BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Viewers for Television Excellence Inc and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2001-231, 2001-232, 2001-233

Members
  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • B Hayward
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor
Dated
Complainant
  • Viewers for Television Excellence Inc
Number
2001-231–233
Programme
Shortland Street
Channel/Station
TV2

Complaint
Shortland Street – episodes involving – casual sex (one night stand) – the use of toothpaste to make a child ill – ending an episode with voodoo-inspired fear – adult themes – inappropriate for broadcast to young people at 7.00pm

Findings
Standard G8 – appropriately rated PGR – no uphold

Standard G12 – classification evidence of being mindful of children – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] Shortland Street is a long running fictional series broadcast at 7.00pm on weekdays on TV2. The episode broadcast on 12 August 2001 included a central character having a one-night sexual encounter, the episode on 17 August raised the possibility of giving a child some toothpaste to make her ill to enable the mother to have a break, and on 21 August, an episode concluded with fear inspired by the use of voodoo.

[2] Glenyss Barker, secretary of Viewers for Television Excellence Inc, complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that these incidents included behaviour and themes which were inappropriate for broadcast while young children were watching at 7.00pm.

[3] In response, TVNZ said that the series told stories about people and events which were occurring in New Zealand. It considered that the PGR rating was appropriate and declined to uphold the complaints.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mrs Barker referred the 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 episodes complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[6] Shortland Street is shown on TV2 on weekdays at 7.00pm. It is a long running series which TVNZ says is designed to reflect the social issues, mores and dilemmas which occur in real life in New Zealand.

The Complaints

[7] Glenyss Barker, secretary of Viewers for Television Excellence Inc, complained to TVNZ about three story lines. The first concerned "Rachel" who after a bad day at her office, is involved in a minor car accident. Upon meeting the man involved in the accident, she is then seen in her flat taking off his clothes with the obvious intention of having sex. She later makes it clear that it was a "one-off" encounter and, when she returns to work, Mrs Barker wrote, it is "as if all her problems at work are solved apparently due to the casual sex episode".

[8] Mrs Barker complained:

This is totally irresponsible script writing. In New Zealand where it is well known that casual sex is a big contributor towards STD’s, AIDS and unwanted pregnancies – especially teenage pregnancies – all a growing concern in NZ. ‘Shortland Street’ is shown at a time the many teens, pre-teens and even younger are known to be watching (See BSA research). They regard ‘Shortland Street’ as real life and are influenced by what they see. This is therefore unacceptable to be shown before the 8.30 watershed.

[9] The second complaint concerned a young woman who brought her child to the hospital and the doctor commented to his assistant that he suspected the child had been given toothpaste so that its mother could have a break while the child was cared for.

[10] Mrs Barker wrote:

This is also irresponsible as it is telling young, immature mothers (of which there are many in NZ), of a way to get a ‘holiday’ from caring for their babies. Also it could be contributing to child abuse by showing another way to ill-treat babies. Again this is being shown at a time when young people are watching and are strongly influenced by what they see.

[11] An episode in which "Rachel" was frightened by a voodoo item was the subject of the third complaint. Noting that an atmosphere of fear finished the episode, Mrs Barker argued:

With many youngsters watching it is reasonable to expect them to have nightmares and lack of sleep after this episode. It is very frightening and should not be shown at this time of night when children are known to be watching and should be protected from this sort of thing.

[12] Mrs Barker contended that the acts portrayed could be easily copied by children and teenagers and demonstrated that broadcasters were not taking seriously the Broadcasting Standards Authority Chair’s comments that parents were not solely responsible for children’s media use. She considered that as the episodes were broadcast before the AO watershed at 8.30pm, they were in breach of standards G8 and G12 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

The Standards

[13] TVNZ assessed the complaints under the standards nominated by the complainant. Standards G8 and G12 require broadcasters in the preparation and presentation of programmes:

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.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[14] TVNZ said that it was necessary to examine a number of contextual factors when considering complaints about Shortland Street.

[15] First, it noted that it was a work of fiction and entertainment, and that the story telling involved New Zealanders. Second, it was a long-running series and viewers were accustomed to the way stories were developed. Third, it was rated PGR. Fourth, TVNZ noted that the story lines in Shortland Street usually extended over a number of episodes and that incidents which occurred had to be considered in the context of the whole series.

[16] TVNZ then considered the three incidents complained about.

[17] In regard to the first, it acknowledged that it began as a one-night stand, but the encounter turns into a "full and loving relationship" when "Rachel" meets the stranger in her work environment. TVNZ wrote:

What began as a casual encounter becomes much more serious and committed. The [Complaints] Committee noted that we have all heard about one night stands, and know that casual sexual encounters do happen – some even developing into something more serious. The story line was therefore reflecting modern day mores and behaviour in terms familiar with the teenage and young adult audience which follows the series.

It should not be the role of drama to prescribe a pattern of behaviour or to present life as some think it ought to be lived. Stories, because they are fiction, necessarily revolve around drama and the scenario in this story combines the romantic and dramatic in a fictionalised situation.

[18] In response to the complainant’s concern about STDs, AIDS and unwanted pregnancies, TVNZ said that they had been dealt with in other episodes.

[19] Dealing with the complaint about the use of toothpaste, TVNZ said that Shortland Street had used an event reported in the press. It quoted part of the script and advised that the possibility of child abuse was condemned. TVNZ said:

It was the Committee’s opinion that you could not in fairness accuse Shortland Street of putting this issue into the minds of its viewers. It was already in the public arena through the reports in the newspapers. The issue was developed as a fictional story in accordance with the policy of Shortland Street to reflect that which is current in New Zealand society in fictional terms.

