CITY-TV re Ed the Sock

ONTARIO REGIONAL COUNCIL
(CBSC Decision 94/95-0100)
M. Barrie (Chair), P. Fockler, T. Gupta, A. MacKay, R. Stanbury

THE FACTS

During its broadcast of the feature film, “Star Trek Voyager”, on January 16, 1995, CITY-TV (Toronto) included three promotional spots for a program entitled, “Ed’s Night Party”. The five-second spots featured a puppet, Ed the Sock, commenting on the film aired that evening. In the first spot, the sock puppet said,

When I made this outfit I didn't realize I wouldn't be able to reachmy communicator pin unless I got really excited.

The on-screen message accompanying the promotional spot read “Ed's NightParty debuts February 10.”

In the second spot, the character said, to background theme music of the”Star Trek” series,

A recent survey proved that Trekkies enjoy a very full and activesex life. They'd enjoy it even more if they had a partner.

In the third spot, the character said,

Anybody know where they keep the beer on this ship? Anybody? Anybody know where the commissary is? Hello!

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) received a complaint,dated January 27, 1995, regarding the spots. According to the viewer,

City TV has been promoting a new programme starring Ed theSock, and showcased at least two promotional advertisementsduring the premiere movie, Star Trek – Voyager. In one ad, Edthe Sock, a cigar-chomping sock puppet dressed in a Star Trekuniform announces, “Star Trek fans have great sex lives; toobad they have no partners.” In another, the sock which has noarms complains that the only way he can scratch an itch is if hegets excited.

I contacted City TV by telephone to complain about these spots,and the woman who responded suggested she “had no problem”with the ads.

I have been informed that the Code of Ethics for Advertisingsuggests that advertisements must be in “good taste” and shallnot offend public standards. The promotional spots for Ed theSock were clear references to masturbation and erections. These advertisements occurred during an extremely well-advertised premiere showing of an adventure show popular withyoung people.

It is my opinion that these promotional spots were in very poortaste and well exceeded the guidelines for offending publicstandards.

The CBSC referred the complaint to CITY-TV for response. On March 8,1995, CITY-TV's Director, Communication and Promotion, replied,

Citytv is committed to responsible programming. Not only do weadhere to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Codes, wefollow our own in-house Policies and Guidelines that werecarefully created to ensure the highest standards are met withrespect to the production, scheduling, promotion and telecast ofour programming.

The 5 second promotional spots in question were produced to aironly during the January 16th telecast of Star Trek – Voyager asboth shows target the same adult male demographic. As theshow aired on a school night, we expected few children to bewatching. Our viewer research shows that the audience for thisshow was overwhelmingly adult.

Ed, the sock puppet who is the star of the show, is a surlyoutspoken character in the tradition of “Archie Bunker”. Thespots reflect the show's humour, which may be sophomoric andnot to everyone's taste, but certainly not offensive or beyondcommunity standards. In fact, we had over 1.2 million viewersthat evening and yours was the only complaint.

I have brought your letter to the Internal Screening Committeewhich deals with viewer complaints and problematic programmaterial. Our Committee reviewed the spots and felt though theywere “silly”, they were not offensive and that the humour usedwas subtle enough that only mature viewers would understandit.

I am sorry … that you found the spots offensive. However, it isimportant to remember that many cartoons and comedy showsover the years have depicted a brand of humour that does nothave cross-generational appeal. This we believe is one of thosecases.

The viewer was unsatisfied with this response and wrote back to the CBSCon March 15, 1995. In her second letter, she observed that

… Citytv states that many television programs depict a “brand ofhumour that does not have cross-generational appeal.” I concur,and for that reason there are many shows we choose not toview because we do find the humour and the situations crude. However, this is not the specific concern about which I have acomplaint. This issue is choice. As a family we avoid what wefeel are less tasteful programs. On January 16, 1995, wegathered as a family to view a new program based on an originalseries which has been considered tame, and has long beenpopular with young people. While viewing this program onCitytv, we were subjected to commercials which we feel were notin keeping with the “general” viewer appeal (age ten and up) ofthe program …. In short, we had little choice about viewing thecommercials which we found offensive during Star Trek -Voyager — they occurred quickly, and within the confines of aprogram which is watched by many generations.

…. I believe my primary point is simple. In our society, Citytv(and any station or advertiser) is free to create what some wouldterm as offensive commercials and insert them during programsreflective of the tone of the commercials; however, I feel stationsare not free to insert commercials of this kind during programswhich have cross-generational attraction. I do not choose toview crude programming, so why should crude commercials beimposed upon me during programs with general viewer appeal.

The complaint was referred to the CBSC Ontario Regional Council foradjudication. The Regional Council considered the complaint on August 23,1995.

Recognizing the service that commercial sponsors render tolisteners and viewers in making known to them the goods andservices available in their communities and realizing that thestory of such goods and services goes into the intimacy of thehome, it shall be the responsibility of member stations and theirsales representatives to work with advertisers and agencies inimproving the technique of telling the advertising story so thatthese shall be in good taste, simple, truthful and believable, andshall not offend what is generally accepted as the prevailingstandard of good taste.

The Regional Council members reviewed all the documentation relating to thecomplaint and viewed an air-check tape of Star Trek – Voyager, whichincluded the “Ed the Sock” promotional material, and was time-coded.

