CTV re Kevin Spencer

PRAIRIE REGIONAL COUNCIL
(CBSC Decision 98/99-1173)
S. Hall (Chair), D. Braun (Vice-Chair), D. Dobbie, V. Dubois and D. Ish

THE FACTS

Kevin Spencer is an animated series about a young boy from a dysfunctional family, who, according to the title song, is a “chain-smoking, alcoholic sociopath.” The program airs at midnight on CTV. It is rated “14+” and an on-screen icon appears to that effect at the beginning of the show. Moreover, the following viewer advisory (in both audio and on-screen formats) precedes the broadcast: “The following program contains scenes of violence and coarse language and is intended for mature, adult viewers and is not suitable for young viewers.”

It is extremely difficult to convey a sense of the show without describing at least some of the serial events which occur. To provide some of this “flavour”, the half-hour episode of Kevin Spencer of July 31, 1999, began with scenes of the young Kevin receiving electroshock therapy from the very mean brother of his first psychiatrist who had had a nervous breakdown. At parent-teacher night , one of Kevin’s parents must show up or the Child Welfare Services will put Kevin back in a foster family (whose caring got on Kevin’s nerves). Mom is, however, too busy with her telephone sex job to go to attend. Dad (Percy Spencer) is watching “Cops” and “America’s Most Hunted” on television and is featured in both. Dad is, however, conned by Kevin into going to the parent-teacher night, thinking that he is going to a blood donor clinic where he will get $5 for his blood if he lies about his herpes.

Percy first meets with Mrs. Kilborn who has a long list of concerns regarding Kevin. Percy remembers her throwing a brick at a bus of “scab” workers during the last teachers’ strike. “Thinking about the man getting hit in the head with the brick made Percy laugh.” Percy finally figures out that this isn’t a blood donor clinic and considers popping [Kevin] a sweet one in the head”. The next meeting is with Kevin’s gym teacher, who claims that “Kevin is a loser”and recounts how Kevin had put a sexual lubricant on the uneven bars (viewers see a little girl go flying with a scream). Percy tries the trampoline, gets motion sickness and vomits. During the meeting with Mr. Donaldson, the woodworking teacher, Percy recalls that he hates this man because they both hang out at the same strip club but the girls like Mr. Donaldson better (he’s employed and keeps his pants on). Percy surreptitiously turns on a piece of equipment which Mr. Donaldson is working on, causing him to lose his pants and his artificial leg. Percy laughs and gets hit in the head with the leg. Kevin turns his dad in to the police for $300 and “celebrates” by buying cigarettes, cough syrup and “enough sugar to fill every gas tank in the parking lot.” All of the foregoing occurs by the first commercial break.

The content of the show is satirical and it plays to a considerable extent on irreverent and anti-social themes, some of which, as described above, include violent matter. Any attempt at describing the entire plot of each of the two episodes would take unnecessary space and time to very little purpose, since the thrust of this decision has to do with the violent components of the episodes in question. Among the other scenes including such elements are those which follow: Percy beating a man with a stocking stuffed with an ashtray; Kevin’s psychiatrist being blown away in a rocket; Kevin’s gym teacher getting his arm blown off for his attempt to stop Kevin from firing a rocket in school; Kevin kicking his father in the groin; Kevin being beaten by four prison guards; Kevin sticking a fork in his temple; Kevin beating a man in the head with a phone receiver until he falls; Kevin being sliced into pieces by prison inmates and an especially graphic display of Kevin’s head in a pool of blood is shown.

The episode of August 7 begins with a big fire in a mental institution, with people falling out of the windows of the burning building (the fire having been started by cigarettes being put (perhaps intentionally) into a couch. While the precise events necessarily change from the previous episode, they are equally dysfunctional, frequently tasteless and intermittently violent. The scenes of violence in the August 7 episode included Kevin attacking a guard at a mental institution; Kevin picking up a severed head from a car accident and attempting first to keep it as a pet, then return it to the victim’s family and finally using it as a bird feeder; Kevin kicking a priest in the groin; Kevin taking the guidance counsellor hostage with the switchblade he brought to school; the mayor of the town going on a shooting spree; a dog ending up drowned in a well; Kevin and his father fighting with empty bottles; Kevin’s father “sucker punching” a waiter in a restaurant; many body bags being taken away from a religious centre where Kevin was being held; a bombing showing bloody body parts strewn all over; a baby alligator biting off Percy’s finger; Percy and the alligator brawling resulting in Percy being badly hurt; an animal control officer being killed by the alligator.

