actors swearing. The circumstances in which the language was used, he said, bordered on the pornographic.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[11] In his final comment, Mr Smits argued the point that as TV3 had not responded to the Authority’s invitation to comment on the referral meant that TV3 could not justify the broadcast. He wrote:

In 2001, children are used by adults in a way that shocks and offends and dismays adults. They are shown using language that adults get arrested for in "real life reality" (sic). In an adult comedy 13 year old girls talk about who and how many they’re going to fuck…

The Authority's Determination

[12] The Authority’s task in assessing these complaints under standard G2 is to determine whether the language complained of breached currently accepted norms of good taste and decency, in the context in which it occurred. The context is relevant, but not decisive, to the Authority’s determination of whether the programme breached standards of good taste and decency.

[13] There is a range of contextual elements which are relevant to this complaint. For example, the Authority accepts that the episode could be described as a "morality play" which dealt with some rich young girls who were shown to be growing up too quickly, and that message was accentuated by putting obscenities in the girls’ mouths.

[15] The Authority is also of the view that such behaviours caused the four leading women characters in the series complained about, and who put a high focus on sex, to reflect on their own behaviour when they saw it mirrored in the 13 year-old girls. Further, these adult characters did not demonstrate any approval of the children’s use of the language.

[16] Taking the context referred to above and the story line into account, the Authority considers that the language used did not breach standard G2.

[17] Finally, the Authority observes that to find a breach of Standard G2 would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to place too great a limit on the broadcaster's statutory freedom of expression in s.14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. It prefers to adopt an interpretation of the standard which is consistent with the Bill of Rights.


For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Peter Cartwright
29 November 2001


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

  1. Phillip Smit’s Complaint to TV3 Network Services Ltd – 19 August 2001
  2. TV3’s Response to Mr Smits – 24 August 2001
  3. Mr Smit’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – received 13 September 2001
  4. TV3’s Response to the Authority – 19 September 2001
  5. Mr Smit’s Final Comment – 2 October 2001