Comedic Intent Does Not Justify Unduly Sexually Explicit Content, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, June 1, 2004 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning the broadcast of a discussion between Jeff Fillion and his colleagues aired on CHOI-FM on September 3, 2003, between the hours of 9 and 10 am.  A listener complained that the content was too sexually explicit to be broadcast. 

The Quebec Regional Panel assessed the complaint under Clause 9 (Radio Broadcasting) of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) Code of Ethics, which requires that broadcasters ensure that no unduly sexually explicit material be aired.  The Panel agreed with the complainant and found that the content amounted to a breach of the Code.  

The morning discussion among the show host, Jeff Fillion, and his colleagues critiqued the content of certain popular women’s magazines and how they always have a “big sex teaser” (“un gros sex-choc”), which does not generally follow through on its promise.  In support of this point, Fillion provided his audience with made-up headlines from such magazines, which were quite sexually explicit (examples can be found in the decision text).  A listener characterized the on-air discussion as “aural pornography” and, consequently, inappropriate for broadcast.  

In its defence, the broadcaster replied that a critique using humour and exaggeration, even where sexual content was a component of the humour, constitutes justification for the broadcast of such content.  Moreover, CHOI-FM argued that humour is subjective.  The Quebec Regional Panel concluded that

there was nothing equivocal about the broadcast; there was neither the innuendo nor the double-entendre [present in other earlier cases] […]  Nor could it be said that the comments were understated or subtle in anyway.  They were plainly and simply explicit, and unduly so.

Furthermore, the Panel explained that the comedic intention of the broadcaster cannot be an excuse for airing unduly sexually explicit material.  It explained that “that defence is usually proposed by a broadcaster in an attempt to justify some form of commentary, frequently discriminatory matter, which would not, but for its intended humorous nature, be at all justifiable.”  The Quebec Regional Panel elaborated on its position in the following terms:

That a comedic environment may create a different atmosphere where comments may, exceptionally, be acceptable is the first level of principle.  At a secondary level, there will be an assessment of the nature and extent of those comments.  The Panel will assess whether they are likelier to “tickle” than be “nasty”, to “poke fun” rather than to “bludgeon” […]

In other words, the comedic intention of the broadcaster does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that “anything goes”.  As aptly stated [in a previous decision] “Comedic intention is not […] a defence to a broadcast that would otherwise breach the Human Rights Clause of the CAB Code of Ethics.  Comedic intention does not, in other words, sanitize or rehabilitate material that is unduly discriminatory under that provision.”  Put in other terms, intention, whether to be comedic, satiric or analytical, does not change the characterization of what was actually broadcast.  That a host, or a broadcaster, “intended” to be funny, or to be presenting a critique, is no justification.  In the application of broadcast standards, purpose and intention do not outweigh execution […]

Nor is the subjectivity of humour the issue, as the broadcaster contends in its response.  That one person might be amused when the complainant is not is scarcely the issue.  The CBSC administers standards and these are not subjective.  Indeed, in the case at hand, Fillion could, in fact ought, to have made his point without going so far as to include the unduly sexually explicit content.

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All CBSC decisions, Codes, links to members' and other web sites, and related information are available on the CBSC's website at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the CBSC National Chair, Mme Andrée Noël CBSC Executive Director, John MacNab