BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Walls and SKY Network Television Ltd - 2010-139

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
  • Sharon Walls
Sex and the City
Comedy Central # 2

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Sex and the City – fictional series about professional women living in New York City – scene broadcast at 8.25pm showed woman walking in on her boyfriend performing oral sex on another woman – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency and children’s interests standards

Standard P2 (good taste and decency) – contextual factors – not upheld

Standard P1 (content classification, warning and filtering) – programme rated “16” and had warning label for content that may offend – parental lock set to M would have blocked viewing without a pin number – not upheld

Standard P3 (children) – broadcaster sufficiently protected child viewers from unsuitable content – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision. 


[1]   An episode of Sex and the City was broadcast on Comedy Central at 8pm on Saturday 28 August 2010. Sex and the City was a romantic comedy that focused on the lives of four professional women in their mid-thirties and forties living in New York City. The four women were good friends and often confided in each other about relationships, romance and sex.

[2]   The episode contained a storyline that focused on one of the women, Samantha, and her relationship with her boyfriend. Samantha suspected that her boyfriend was cheating on her and so she decided to secretly follow him back to his apartment.

[3]   At approximately 8.25pm, Samantha was shown opening her boyfriend’s bedroom door to find him in bed with another woman. He was lying on top of the woman with his head between her legs, performing oral sex on her as she moaned and breathed heavily. The boyfriend was semi-naked, with his back exposed to the camera, while the woman appeared to be fully naked apart from a pair of stilettos. The woman’s breasts were briefly visible, though no genitalia was shown. The boyfriend continued performing oral sex on the woman, not noticing Samantha, until she gasped, “You bastard”. The boyfriend looked up and said, “It’s just sex. I love you”, at which point Samantha stormed out of the room.   


[4]   Sharon Walls made a formal complaint to SKY Network Television Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the oral sex scene breached standards relating to good taste and decency, responsible programming and children’s interests. The complainant said that she was “disgusted” that the scene was broadcast on television, let alone during children’s viewing time. In her view, the scene contained AO content warranting an R18 classification.


[5]   Standards P1, P2, P3 and guidelines P1(a), P1(e) and P3(c) of the Pay Television Code of Broadcasting Practice are relevant to the determination of this complaint. They provide:

Standard P1 Content classification, warning and filtering

Viewers should be informed by regular and consistent advice about programme content (including classifications and warnings) and, where available, filtering technology.


Classifications and warnings

(a)     These classifications should be broadcast on all content except for news and current affairs and live content:

            G         Approved for General viewing

            PG       Parental Guidance recommended for young viewers

            M         Suitable for Mature audiences 16 years and over

            16        People under 16 years should not view

            18        People under 18 years should not view

(e)     Visual warning labels will include:

            C         Content may offend

            L          Language may offend

            V          Contains violence

            VL        Violence and language may offend

            S          Sexual content may offend

Standard P2 Good taste and decency

Current norms of good taste and decency should be maintained consistent with the context of each programme and its channel.

Standard P3 Children

Broadcasters should ensure that child viewers are protected from unsuitable content.

Guideline (c)

Content classified M or above, especially that containing sexual or violent material, should not screen adjacent to content aimed at children.

Referral to the Authority

[6]   Having not received a response from the broadcaster within the statutory timeframe, Ms Walls referred her complaint to the Authority under section 8(1C) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[7]   SKY maintained that Comedy Central was a 24-hour comedy channel with an adult target audience. It argued that regular viewers anticipated watching programming that was “entertaining, humorous and irreverent”. It said that while the channel aimed to deliver on this front, it also had “stringent” classification, censorship and selection procedures in place to ensure that its programming complied with the Pay TV Code. In this respect, viewers were informed by regular, consistent advice about programme content, including classifications and warnings, which enabled them to make an informed judgement about whether or not to watch a particular programme and whether to allow their children to watch.

[8]   SKY argued that Sex and the City was classified “16”, indicating that it was unsuitable for viewers under 16 years of age, and that it carried the warning label “C”, advising that it contained content that may offend. It said that parents were alerted to programme classifications through an on-screen banner appearing at the beginning of each programme and through the electronic programme guide and SKYWATCH magazine listings.

[9]   As Comedy Central was not targeted at children, the channel relied on parental judgement to assess suitability and to monitor in this regard, the broadcaster said. It also emphasised that parents were able, through a sophisticated blocking mechanism, to block programmes they considered to be unacceptable for younger viewers.

[10]   For these reasons, the broadcaster declined to uphold the complaint under Standards P2 and P3.

Authority's Determination

[11]   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 P2 (good taste and decency)

[12]   Standard P2 states that current norms of good taste and decency should be maintained consistent with the context of each programme and its channel. On this occasion, relevant contextual factors include:

  • Sex and the City was classified “16”
  • it carried the “C” warning
  • the classification and warning were displayed at the beginning of the programme and in the electronic and print programme guides
  • the oral sex scene was broadcast at approximately 8.25pm on a Saturday
  • the programme screened on the Comedy Central channel which was targeted at adults
  • audience expectations
  • availability of filtering technology.

[13]   In our view, while the scene subject to complaint depicted a man performing oral sex on a woman, the actual footage was brief, shot from a distance and did not contain any nudity apart from a brief shot of the woman’s breasts. We do not consider that the footage would have offended viewers in the context of a programme entitled Sex and the City, classified “16” and screened on the Comedy Central channel which was clearly targeted at adults. Taking into account the above contextual factors, we decline to uphold the complaint under Standard P2.

Standard P1 (content classification, warning and filtering)

[14]   Standard P1 states that viewers should be informed by regular and consistent advice about programme content, including classifications and warnings.

[15]   This episode of Sex and the City was classified “16”, indicating that it was unsuitable for persons under 16 years of age, and a parental control set appropriately would have ensured that the episode could not be viewed without entering a pin code. In our view, the 16 classification adequately informed viewers that the programme may contain potentially offensive material. This classification appeared on-screen at the start of the programme, and in the electronic and print programme guides.

[16]   We note that this episode carried the “C” warning for content that may offend. In our view, it should have been more specifically labelled “S” for offensive sexual content. However, in light of the contextual factors listed above under Standard P2, we consider that the “16” classification was adequate to inform viewers of the type of programme content. We therefore decline to uphold the Standard P1 complaint.

Standard P3 (children)

[17]   Standard P3 requires broadcasters to ensure that child viewers are protected from unsuitable content. A “child” is a person under 14 years of age for the purposes of the standard.

[18]   In the complainant’s view, Sex and the City was unsuitable for screening at 8pm during children’s viewing time. We note that on free-to-air television, PGR and AO programmes can only be broadcast in the evening after 7pm and 8.30pm respectively. However, there are no “time-bands” on pay television. Where filtering technology is automatically available, as with SKY, pay television broadcasters are able to broadcast programmes of any classification at any time of day, provided they are correctly classified.

[19]   We have found above that the episode was correctly classified “16”, informing parents that Sex and the City was not suitable for children. We reiterate that parents had the option of employing blocking mechanisms to prevent their children from watching and note that the programme was not screened adjacent to content aimed at children (see guideline (c)). Accordingly, we are satisfied that the broadcaster fulfilled its obligation under the standard to protect child viewers from unsuitable content, and we decline to uphold this part of the complaint.


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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Peter Radich
22 February 2011


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

1                 Sharon Walls’ formal complaint – 28 August 2010

2                 Ms Walls’ referral to the Authority – 8 October 2010

3                 SKY Network Television’s response to the Authority – 11 October 2010