CITY-TV re Silence of the Lambs

ONTARIO REGIONAL COUNCIL
(CBSC Decision 94/95-0120)
M. Barrie (Chair), A. MacKay (Vice-Chair), P. Fockler, T. Gupta, R. Stanbury

THE FACTS

The complainant association pointed out that the film “had [previously] been aired
on Canadian pay-per-view discretionary channels” but its representative pointed out
that she did not “appreciate having a movie about killing and skinning women
delivered to [her] free over the public airwaves.”

In the ordinary course, this complaint was forwarded by the CBSC to the
broadcaster, whose Vice President of Programming responded to the complainant
on March 13.

We have reviewed your letter with great interest because we sharemany of your concerns about violence in society and violence ontelevision.

To put our telecast of this film in perspective, and to recap how weacted in a responsible manner, let me briefly review for you thehandling of this feature film on Citytv.

This particular film was screened in its entirety by our Director ofProgramming Ellen Baine, by myself, and other senior management. In addition, on a consultative basis, our Citytv/MuchMusic ReviewCommittee (primarily made up of non-programming women and menfrom the stations) was asked to comment on the film prior to telecast. We did this not for defensive reasons but to internally test our staff andmanagement feelings about a telecast of this award winning film. Everyone's comments were unanimous and supported a decision to airthis film.

We chose to delay our normal 8pm start time to a more appropriate9pm. We chose to make significant edits in the film, either removing orreducing eight scenes for a total of about eight minutes. We chose torestrict any promotion of the film on air to an “after 9pm” timeslot. Weran special extended disclaimers at the start of the film and at eachbreak. We kept our switchboard open to keep special track of any callsabout the film. We also requested a simulcast on the film from cablecompanies in Southern Ontario indirectly ensuring that the CBStelecast of this film (they were playing this film on the same evening)was not seen by viewers in most of Southern Ontario. CBS let the filmrun almost uncut, editing only an estimated three minutes of material. Most viewers in Southern Ontario watched our more severely editedversion.

We acknowledge that this film contains potentially difficult material. Wealso acknowledge that it is one of the best films made in the last 10years, having won Best Director, Best Film, Best Actor and BestActress awards (among others) at the Oscars three years ago. Thisfilm has significant artistic merit and we make no apologies for itstelecast.

We have been careful to track viewer response to this film. We havelogged a total of 14 phone calls and letters. In every case viewers wereupset, or extremely upset, at our “over editing” of the film. We haveletters and calls using such phrases as “don't edit the movie” and “whydid you ruin the show” as well as “we are sick of City's censorship”. With the exception of your letter received from the CBSC, we have norecorded calls or letters complaining of our telecast of this film. Weestimate total viewership of about 500,000 viewers to Citytv during thisfilm.

You have disagreed with us on many programming decisions in thepast. I hope we have at least in part, dealt with many of your concerns.

The response was not acceptable to the complainant association, whose
representative requested that the complaint be taken to the Regional Council for
adjudication. In her letter of March 18, she responded to CITY-TV's Vice President
of Programming.

In this province, in which CITY TV broadcasts, Silence of the Lambswas given a Restricted rating by the Ontario Film Review Board and flagged with the following warnings:

BRUTAL VIOLENCE, HORROR, MAY OFFEND SOME

In Ontario, it is an offence under The Theatres Act, punishable by asignificant penalty, for theatre owners to expose people under the ageof 18, to films given a Restricted rating.

It is not a defence under this law for a theatre owner to say, as CITY TVhas, well gee, we put off showing this Restricted film featuring BRUTALVIOLENCE and HORROR from 8:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m.; we allwatched it first and thought it was great; we put viewer advisories onetc., etc., etc. In this province, we do not leave adherence to the filmrating system to discretion of corporations…

The letter went on to decry the broadcast of “films with wishy washy viewer
advisories which advise viewers of exactly nothing. The advisories do not, for
instance, state that the movies have been given a Restricted rating in Ontario and
should not be viewed by people under eighteen.”

Article 1.0 (Content), Voluntary Code regarding Violence in Television Programming

1.1 Canadian broadcasters shall not air programming which:

  • contains gratuitous violence in any form*
  • sanctions, promotes or glamorizes violence

(*”Gratuitous” means material which does not play an integralrole in developing the plot, character or theme of the material asa whole).

Article 3.0 (Scheduling), Voluntary Code regarding Violence in Television
Programming

3.1.1

Programming which contains scenes of violence intended foradult audiences shall not be telecast before the late eveningviewing period, defined as 9 pm to 6 am.
3.1.2

Accepting that there are older children watching television after9 pm, broadcasters shall adhere to the provisions of article 5.1below (viewer advisories), enabling parents to make an informeddecision as to the suitability of the programming for their familymembers.