In a lengthy letter dated August 8, the complainant indicated that she was “shocked” by what she described as “a sick attempt to pass off as humour a family portrayal including sex, abuse, sodomy and drunkenness, a shameless glopping together of these and many other stereotypes of dysfunctional families and presenting it to me as funny.” This letter was originally addressed to the Canadian Television Fund (CTF) as the program in question receives funding from CTF. The complainant further added:

While I'm assuming the majority of projects you support are worthwhile, it seems someone at the CTF has 'dropped the ball' in funding Kevin Spencer. Please correct me if I'm wrong. Your website mentions a production must “conform to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' Code of Ethics and to all programming standards endorsed by the CRTC including those related to sex-role portrayal and violence.” I would be totally amazed and at the same time saddened to find “Kevin Spencer” met these codes.

I don't worry so much about adults watching; most can discern stupidity when viewed. My concern is with children and teens from dysfunctional homes. This show presents abnormalas normal – to a dysfunctional child, this line is already blurred. Kevin fits exactly the profile of the gun-wielding teens recently of Taber and Colorado fame. Loners, feeling everyone despises them, they hate everyone and want revenge. Kevin is always looking for and exacting ways of hurting others or, just as horrifying, hurting himself. This show is a ‘how-to' on revenge.

A copy of the letter was forwarded to the CRTC, which, in due course, forwarded it to the CBSC. The full text of this letter can be found in the Appendixto this decision.

The Vice President of Comedy & Variety Programming of CTV responded to the complainant’s letter on August 30th, 1999 with the following:

As you may be aware, 9:00 P.M. is generally accepted as the watershed in prime time where adult material may appear. After 9:00 p.m., broadcasters may present programming, which portrays adult situations or explicit language. Such programming usually includes an advisory at the beginning of the show, which alerts audiences to material which may be offensive to some viewers. Such is the case with this program. A program disclaimer and voice-over advisory are used at the top of the show. Further, our scheduling of the show at midnight is a clear indication of our regard for the adult nature of the material.

In addition, all Canadian broadcasters have adopted a comprehensive classification system to provide guidance to audiences regarding program content on such matters as violence, language, nudity, sexuality and/or mature themes. All of our entertainment programs utilize this ratings system. In the specific case of Kevin Spencer, the 14+ icon is used to advise viewers that the program may contain graphic language and elements intended for adult audiences.

The broadcaster further added:

You have challenged us to identify one redeeming quality of the show or its characters. The series is totally politically incorrect. That is the point. If there needs to be a redeeming value (and in comedy, I would suggest there doesn't have to be), then this series emphasizes/exaggerates every stereotypical negative influence that can potentially affect society. This is the mirror to that which exists. With respect, maybe a show of this nature says more about what is wrong in society than many other earnest programming attempts.

The full text of this letter, as well as additional correspondence between the complainant and the broadcaster, can be found in the Appendix.

 

THE DECISION

The CBSC’s Prairie Regional Council considered the complaint under the Clauses 1 and 4 of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming as well as Clause 4 of the Sex-RolePortrayal Code. The Prairie Regional Council members viewed tapes of the programs and reviewed all of the correspondence. The Council considers that the program is, in certain respects, in breach of the Violence Code.

 
General Concerns regarding the Content of the Program

In addition to concerns regarding the level of violent content (which are dealt with below), the complainant’s concerns include the normalization of aberrant behaviour. She states that “this show presents abnormal as normal“. The Council understands and is not unsympathetic to these concerns but, in this regard, the Council shares the view of its Quebec and Atlantic counterparts as expressed in CIHF-TV and CKMI-TV re The Jerry Springer Show (CBSC Decision 97/98-1277 and 98/99-0294 and -446, May 28 and June 23, 1999). In that decision, while the Councils were unable to find a breach of the codes regarding the subject matter alone of the episodes it viewed, the Councils stated the following with respect to the bizarre relationship issues presented on The Jerry Springer Show.

