CHCH-TV re the Ricki Lake Show

ONTARIO REGIONAL COUNCIL
(CBSC Decision 95/96-0105)
A. MacKay (Chair), R. Stanbury (Vice-Chair), R. Cohen (ad hoc), P. Fockler, M. Hogarth, M. Ziniak

THE FACTS

On December 1, 1995, CHCH-TV aired an episode of the “Ricki Lake Show” with the theme “Help me, my friend won’t stop hurting animals.” The producers of this episode of the weekly television talk show constituted a panel made up of a psychologist with the Humane Society of the United States, several admitted animal abusers and their friends or family. The broadcaster aired the following advisory once at the start and then again at a commercial break part way into the program: “The following program deals with mature subject matter and is intended for adult audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.” Ms. Lake, the host, opened her show with the following words:

One of the most upsetting things you can read in the newspaper is the story about an innocent animal which is tortured or killed for the fun of it by a heartless human being. You would think that this could only happen on rare occasions. Unfortunately – and the reason we are doing this show is because it doesn't.

While she was providing this introduction, visuals of newspaper headlines such as “Public outraged in recent cases of animal abuse” and “A dog's worst friend” were shown. There were, however, no film clips of animal abuse.

In describing their experiences with animal abuse, the program guests detailed a litany of unpleasant examples, some of which follow: injecting mice with acid; burning kittens; killing a frog in a drill press; burning a cat's nose with a cigarette lighter; and hitting a dog with a beer bottle.

Ms. Lake consistently condemned the abusers during the course of the show, calling their actions “sick”, “criminal” and “cowardly.” The psychologist pointed out that the “intentional harming of animals is a felony in fifteen states.” He also attempted to document a link between animal abusers and serial murderers of humans, such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and Albert DiSalvo.

The program used the well-known television panel/audience participation format. In this respect, it should be noted that no members of the audience supported the abusers either. In giving their perspective on the panellists, the audience used language such as: “You are a despicable human being. You should rot in jail”; “I think you all need help”; and “We should be locking you up now so you don't hurt humans someday”.

The host and the psychologist, the show's guest expert, underscored the abusers' sickness and need for help several times, including, for example, the psychologist's advice to the friends and families of abusers that “the only way they [abusers] get in the system [of help] is to get reported.” At the end of the program, Ms. Lake urged viewers to report animal abuse to the Humane Society or the police and provided two telephone numbers of organizations which deal with animal abuse.

this show was not an attempt to educate or inform the public about the abuse of animals. Instead it aimed at disgusting the viewing audience. It succeeded. … What this show was doing was teaching influential young people how to commit a crime and how to torture defenceless animals. It is telling our population and especially our youth that if you have nothing better to do you should abuse an animal.

there are some very important mitigating circumstances surrounding this episode. The first is that Ricki Lake is very well known as an activist for animal rights, and she has made the news recently regarding her actions in support of her beliefs that caused her to come into conflict with the law. Her very strongly held beliefs make her program a suitable venue from which the issue of animal cruelty can be handled appropriately. Secondly, a screening of the program before airing led us to believe that a viewer who saw this program would understand the total context of the program and recognize the efforts that were made to present the issue of cruelty to animals, and those who commit such acts as despicable. … The entire tone and context of the program was that the people who admitted to committing these acts were seriously troubled personalities, and should seek professional help. The audience was, without exception, hostile to the views of the program guests and their questioning of the guests clearly indicated their scorn and contempt for the acts being described.

… While this program did not contain scenes of violence, CHCH aired a viewer advisory before this program and following a commercial break approximately fifteen minutes into the program to inform viewers of the content of the material contained in this program. The advisory stated, in both video and audio “The following program deals with mature subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised.”

A careful screening of the program led us to believe that this subject matter, while very difficult for all of us who care for animals, was one which deserved airing when handled sensitively by a host whose views on the subject were known to us, and to many of the viewers. Having come to that conclusion, we proceeded to air the episode in question.