Article 5.0 (Viewer Advisories), Voluntary Code regarding Violence in Television
Programming

5.1

To assist consumers in making their viewing choices,broadcasters shall provide a viewer advisory, at the beginning of,and during the first hour of programming telecast in late eveninghours which contains scenes of violence intended for adultaudiences.
5.3

Suggested language for suitable viewer advisories is outlined inAppendix A.

Article 7.0 (Violence against Women), Voluntary Code regarding Violence in
Television Programming

7.1

Broadcasters shall not telecast programming which sanctions,promotes or glamorizes any aspect of violence against women.

The Regional Council reviewed all the correspondence and watched an air-check
tape of the Silence of the Lambs. In other words, the Regional Council considered
the film as edited for on-air use by CITY-TV. While all members of the Ontario
Regional Council recalled having seen the film at some time in the past in its uncut
version, the members, for the purposes of this ruling, did not consider the motion
picture as it had run in the theatres, was available on videocassette, or had been
aired on any Canadian discretionary service. The decision of the Ontario Regional
Council was unanimous.

Before dealing with the specific question of Silence of the Lambs and the CITY-TV
broadcast of the film, the Council felt it important to deal with two threshold issues,
namely, the underlying rationale for the Violence Code and the question of the
relevance of theatrical classification to a television broadcast of any theatrical film.

Furthermore, those who drafted the Code were conscious of the needto create this protection in an environment in which preservation of thefreedom of expression remains a paramount but not immutableprinciple. Public Notice CRTC 1993-149 provides (at p. 2):

The Commission is generally satisfied that the CAB'srevised Code achieves the appropriate balance betweenpreserving freedom of expression and protecting the viewing public, especially children, from the harmfuleffects of television violence.

In the Power Rangers case, the Regional Council was called upon to consider the
special role of the Violence Code in the protection of the most vulnerable members
of our society. In this case, the CBSC must consider the “adult” provisions of the
Violence Code. The general principle which guided the framers of the Code, insofar
as adults were concerned, was that freedom of expression would be the rule by
which broadcasters could be guided regarding dramatic programming containing
scenes of violence intended for adult audiences. (There are specific provisions relating to news and public affairs programming and to sports programming which are unrelated to the present matter and which will not be considered here.)

To this general principle of freedom of expression they brought two general
restrictions or constraints. The first was that there would be no broadcasting of
programming containing scenes of violence intended for adult audiences before the
so-called “watershed hour” (9:00 p.m.). The second was that there would be no
broadcasting to Canadians, even to the adult population, of programs containing
gratuitous violence. In other words, all dramatic programming intended for adult
audiences which aired in the proper part of the broadcast schedule and which
contained no gratuitous or glamorized violence would be protected by this
fundamental freedom enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As a further service to Canadians, and in the recognition of the fact that some
viewers may be offended by some dramatic programming legitimately entitled to its
place on the airwaves for reasons described above, the creators of the Code added
the requirement that viewer advisories be added in certain cases. In the
“Background” section preceding the provisions of the CAB Violence Code, it is
provided that “creative freedom carries with it the responsibility of ensuring … that
viewers have adequate information about program content to make informed viewing
choices based on their personal tastes and standards.”

The fact, therefore, that a motion picture may or may not have had a particular rating
in its cinema incarnation has little or nothing to do with its entitlement to appear on
conventional television stations. It cannot be assumed that it is the theatrical version
which appears on television. In fact, it can probably generally be assumed that a
film with a restricted rating will not appear on conventional television in its original
form.

Gratuitous violence is defined by the Code as being “material which does not play
an integral role in developing the plot, character or theme of the material as a
whole.” Where, in other words, a program includes scenes of violence which are
unnecessary to the progress of the story, which do not drive the plot forward, which
play no role in the development or definition of the characters and are clearly serving
a sensationalistic purpose, that program will be seen to contain gratuitous violence.

Programming which “sanctions, promotes or glamorizes violence” is, with the
possible exception of the meaning of “sanctions”, more straightforward. While the
Council understands that the verb “sanction” may have several meanings, an
ordinary rule of interpretation would give it that meaning which is consistent with its
accompanying verbs “promotes or glamorizes” and not a meaning which differs from
those. The applicable meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary would be: “2. To
permit authoritatively; to authorize; in looser use, to countenance, encourage by
express or implied approval.” The O.E.D. provides a similar definition for “promote”:
“2. To further the growth, development, progress, or establishment (of anything); to
help forward (a process or result); to further, advance, encourage.” “Glamorize” is
presumably a slang corruption of “glamour” and does not make it to the O.E.D. but
we all would likely understand from the use of all three verbs encourage, if not
glorify, the use of violence. The CBSC does not expect that any use of violence in
programming will offend the Code but only that which encourages violence in the
sense of the quoted phrase.