This is not to say that the Councils approve of the content of the shows or consider them appropriate for young people but only that, in general, the subject matter dealt with does not fall afoul of any of the private broadcaster Codes. Indeed, to the extent that the Councils are troubled by the subject matter, it results primarily from their concern that the broadcasting of such aberrant behaviour as generally characterizes the show has the effect of desensitizing the viewers (of any age) to the disregard of normative social behaviour. While this may be a regrettable result, it does not constitute a breach of any Code.

Over and above general desensitization,the complainant indicated that she was very concerned about the effect of this program on children and teens. She was not persuaded by the broadcaster’s argument that there were several clear indications that the show was not aimed at children: first, its late broadcast hour; second, the substance of the viewer advisories which precede the show; and, third, the “14+” rating assigned to the program. The complainant replied that “I guess they figure we’re in the 1950s when kids were neatly tucked into bed at 8:00 / or that today’s youth can’t program a VCR to tape a show / or that every child has a responsible parent watching out for them.”

This Council dealt with such concerns over an animated series in its decision in In CICT-TV re South Park (CBSC Decision 97/98-1214, June 16, 1999). In that case, the Council found that “South Park is decidedly not children's fare.”

It is not represented to be. It carries an explicit disclaimer. It is not aired at an hour when children could be expected to access it. The Council acknowledges the regrettable reality that some, even many, children may be exposed to the program via the technology of the VCR, the Internet or other means but it is well aware that the original broadcaster cannot be seen as responsible for an event so far out of its control.

A Council member dissented on this point, however, noting that “the show’s marketing has the effect of negating the broadcaster’s efforts to make South Park adult fare”, and accordingly would have found the program in violation of the provision in the Violence Code which deals with children’s programming.

In this case, the Council finds that Kevin Spencer, although animated, is equally not children’s fare. Accordingly, there are no special requirements, as there would be if the program had been aimed at children, that the program “be based on sound social concepts” or that it “reflectthe moral and ethical standards of contemporary Canadian society and encourage pro-social behaviour and attitudes.”

Finally, the Council considers it appropriate to restate the principle that its mandate does not extend to questions of good taste. In The Comedy Network re The Tom Green Show (CBSC Decision 98/99-0291, June 17, 1999), which dealt with a complaint regarding the use of a dead pigeon as a prop in an unconventional comedy show, the Ontario Regional Council reiterated that such questions “should be left to the market place.” The Council stated:

While The Tom Green Show may be unpalatable for some, it may also be meeting the special likes and desires of others. That is a question to be determined, on the one hand, by the broadcaster in its decision to put the show on the air and by the viewer, on the other hand, in deciding to watch or not watch the program.

While the Council does consider that Kevin Spencer is replete with examples of bad taste and anti-social behaviour, it does not, in this respect, violate any broadcaster Code. It is presented late at night, is armed with all appropriate viewer warnings to alert those who may choose to avoid the show, and so on. It is the viewer’s choice whether to watch such shows or avoid them but the market place alone governs whether they will endure or disappear. In individual homes, the disappearance of the show is governed by him or her who holds the remote control.

 

Sex-Role Portrayal Issues

The Prairie Regional Council also considered the question of the prohibition of negative and degrading comments as they are laid down in Article 4 of the Sex-Role Portrayal Code. The complainant alleges that the program is degrading to men, women and children. In the Council’s view, the situation is analogous to that dealt with by the Council in CKX-TV re National Lampoon’s Animal House (CBSC Decision 96/97-0104, December 16, 1997). In that case, the film not surprisingly depicted almost all of the group of young college people in as unflattering a fashion as one might expect from a film emphasizing the frivolous, narcissistic, often gross, occasionally disgusting portrait of college fraternity life which can best be characterised as high farce. The Council stated:

While the portrayal of the women in the film is not overly flattering, it cannot either be said that the portrayal of the men is any better or advantages them in any way. All in all, the presentation of almost every one of this group of young college people is as unflattering as one might expect from a film emphasizing the frivolous, narcissistic, often gross, occasionally disgusting portrait of college fraternity life which can best be characterised as high farce. The question of portrayal inequality does not come into play.