The next question for the Regional Council to consider was whether dealingwith advertising issues fell within the CBSC's mandate. Generally, the CBSCrefers all complaints dealing with advertising matters to the CanadianAdvertising Foundation, which is charged with the administration of a numberof codes which are advertising-related. The CBSC does, however, deal withcomplaints of a local nature. It was clear that these program promos werelimited to CITY-TV and the Council consequently determined that it was withinits mandate to adjudicate the complaint concerning “Ed the Sock.” In thisdetermination, the Council was supported by its earlier decision concerningthe “Walk to Work” commercials (CFTO-TV and CFMT-TV re Walk to Work Commercials (CBSC Decision 93/94-0015, June 22, 1994)), in which it stated,

While it is generally true that the CBSC does not deal withadvertising-related complaints, this is a question of practicerather than mandate. In the first place, broadcasters are asresponsible for the advertising content which they transmit asthey are for the dramatic, journalistic, and other content on theirairwaves. Second, as stated immediately above, the CAB Codeof Ethics contains a provision dealing in express terms with advertising content. Although not relevant to this case, it mightbe noted that the Voluntary Code Regarding Violence inTelevision Programming also provides an advertising-relatedmandate to the CBSC in Clause 3.3.

The CBSC began its consideration of this complaint, as it generally does, withthe proposition that broadcasters benefit from the application of the principleof freedom of expression to what they transmit, as do those who watch orlisten to those transmissions. There are, however, limitations on the exerciseof that freedom by broadcasters and the CBSC believes that Canada's privatebroadcasters have generally been extremely receptive to the definition ofthose limitations as enunciated by the Council. It is known and expected thatthe CBSC is extremely cautious about the application of the principle of goodtaste as a restriction of that fundamental freedom.

While the complainant was extremely articulate in the enunciation of herapprehensions, the Council did not consider that the concerns outweighed thefreedom at stake.

First, the members noted that the first of the promotional statements, whichwas probably the most “on the edge” of the three, aired at 8:28 p.m., namely,just thirty minutes before the watershed hour. The second promo aired nineminutes later and the third at 9:26 p.m.

Since this is the Council's first decision dealing in any significant way with the”watershed” hour, it is worth noting what it is and what purpose it serves. Inits literal sense, it, of course, denotes the line separating waters flowing intodifferent rivers or river basins. Popularly, the term has been applied tothreshhold issues but the literal meaning of the word gives the best visualsense of programming falling on one side or the other of a defined line, in thiscase a time line. Programming seen as suitable for children and families fallson the early side of the line; programming targeted primarily for adults falls onthe late side of the line. It should be noted that the definition of that time linevaries from country to country, from 8:30 p.m. in New Zealand to 10:30 p.m.in France. (Great Britain, Finland, South Africa and Australia all share theCanadian choice of 9:00 p.m. as the watershed.)

In Canada, the watershed was developed as a principal component of the1993 Violence Code, establishing the hour before which no violentprogramming intended for adult audiences would be shown. Despite theestablishment of the watershed for that purpose, the Council has reason tobelieve that broadcasters regularly consider this hour as a rough threshholdfor other types of adult programming. There is, in fact, no formal restrictionon the timing of broadcasting of slightly “racy” material but the earliest of thepromos under consideration here could not be said to have been run in a timeslot which was primarily a young children's slot or even at a time when onewould have expected significant numbers of young children to be watchingtelevision at all. The broadcaster's research showed “that the audience forthis show was overwhelmingly adult.” The Council did not agree with thecomplainant's contention that the program audience could be expected tohave ” 'general' viewer appeal (age ten and up).” Had the broadcaster desiredor expected that result, the show would have been aired at an earlier hour.

Second, the members felt that the humour in the advertisements was directedto the audience which the broadcaster had expected would see the program,namely, adults. Furthermore, it was expressed at a level that would primarily,if not only, have been understood by adult viewers. In this sense, theRegional Council believed that the humour would not have offended youngerviewers. It did not use offensive language, and was neither graphic nor vile. At most, it could have been described as suggestive.

While clearly the advertisements were not humorous to the complainant, theydid not contravene the Council's assessment of prevailing standards of goodtaste. They referred again to what they had said in the “Walk to Work”decision:

After viewing a tape of the [“Walk to Work”] commercial andreviewing the relevant correspondence, the members presentunanimously agreed that the commercial in question did notoffend prevailing standards of good taste. At its worstinterpretation, the commercial represented an attempt at humor that might not be universally considered humorous by a viewingaudience. … It was, if anything, tongue-in-cheek, a double-entendre… While it is evident that the Council's mandate did notinclude any evaluation of the success of the humor, the Councilclearly felt that the visual pun did not breach any “prevailingstandard of good taste”.

This is not to say that the complainant was incorrect in her belief that, onceshe chose to watch the program, she had little choice but to watch theadvertisements which were a part of that program. It is true of virtually everyprogram that the exercise of the major choice (i.e., the decision to watch theprogram itself) results in the imposition of the components which accompanyit, such as the commercials but, unless that advertising amounts to such abreach of prevailing standards of good taste as to merit interference with theprinciple of freedom of speech, the CBSC will be unwilling to intervenenegatively. For reasons explained above, this was not such a case.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the CBSC and may bereported, announced or read by the station against which the complaint hadoriginally been made. In the case of a favourable decision, however thestation is under no obligation to announce the result.