[20] Maintaining that voodoo was practised as a religious cult, TVNZ explained the background to the puppet incident, and wrote:

The Committee acknowledges that the scene at the end of the episode is "scary" and involves dramatic tension. But, again, it is fiction. The scene is clearly intended to elicit fear on behalf of the fictional character Rachel and the situation she finds herself in, rather than any fear for the viewer watching from the security of home. There have to be "goodies" and "baddies" in fiction. They are there from the earliest nursery rhymes, and are part and parcel of fictional writing, reading and viewing throughout all of our lives.

[21] As for the standards, TVNZ considered that the PGR rating was appropriate, and the application of that rating indicated that it was mindful of children. It declined to uphold the complaints.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[22] When she referred the group’s complaints to the Authority, Mrs Barker again noted the Authority’s statement that parents were not solely responsible for children’s media use, and stated:

This is a case where the media has failed to act responsibly in showing these three scenarios which are able to be copied by children and are inappropriate to be shown at a time when children are known to be up and should be protected by the watershed. Parents need the support of your organisation to assist them in bringing up their children as responsible citizens as the NZ media is not prepared to do so.

[23] Pointing to the Authority’s research which showed that many New Zealand youngsters were watching television at 7.00pm, she said that concerned parents wanted to ensure that programmes with unsuitable and alarming themes were not screened at that time.

[24] She responded to some of the contextual points raised by TVNZ, observing:

In their reply to my complaint, TVNZ said that "‘Shortland Street’ is a work of fiction and therefore make-believe", however in the past they have made the point that it portrays New Zealand life. We believe it cannot be both, but must be one or the other and they use either of these statements as an excuse to portray any scene they wish to at the time with no thought as to the effect results, it may have on the young people viewing at this early time in the evenings. They do admit, "we are invited to identify with storytelling involving characters that are clearly New Zealanders", but take no responsibility for this.

[25] As for TVNZ’s comment about media coverage on the use of toothpaste, Mrs Barker said that she had not read those reports. She reiterated her concern that it was inappropriate to end an episode in a way which inspired fear.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[26] TVNZ repeated its argument that the episodes could not be seen in isolation, but in the context of fictional story lines which often ran through many episodes.

[27] In response to Mrs Barker’s comment about Shortland Street being fictional and reflecting a New Zealand way of life, TVNZ said that this was a common practice in writing and referred to the works of Charles Dickens.

[28] TVNZ concluded by arguing that the series was appropriately rated PGR.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[29] On the group’s behalf, Mrs Barker stated that "it would be wonderful" if Shortland Street was of the quality of Charles Dickens. However, in contrast to the social improvements sought by Dickens, Shortland Street encouraged "unacceptable social behaviour".

[30] Mrs Barker maintained that the programme, because of its content, was unacceptable to children and should be broadcast after the 8.30pm watershed. Referring to the requirement in the revised code for programmes broadcast before the 8.30pm watershed to be acceptable viewing for children, and which would become operational on 1 January 2002, she concluded:

We therefore look to the BSA to ensure that the watershed is adhered to appropriately and that TVNZ does not again disregard this requirement.

The Authority’s Determination

[31] On behalf of Viewers for Television Excellence, Mrs Barker argued that Shortland Street was inappropriately classified. She pointed to three specific incidents which, she argued, justified an AO classification rather than the current PGR classification. As she noted, an AO classification would require the broadcast of the item during the AO time band beginning at 8.30pm.

[32] She also expressed concern about what she described as the unacceptable impact of the series on young children which she said constituted a breach of Standard G12. This standard requires broadcasters to be mindful of the effect of programmes on children during their normally accepted viewing times.

[33] These complaints require the Authority to consider whether Shortland Street is appropriately classified as PGR. If it is not appropriate, a breach of standard G8 would entail a breach of G12. If it is appropriate, it would indicate that the broadcaster has been mindful and, as a consequence, there has not been a breach of standard G12.

[34] The PGR and AO classifications provide:

Parental Guidance Recommended – PGR

Programmes containing material more suited to adult audiences but not necessarily unsuitable for child viewers when subject to the guidance of a parent or adult.

"PGR" programmes may be screened between 9 am and 4 pm and after 7 pm until 6 am.

Adults Only – AO

Programmes containing adult themes or those which, because of the way the material is handled, would be unsuitable for persons under 18 years of age.

"AO" programmes are restricted to screening between midday and 3 pm on weekdays (except during school and public holidays) and after 8.30 pm until 5 am.

[35] The PGR rating which applies to Shortland Street assumes some responsibility on the part of parents and care-givers. When parents and care-givers decide whether to allow, or not to allow, their children to watch Shortland Street, they will be aware that the story lines deal with current social issues.

[36] Because Shortland Street is a long-running series, the Authority notes, viewers are accustomed to the way that stories develop, and how they are dealt with on screen. As a consequence, the Authority observes, parents and care-givers have had an opportunity over the years to become familiar with the series. This has enabled them to reach an informed decision on their children’s viewing practices.

[37] Focusing specifically on the story lines complained about, the Authority does not consider any of the specific items to have breached the PGR classification. Accordingly, it declines to uphold the complaints.

[38] Finally, the Authority also observes that to find a breach of the nominated standards 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 NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990. It prefers to adopt an interpretation of the standards which is consistent with the Bill of Rights.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
17 December 2001

Appendix

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

  1. Mrs Glenyss Barker's Complaint, as secretary of Voters for Television Excellence to Television New Zealand Ltd – 29 April 2001
  2. TVNZ's Response to Mrs Barker – 25 September 2001
  3. Mrs Barker's Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 12 October 2001
  4. TVNZ's Response to the Authority – 26 October 2001
  5. Mrs Barker's Final Comment – 20 November 2001