Given that the negative and degrading commentary in Kevin Spencer is so equally administered as to be rendered virtually gender neutral, the Council does not consider it to fall afoul of the Sex-Role Portrayal Code.

 

Gratuitous Violence

The Council’s greatest concerns with respect to Kevin Spencer lie with its violent content. Clause 1 of the Violence Code prohibits any gratuitous violence, which is defined in the Code as “material which does not play an integral role in developing the plot, character or theme of the material as a whole.”

The CBSC made its first finding of gratuitous violence in CHCH-TV re the movie Strange Days (CBSC Decisions 98/99-0043 and 0075, February 3, 1999). In that case, the Ontario Regional Council grappled with the issue of gratuitous violence where violence was one of the premises of the movie. The Council stated:

To the extent that a program has violence as its fundamental premise, the question for the Council is to determine whether that premise alone will justify any and all portrayals of violence which the creators of the program might wish to include in it. To this circular argument, the Council must answer no. If this were the case, Article 1 would be rendered devoid of substance and the Council cannot presume that this was the intention of the codifiers.

Accepting that the Code has set limits on the depiction of violence which can be included in the televised version of a feature film, where use of the public airwaves is in question, the Council must decide what these limits are from case to case. In applying the foregoing principles to the televised version of Strange Days, the Council acknowledges that much of the considerable violence in the film is ambient, providing the evidence of the decaying and violent city of Los Angeles at the projected turning of the millennium. Some of that violence, particularly the not infrequent fights involving Lenny Nero, the film’s Playback peddler hero, is rather tongue-in-cheek. The one scene, though, which has most troubled the Council is the gruesome strangulation and rape of a woman which, in its length and graphic presentation, exceeded inthe television context what may have been necessary to advance the plot. Whether the scene should have been as long (or longer) in the theatrical version is not at issue. For the television version, measured against industry codes, it is the view of the Council that it could have been edited without sacrificing any artistic integrity, and ought to have been edited in order to be long enough to make its point but not so long as to amount to violence for violence’s sake.

In CICT-TV re South Park (CBSC Decision 97/98-1214, June 16, 1999), this Council dealt with a complaint about the running “spoof” in the animated series SouthPark in which one of the young characters is killed in each episode. The Council did not find that the episode of South Park in question contained any gratuitous violence. The Council noted that

there are moments which manifest violent elements, as would be expected in an episode which dealt with hunting, large guns and animals being shot, but the show, in the end, has a moral or lesson; namely, that hunting is a cruel and immoral practice. Those relatively brief violent elements which are present are integral to the development of the plot of the episode in question and, therefore, do not come within the purview of the definition of gratuitous violence set out in the Violence Code.

To the extent that the complainant's violence concern is limited to the “killing of Kenny”, the unrealistic violence which recurs from episode to episode is in keeping with a theme of the South Park series which seeks to ridicule societal attitudes, conventions and taboos. While the Council does not consider that a plot line or theme which has violence as its premise would escape any and all supervision under Clause 1 of the ViolenceCode (see CHCH-TV re the movie Strange Days (CBSC Decisions 98/99-0043 0075, February 3, 1999)), it considers that the unrealistic violence of “killing Kenny” manifests the violent premise of this part of South Park’s theme in such a way as to not fall afoul of Clause 1 of the Violence Code.

In some ways, the Council considers Kevin Spencer to be analogous to South Park. Both these animated series use intermittent unrealistic violence to make a satirical point. The Council notes, though, that Kevin Spencer contains much more violence than does South Park and that it does not provide a moral or a lesson as did the South Park episode viewed by the Council. While the Council is uncomfortable with this excessive use of violence, it finds it difficult to conclude that the violence is not in keeping with Kevin Spencer’sdarker theme of “a chain-smoking, alcoholic sociopath” and, therefore, concludes that it is not gratuitous. While such a theme cannot excuse any and all violence, the Council here considers the excessive violence to be borderline at best and, in the circumstances, it will err on the side of freedom of expression by not finding that CTV has overstepped the boundaries of the ViolenceCode with respect to gratuitous violence in the context of an animated series.

