CKVR-TV re Just for Laughs

ONTARIO REGIONAL COUNCIL
(CBSC Decision 94/95-0005)
M. Barrie (Chair), A. MacKay (Vice-Chair), P. Fockler, T. Gupta, R. Stanbury

THE FACTS

During its broadcast of “Just For Laughs”, a CBC-produced program containing highlights of the Montreal comedy festival, CKVR-TV included a segment featuring a fictional “Sister Mary Immaculate.” Playing the role of an Irish nun, the comedienne made a number of jokes about religion and about her travel to Montreal. In one joke, she responded to the question, “where does the Bible stand on homosexuality” by quoting a passage in the Bible where God stated, “get thee behind me, Satan.”

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) received a complaint,dated August 26, 1994, from a viewer of the program who had initially writtento CKVR-TV and had been directed by the station to the CBSC. In his initialcomplaint to the station, the viewer wrote,

I was extremely offended by last week's broadcast (July 10) of”Sister Mary”'s act. Never before have I heard such a blatantlyoffensive contempt and ridicule of God, the Bible, and His SonJesus. I enjoy the comedy shows, and can laugh at religiousjokes but there is NO excuse for the completely [sic] disrespect& filth spewed from this Sister Mary. I could not believe my ears– nor that it wasn't just one joke in poor taste but a continuousstream. Particularly offensive was her reference to the LordJesus Christ as a homosexual.

God will surely judge those who have allowed this filthydisrespect to be so freely aired. We live in exciting times and willsee this happen again in our generation — to their eternal shame.

(I would like a copy of this act to show fellow Christians thedepravity that is out there).

The station had replied to the viewer on August 4, 1994. In her response, theProgram Manager stated,

We are sorry the program offended you. You did not mention thedate that you saw this program on CKVR. This informationwould be helpful to us in order to pinpoint the episode and makenote for any potential future airings.

We record the show from CBC in Toronto so if you require acopy you must contact them directly.

I have enclosed a copy of the Canadian Broadcast StandardsCouncil (CBSC) [sic]. Although your complaint is not directlyspecified in the code, I thought you may be interested in theprocedure. If you are not satisfied with the response you havereceived from CKVR, you may contact the CBSC at the enclosedaddress.

The viewer was unsatisfied with this response and requested, on October 17,1994, that the CBSC refer the matter to the appropriate Regional Council foradjudication.

Recognizing that every person has a right to full and equalrecognition and to enjoy certain fundamental rights andfreedoms, broadcasters shall endeavour to ensure, to the best oftheir ability, that their programming contains no abusive ordiscriminatory material or comment which is based on matters ofrace, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, maritalstatus or physical or mental handicap.

The Regional Council members viewed a tape of the program in question andreviewed all of the correspondence. The members unanimously agreed thatthe program did not contravene the Code of Ethics; however, they wereconcerned about the content of the broadcaster's response to thecomplainant.

The Regional Council recognized that the program had been produced by theCBC which, as a public broadcaster, is not currently a member of the CBSC. This does not, of course, alleviate in any respect the responsibility of thestation itself for the programming it chooses to air. As the “Background” to theCAB Code of Ethics states, “each broadcaster is responsible for theprogramming of the licensed station.” Thus, while CKVR-TV was notresponsible for producing the program which it obtained from a broadcasterthat is not a CBSC member, CKVR-TV was fully responsible for the contentof the program which it had chosen to air.

It is not any reference to “race, national or ethnic origin, religion,age, sex, marital status or physical or mental handicap” butrather those which contain “abusive or discriminatory material orcomment” based on the foregoing which will be sanctioned.

The Council was of the view that this principle applied squarely to the presentcase.

The Regional Council noted one reference to homosexuality in Sister Mary'sroutine; it further noted that some of her jokes had nothing to do with religionat all. While “Sister Mary”'s routine might not have been humorous to thecomplainant, none of her jokes — including the reference to homosexualityhighlighted by the complainant — could be construed as abusive ordiscriminatory to Christians or Catholics.

Stations voluntarily becoming members of the Council agree to:

(f) Co-operate fully whenever a complaint is received, by:

responding to all complaints quickly and directly, attempting toresolve the issue to the complainant's satisfaction ….

Only once before has the Council issued a negative decision based on thepoor quality of a broadcaster's response. In CFTO-TV re News Report (Pollution Study) (CBSC Decision 92/93-0178, October 26, 1993), the Council based its negative decision on the fact that thestation had not responded at all to the substance of the complaint and had,instead, sent a transcript of the program segment in question to thecomplainant without further explanation. In the Council's view, “the station'sresponse [in that case] was dismissive of the complainant s concerns andignored the complainant s willingness to resolve the matter at the station level,before approaching the CBSC.”

In CIII-TV re Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (CBSC Decision 93/94-0270 and 0277, October 24, 1994), theCBSC's negative decision was based on the broadcaster's breach of the CAB
Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming
and not onthe quality of its response to the complainants. Nonetheless, the CBSCexpressed concern about the quality of that broadcaster's response to thecomplainants. In the words of the Ontario Regional Council, “the replies of thebroadcaster ought to have been more thoughtful. They were unnecessarilybrief; they focussed on issues not related to the complaints … and did notrespond to their clearly expressed concerns.”

Thus, the CBSC considers that a response which is entirely dismissive of thecomplaint and does not respond at all to the complainant's concerns can begrounds for a negative decision, as in the CFTO-TV matter. On the otherhand, a poorly-worded or incomplete response, as in the CIII-TV case,will be recognized as such but will not necessarily form the basis of a negativedecision. In all such cases, the CBSC expects that the broadcaster will beencouraged to provide more thoughtful responses in the future.

The Ontario Regional Council decided that the Program Manager of CKVR-TVhad been apologetic, and thus not totally unresponsive to the viewer. Councilmembers were greatly concerned, however, that the response did not at alladdress the substance of the viewer's complaint. In fact, the broadcasterwrongly indicated that it lacked the necessary information (namely, the dateof the program, which had been mentioned in the complainant's letter) torespond, and wrongly suggested that the complaint could not have beenconsidered under the CAB Codes administered by the CBSC. Indeed, theProgram Manager, by not responding to the substance of the complaint andby suggesting that the complainant contact the CBSC, did not encourage theresolution of the complaint at the station level, and instead encouraged thecomplainant to contact the CBSC for satisfactory results.

The Regional Council concluded that the response should have been morethoughtful and that it did not even attempt to resolve the complaint at the locallevel. Moreover, the Council agreed that the Program Manager should havebeen more conversant with the content of the Codes to which the stationvoluntarily adhered. In the circumstances, the Ontario Regional Councildecided that CKVR-TV did not adhere to the standard of responsivenessexpected of all CBSC members.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found thatCKVR-TV has breached one of the responsibilities ofmembership of the Council, by not responding adequately to aviewer s complaint. While the Council found that CKVR-TV'sairing of “Just for Laughs” on July 10, 1994 did not breach theindustry's Code of Ethics, CKVR-TV did not address thesubstance of the viewer's complaint about the program.

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