The complainant was unsatisfied with this response and requested, on January 16, 1996, that the CBSC refer the matter to the appropriate Regional Council for adjudication.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 7 (Controversial Public Issues):

Recognizing in a democracy the necessity of presenting all sides of a public issue, it shall be the responsibility of member stations to treat fairly, all subjects of a controversial nature. Time shall be allotted with due regard to all the other elements of balanced program schedules, and to the degree of public interest in the questions presented. Recognizing that healthy controversy is essential to the maintenance of democratic institutions, the broadcast publisher will endeavour to encourage presentation of news and opinion on any controversy which contains an element of the public interest.

Voluntary Code Regarding Violence, Clause 6 (News & Public Affairs Programming):

6.1 Broadcasters shall use appropriate editorial judgment in the reporting of, and the pictorial representation of violence, aggression or destruction within their news and public affairs programming.

6.2 Caution shall be used in the selection of, and repetition of, video which depicts violence.

6.3 Broadcasters shall advise viewers in advance of showing scenes of extra-ordinary violence, or graphic reporting on delicate subject matter such as sexual assault or court action related to sexual crimes, particularly during afternoon or early evening newscasts and updates when children could be viewing.

6.4 Broadcasters shall employ discretion in the use of explicit or graphic language related to stories of destruction, accidents or sexual violence, which could disturb children and their families.

6.5 Broadcasters shall exercise particular judgment during live coverage of domestic terrorist events or civil disorders, to ensure news coverage does not become a factor in inciting additional violence.

6.6 While broadcasters shall not exaggerate or exploit situations of aggression, conflict or confrontation, equal care shall be taken not to sanitize the reality of the human condition.

Voluntary Code Regarding Violence, Clause 9.1 (Violence against Animals):

Broadcasters shall not telecast programming which sanctions, promotes or glamorizes violence against animals.

The Ontario Regional Council members viewed a tape of the program in question and reviewed all of the correspondence. The Council considers that the program in question does not violate the provisions of the Voluntary Code Regarding Violence nor the CAB Code of Ethics.

As the CAB Violence Code provides, in dealing with these issues in general, broadcasters “shall use appropriate editorial judgment in the reporting of, and the pictorial representation of violence”. Thereafter, the application of this general principle to specific cases encounters two apparently conflicting principles. Broadcasters are, on the one hand, advised to use “caution … in the selection of, and repetition of, video which depicts violence” and yet, on the other hand, are required by the Code “not to sanitize the reality of the human condition.” There is established, in other words, in the area of broadcast standards, a balance between the public's need to know and the way in which that knowledge should be conveyed. The issue is ultimately one of reasonableness of treatment.

The Council has no doubt that the question of animal abuse is a subject of a controversial nature which the broadcaster was correct to treat. Council members consider that the pointed and unpleasant discussion of animal abuse was necessary to raise public awareness of the problem. The fact that the format of the program lends itself to shocking controversy does not detract from its ability to send a message which needs to be broadcast. The examples of violence that were given by the guests serve to convey to the other guests, the audience and the viewers an understanding of the subject in a context and language which all those people can readily understand.

urthermore, while the host and her principal guest had a point of view on the issue, which resulted in a clear bias of the program against animal abusers, the Council considers that both points of view were present and that, overall, the subject was dealt with fairly. After all, a public affairs show, unlike a newscast, is not constrained by the same need for objectivity and is entitled to a point of view.

It should perhaps first be noted that, contrary to the contention of the complainant, the Council does not consider that this show constituted a visual “how-to” tool. It is true that unpleasant examples of animal abuse were mentioned but these were neither portrayed in video form nor described in any graphic detail. Moreover, in terms of the Clause in question, no viewer of the show could reasonably conclude that the program sanctioned, promoted or glamorized violence against animals. Not only was the host clear in her position against animal abusers, but her guest expert from the Humane Society also reflected that perspective. He even drew a link between animal abusers and serial killers of human beings, the implications of which are strongly negative in terms of the show's attitude toward animal abuse. Finally, it was quite clear from all of the audience interventions that there was not a single voice sympathetic to the abusive activities of guests on the show.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.