 

Sanctioning, Promoting or Glamorizing Violence

In addition to the prohibition against gratuitous violence, the Violence Code prohibits programming which “sanctions, promotes or glamorizes violence”. In CIHF-TV and CKMI-TV re The Jerry Springer Show (CBSC Decision 97/98-1277 and 98/99-0294 and -446, May 28 and June 23, 1999), the Atlantic and Quebec Regional Councils made the CBSC’s first finding that a program had glamorized violence and thus breached Clause 1 of the Violence Code. They described the Jerry Springer Show as follows:

In each of the episodes viewed for the purpose of this decision, it is perfectly clear that the violent reaction of the invitees is anticipated by the host, sanctioned as an occurrence, and encouraged and even promoted by both the host and his audience. If it were otherwise, the bouncers would prevent the happening. They do not, nor are they encouraged to. The dialogue between the host and the guests is meant to wind the practitioners of weird social arts to the breaking point and to set them at each other's “throats” or other accessible parts of their bodies.

While the Kevin Spencer and Jerry Springer Shows are clearly different genres, the former being dramatic comedic programming and the latter a talk-style show, the following general principle set out in the Springer decision applies across the programming board.

The text of the Violence Code is clear. Its first principles, laid down in Clause 1, are that Canadian television has no place for either gratuitous violence or forglamorized or promoted violence. Although both are of equal weight, the first prohibition is better known but this does not make the second any less important. The broadcasters chose, in 1993, to de-emphasizeviolence, to ensure that it is not only not a necessary component of Canadian private television programming but also that it is not an emphasized or promoted value. Violence when necessary, but not necessarily violence.

The Council agrees with the broadcaster’s contention that the program is satire and that the “[u]nrealistic animated violence is part of how the show creates its dark or anti-establishment feel.” The Council notes that there are many other examples of criminal and anti-social behaviour salted through the show. While the Council understands that the program is satirical and that it “emphasizes/exaggerates every stereotypical negative influence that can potentially affect society,” it is concerned by the extensive use of violence as the basis for humour.

In the Council’s view, scenes such as those involving the theft and subsequent use as a plaything of a severed human head taken from an accident site, the graphic display of Kevin’s head in a pool of blood and the display of bloody body parts strewn all over the street, when taken in a comedic context such as this one, have the effect of sanctioning, promoting or glamorizing violence contrary to Clause 1 of the Violence Code. The Council realizes that the characters and circumstances in KevinSpencer are unappealing, unendearing and unlikely to be viewed as anything more than the opposite of role models; however, that is not the point here. The Council does not find that is through the use of role models that Kevin Spencer sanctions violence; rather it finds that it does so by turning excessive, graphic and gory depictions of violence into a source of humour.

In light of the above, the Council finds that some of the scenes included in the July 31 and August 7 episodes of Kevin Spencer contravened the prohibition against sanctioning, promoting and glamorizing violence found in Clause 1 of the Violence Code.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In addition to assessing the relevance of the Codes to the complaint, the CBSC always assesses the responsiveness of the broadcaster to the substance of the complaint. In this case, the Council considers that the broadcaster’s response addressed fully and fairly all of the issues raised by the complainant. Nothing more is required. Consequently, the broadcaster has not breached the Council’s standard of responsiveness.

 

CONTENT OF THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE DECISION

CTV is required to announce this decision forthwith, in the following terms, during prime time and, within the next thirty days, to provide confirmation of the airing of the statement to the CBSC and to the complainant who filed a Ruling Request.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that CTV has breached Clause 1 of the Violence Code. The Council found that two episodes of the adult animated series KevinSpencer contained scenes which contravened the prohibition against sanctioning, promoting and glamorizing violence. In the Council’s view, excessively graphic scenes such as those involving the theft and use as a plaything of a severed human head from an accident site, the display of Kevin’s head in a pool of blood and the strewing of bloody body parts all over the street, when used as the basis for humour, had the effect of sanctioning, promoting or glamorizing violence.

 

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