The foregoing descriptions will always need to be measured against the content of
a challenged program and the Council expects that these general terms will only
come to be fully understood when sufficient examples will have been considered.

It was the view of the Ontario Regional Council that the broadcast version of Silence
of the Lambs
neither contained gratuitous violence nor sanctioned, promoted or
glamorized violence.

The film could be characterized as a psychological thriller; it tells the story of an
imprisoned serial killer, a sociopathic psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, nicknamed
“Hannibal the Cannibal”. Through a young special agent, Clarice Starling, the FBI
attempts to enlist his brilliant yet deviant mind to identify another sociopathic serial
killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill”. Since the film deals with the sociology of serial killers,
one in prison for much of the film and one at large, it would be fair to assume that
there is much tension and suspense which is, after all, the constant threat of
imminent violence. Although the viewer learns of murders which have previously
been committed, the only homicides seen to occur during the film are those
connected with the escape of Lecter from custody. There is also a kidnapping and,
ultimately, the shooting of Buffalo Bill by S/Agent Starling. The Council did not
consider that the film was afflicted by considerable violence. It also viewed the
violence present as integral to the development of plot and character.

Given that the violence in the film is all perpetrated by unattractive sociopathic
characters, the Council did not consider that there was any glamorization of violence
in Silence of the Lambs.

This was not the Regional Council's view of the film. It considered that Silence of
the Lambs
had a much broader, albeit disturbing, theme. The movie was concerned
with the psychopathology of serial killers and, to some extent, the exorcizing of the
personal demons of S/Agent Starling. Of the two serial killers in the film, one killed
only men and the other, the lesser role, had killed a man and thereafter women. The
violent acts depicted were no more, and possibly less, focused on women than on
men.

Furthermore, the Regional Council was not unaware of the characterization of the
principal protagonist in the film, Clarice Starling. It was she, and she alone, who
solved the case and saved the day. She was initially introduced to viewers as a
double major in psychology and criminology, a magna cum laude graduate, a summer intern at
the Reisinger Institute and so on. She is the only figure to merit the respect and
admiration of the brilliant, but sociopathic, Hannibal Lecter. Starling is in fact
presented in striking counterpoint to the mindless herd of male agents, SWAT teams
and all, who head off to the wrong city to arrest the wrong persons while she
endures the terror of the final moments in the pitch dark with Buffalo Bill, advantaged
in the contest by his night-piercing goggles.

It was not necessary for CITY-TV, for reasons explained above, to state, as
complainant requested, that the movie had “been given a Restricted rating in Ontario
and should not be viewed by people under eighteen.” The information required for
a cinema-goer is not necessarily that required for a television viewer and the Ontario
theatrical rating was not, in any case, given to the film shown on CITY-TV but rather
to a different, unedited version.

This is not the first complaint brought by this complainant against this broadcaster.
It does not make the complaint any less valid. Indeed, the complaints have tended
to raise important issues for consideration. Nonetheless, the broadcaster has a duty
to be responsive to even a militant viewer. In this regard, the Council believed that
its remarks on this point in CITY-TV re Beavis & Butt-head, (CBSC Decision 93/94-0074, June 22, 1994) were apt:

It is, therefore, encouraging that the vast majority of complaints whichthe CBSC refers to the broadcasters for response are satisfactorilyresolved at that level between the broadcaster and the complainant. Ofthose few which remain unresolved at the “grass roots” level, it is oftenclear in the review of the correspondence that the territory staked outby some complainants is unlikely to permit reconciliation despite thecare taken in the broadcaster response. In such cases, the Council isacutely conscious of the broadcaster's effort or lack of effort to beresponsive to the issues raised in the complaint.

In the present case, the Regional Council considers the response ofCITY-TV's Program Manager to the complainant to be a thoughtful andattentive answer to the issues raised by the complainant association,despite the strong negative reaction by the complainant to thatresponse.

It was the view of the Regional Council in this case that the response of CITY-TV's
Vice President of Programming was equally thoughtful and attentive despite the fact
that it was equally unlikely to strike a responsive chord. It acknowledged that the
film contained “potentially difficult material.” It also explained the station's internal
process in deciding that the film could play and its special arrangements set up to
track viewer reaction to the film. Despite its contention that this complaint was the
only one which decried the telecasting of the film, the Vice President took the time
to reply carefully. That action is to be commended.

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