CFMT-TV re The Simpsons

ONTARIO REGIONAL COUNCIL
(CBSC Decision 94/95-0082)
M. Barrie (Chair), A. MacKay (Vice-Chair), P. Fockler, T. Gupta, R. Stanbury

THE FACTS

During CFMT-TV’s broadcast of The Simpsons series, it aired an episode on December 6, 1994 at 7:30 p.m. which offended a viewer who had watched the program with her four children aged 9 to 14.

In her letter of December 8 to the CRTC, she explained that she had phonedthe station on the 7th and was put through to an answering machine, whereshe left a message. When the station returned her call the following day, shewas told that she “had to complain to Fox Broadcasting and was given theiraddress.” She was bothered that she had had “to write to Fox in California,United States”.

Insofar as the show itself was concerned, she had a great deal to say, someof which is cited here.

The entire theme of the show that night was inappropriate forfamily viewing, especially children.

The contents consisted of Bart swearing, bringing alcohol toschool, sex, sexism towards a female and rock music. It wentfrom bad to worse.

I have been teaching my children the dangers of alcohol. Bartbrings in several bottles of alcohol for show and tell…. Theteacher acts shocked; then Bart responds by saying, “Don'tworry. I brought enough booze for the whole class.”….

[T]he owner of a bar interviews a woman for a waitress job. Heasked her measurements then volunteers to measure themhimself. … He hires her and sleeps with her (implying sex)before the half hour show is over.

She added that words like “Hell” and “Damn” were used, which were badexamples for children. She also argued that the use of the musical groupAerosmith on the episode was unnecessary.

The letter was forwarded by the CRTC to the CBSC on December 22 and bythe CBSC in turn to the station. The General Manager of the stationresponded on January 3, 1995. He pointed out that the show was then beingaired on three Canadian stations in the Toronto area and “has been onCanadian television for 5 years and runs throughout the U.S. on numerouschannels at a variety of viewing times.” He then went on to describe the showas “an extremely successful alternative style program” and, he explained,

Although the show is in animation, it is not designed as children'sprogramming. The entertainment value derived from its satiricalnature is what had compelled audiences to consistently view thisseries and make it as popular as it is.

The viewer was not satisfied with this response and requested on January 6that the CBSC refer the matter to the appropriate Regional Council foradjudication. In her second letter, the viewer made some additional points. First, she felt that the show “overstepped the boundaries on sex role portrayaland ethics of the CBSC.” Second, she re-stated her concern about havinghad to write a letter to the Fox Network in the United States in the followingterms:

On Dec. 7, 1994, when I phoned CFMT to complain, they told meI had to write to Fox in California. I did write to them but have notreceived a response yet. I was not given CFMT's address towrite to them directly and wrote to the CBSC after numerousphone calls trying to find out who to write to.

The complainant also pointed out that she had written to the CBC, which airedthe series in the Toronto area at 5 p.m., namely, at an hour when childrenmight be expected to be watching television after their return from school.

Clause 3, Code of Ethics

Recognizing that programs designed specifically for childrenreach impressionable minds and influence social attitudes andaptitudes, it shall be the responsibility of member stations toprovide the closest possible supervision in the selection andcontrol of material, characterizations and plot. Nothing in theforegoing shall mean that the vigour and vitality common tochildren's imaginations and love of adventure should beremoved. It does mean that programs should be based uponsound social concepts and presented with a superior degree ofcraftsmanship; that these programs should reflect the moral andethical standards of contemporary Canadian society andencourage pro-social behaviour and attitudes. The memberstations should encourage parents to select from the richness ofbroadcasting fare, the best programs to be brought to theattention of their children.

Clause 4, Sex-Role Portrayal Code

Television and radio programming shall refrain from theexploitation of women, men and children. Negative or degradingcomments on the role and nature of women, men or children insociety shall be avoided. Modes of dress, camera focus onareas of the body and similar modes of portrayal should not bedegrading to either sex. The sexualization of children throughdress or behaviour is not acceptable.

Clause 3.1.5, Violence Code

Broadcasters shall take special precautions to advise viewers ofthe content of programming intended for adult audiences whichis telecast before 9 pm in accordance with article 3.1.3.

The Regional Council members viewed a tape of the program in question andreviewed all of the correspondence. For the reasons given below, themembers unanimously agreed that the program did not violate any of theCodes referred to above. The important issues raised by the viewer's letterare each discussed below.

There are, however, circumstances in which programming may be so contraryto the standards established in one or more of the Canadian broadcast Codesthat it ought not to air at all. This was the Council's view in the matter of theCIII-TV re the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (CBSC Decision 93/94-0270and 0277, October 24, 1994). Among other things, the Ontario RegionalCouncil considered there

that their observations entitle them to take the generalizedposition that the approach of the entire series is such that itwould likely be in breach of those articles of the Violence Codein the same manner as the episodes which the Council membersviewed in order to render this decision.

In this case, the Council felt strongly that, despite the fact that the program isanimated, this does not make it a program intended for children'sunaccompanied viewing. Since the program contains so much material thatexemplifies what children should not do, from rudeness to parents and on,albeit presented in a tongue-in-cheek or satirical way, it is a program whosesuitability ought to be judged in each home. Since the Council was not of theview that the program was “designed specifically for children”, in accordancewith the provisions of Clause 3 of the Code of Ethics, it did not believe thatthat Code applied to The Simpsons episode in question.

Council was of the view that the last sentence of Clause 3 of the Code ofEthics applied, namely,

The member stations should encourage parents to select fromthe richness of broadcasting fare, the best programs to bebrought to the attention of their children.

In this case, by offering the program in the 7:30 p.m. time slot, the broadcasterwas providing precisely that opportunity to the viewing community. TheCouncil also thought the circumstances opportune for it to make a furthergeneral observation regarding the scheduling issue. There has been atendency, since the introduction of the 9:00 pm watershed hour for everyoneto treat that moment as the Great Divide. The community has tended toconsider that all post-watershed programming falls into the “adults only”category and that all pre-watershed programming falls into the “suitable foreveryone, including young children” category. Neither generalization is whollyaccurate.

The watershed hour is only the hour before which no programming containingscenes of violence intended for adult audiences may be shown. Privatebroadcasters have voluntarily tended to extend this principle to allprogramming containing any material which they believe is intended for adultaudiences, even if not of a violent nature. See, e.g., CITY-TV re Ed the Sock(CBSC Decision 94/95-0100, August 23, 1995) in which the Council stated”Despite the establishment of the watershed for that purpose, the Council hasreason to believe that broadcasters regularly consider this hour as a roughthreshhold for other types of adult programming.”

This practice ought not to lead the Canadian public to conclude that anyprogramming aired before 9 pm is, by that fact alone, suitable for all membersof their families, whatever their age. That would be true of programmingintended for young children (below 12 years of age), which airs in a differenttime slot, but material broadcast in the early evening falls within “the richbroadcasting fare” mentioned above and should be vetted by parents as to itssuitability in their homes.

To return to the matter at hand, the Council takes no position for or againstthe suitability of the program for audiences at another hour of the day, suchas the 5:00 p.m. time slot in which the CBC was airing the series in Torontoat the time of this complaint.

In general, the Council does, however, regret the fact that the standardsapplied carefully by it to private over-the-air broadcasters are not applicableacross the entire Canadian broadcasting system for the benefit of allCanadians.

Overall, the Council concluded, the continued exaggeration of Moe'sinappropriate behaviour emphasizes the unacceptable nature of suchbehaviour. The producers of the show have not made Moe a likeablecharacter and thus, creatively, have not positively reinforced his actions. Tothe contrary, the program could be seen as reinforcing the precepts within theSex-Role Portrayal Code regarding exploitation and degrading statements.

First, on the level of the broadcaster's obligation to respond by letter to theviewer, the Council finds that CFMT-TV's letter constituted a sufficientresponse to the complainant. Consequently, its overall view of this matter isthat CFMT-TV had breached neither the Codes nor the standard ofresponsiveness.

On the other hand, if the viewer's claims about the initial oral response shehad from the station are correct, the Council hopes that such actions are notthe rule for either this broadcaster or other broadcasters adhering to thevarious CAB Codes and the principles established in the CBSC Manual. Simply stated, every broadcaster is responsible for all of the material itbroadcasts, whatever its source. In CKVR-TV re Just for Laughs (CBSCDecision 94/95-0005, August 23, 1995), the Council was called upon to dealwith this issue of programming created, in that case, by the CBC. It statedthere:

The Regional Council recognized that the program had beenproduced by the CBC which, as a public broadcaster, is notcurrently a member of the CBSC. This does not, of course,alleviate in any respect the responsibility of the station itself forthe programming it airs. As the “Background” to the CAB Codeof Ethics states, “each broadcaster is responsible for theprogramming of the licensed station.” Thus, while CKVR-TV wasnot responsible for producing the program which it obtained froma broadcaster that is not a CBSC member, CKVR-TV was fullyresponsible for the content of the program which it had aired.

A broadcaster may, for quite positive reasons, wish to encourage a viewer toalso contact the producer of the program but should not attempt to sidestepits own responsibility in that regard on the grounds that it was not the producerof the show at issue.

Canadian broadcasters are also required to direct complainants to Canadianresources, specifically the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, when theyhave a problem with material they have aired which they have been unableto resolve directly with the complainant. As members of the CBSC,broadcasters are encouraged to enclose the Council's brochure with theirinitial response as a means of advising viewers that they have an additionalrecourse available to them. The Council regrets the frustration which theviewer apparently underwent in attempting to find the correct venue for hercomplaint within her own country.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the CanadianBroadcast Standards Council and may be reported, announced, or read bythe station against which the complaint had originally been made; however,in the case of a favourable decision, the station is under no obligation toannounce the result.