CTV re The Sopranos (Season 2)

NATIONAL CONVENTIONAL TELEVISION PANEL
(CBSC Decision 01/02-0104+)
R. Cohen (Chair), P. Hebden, M. Hogarth, E. Holmes, C. Murray

THE FACTS

The television series, The Sopranos, is the story of a dysfunctional family whose head, Tony Soprano, is a New Jersey Cosa Nostra (often commonly referred to as the Mafia) boss. The series, which originally aired in the United States on the pay television service, Home Box Office (HBO), had at the time of this CBSC decision completed its third season there. All three seasons had been licensed to, and broadcast by, the Canadian pay television service, The Movie Network (TMN), which was not a CBSC member; Canadian conventional television rights for the first and second seasons of the series had been licensed to CTV, which has always been a CBSC member.

Various episodes of the first season were the object of a series of complaints received by the CBSC; the Council's decision relating to Season 1 can be found at CTV re The Sopranos (CBSC Decision 00/01-0130+, March 8, 2001) and a general description of the theme and content of the series can be found there. The complaints raised with respect to Season 2 for which Ruling Requests were received relate to the episodes of September 17, September 30, October 1, October 14 and November 5, 2001, which were broadcast by CTV beginning at 10:00 pm on each of those dates (and ending, on the majority of those dates, several minutes after 11:00 pm rather than on the hour). In general, these raise the issues of violence, obscenity, profanity, nudity and sexual activity, all of which were dealt with in the CBSC decision relating to Season 1. None of the initial complaints relating to Season 2 raised the concern of some Season 1 complainants regarding the question of Italian nationality. Excerpts from the letters of complaint follow; however, the complete correspondence can be found in the Appendix.

All episodes included the following viewer advisory in audio and visual form at the beginning of the program and at the end of every commercial break:

This program is not intended for children. It contains scenes of violence, extremely coarse language and nudity. Some adults may be offended by the content. Viewer discretion is strongly advised.

All episodes also included a classification icon of 18+ for at least 15 seconds at the beginning of, but not elsewhere during, the program.

Complaint from Mr. S:

It would be good to see all programming which contains violence, obscenity, and profanity either banned from the airwaves or at least severely censored. Perhaps in light of the recent events in the real world, people will think more carefully about the reality of violence in any form, and the universal truth that there should be more respect for human life.

Complaint from Mr. M (1):

I am appalled at the violent nature of the so called award winning series, The Sopranos. […] The show glamorizes criminal behaviour as well as belittles females (nudity) and the weak. This type of programming should be accessible only through pay channels. I am particularly upset this program is broadcast on a national station, which normally sets the standard for which other stations can follow.

Complaint from Mr. P:

I find the dialogue on these programs extremely offensive …. particularly degrading to women. Now that it is being broadcast on a regular channel (not pay-for-view), I believe that it is in very very poor taste.

For instance, at 10:25 PM on the above date, Tony Soprano was referring to an Asian lady as ….. “that Chinese C- – -, at the laundry down the street ……

You are probably well aware that all of the players (women included) use the “F” word liberally, many times 4 or 5 times in a single sentence.

Complaint from Ms. M:

I enjoy the TV show The Sopranos. I don't mind the language, the suggestive dialogue, the aggressive depiction of Mafioso [sic]. I do not choose to watch this type of entertainment often, but I do enjoy this TV show. Most of it is carried late at night, so as to miss the very young audience …. However …..

I was very concerned about 1 segment that ran last night at about 10:40 PM in Toronto. I found the earlier dialogue about “blowjobs” offensive … but I let that slip by. It was the depiction of the act with one woman, with another giant bare breasted woman in the scene that bothered me. Teenagers are exposed to these images on a daily basis, tremendously influencing their worldview. Today, our youth cannot turn on the TV or log onto the internet (hotmail) without receiving visual stimuli about sexual encounters. The problem is, they do not have personal experience to help them interpret the information.

Complaint from Mr. M (2):

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: On September 30th at 11:02 P.M. I switched channels to CFRN, expecting to watch the 11 o'clock news. Instead I heard a conversation between a woman and a male acquaintance. The male (I presume) had told the woman that she reminded him of another woman. The woman, facing into the camera said something like this. You say that I remind you of this other woman. I get the impression (not the right words) that you want or wanted to f– her, or me, (unsure).

CTV's Vice President, Programming Communications, replied to all the complainants with essentially the same letter, which read as follows, in principal part:

We understand and appreciate your concerns. CTV is broadcasting The Sopranos because it is an excellent drama, but we do so with the full knowledge that it is not going to appeal to all viewers. For this reason we are taking great care to ensure that it runs as late in the evening as possible. The Sopranos airs at 10:00 p.m. across the country, an hour after the 9:00 p.m. mark that is considered by the CRTC to be the start of adult viewing times.

Additionally, in keeping with CTV's commitment to responsible viewing, a strong advisory notifying viewers of the content of the program runs at the top of the program and in every commercial break. These advisories are intended to provide viewers with information that can assist them in making an informed viewing choice, whether for their children, or for themselves.

CTV’s decision to air The Sopranos is is based on its outstanding writing and acting, and the unique portrayal of life that it exhibits. In the past year that we have broadcast the program, there has been a fair amount of debate from people both strongly in favour of, and strongly against, the story it tells. Included in the debate was the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, which reviewed our broadcast of season one and upheld CTV's decision to air The Sopranos on the condition that we provide adequate viewer warnings.

We understand that our response may not be the exact answer you are seeking. But we hope that you can appreciate that CTV is a broadcaster that attempts to meet a diverse spectrum of viewer choice. You believe, sincerely and strongly, that The Sopranos contains messages inappropriate for television viewing. But that feeling is not shared by millions of your fellow viewers, or by CTV.

There were further responses from some of the complainants who returned their Ruling Requests with accompanying letters elaborating their positions (all of which are included in the Appendix).

THE DECISION

The National Conventional Television Panel Adjudicators considered the complaints under the following provisions of the various Canadian Association of Broadcasters' (CAB) private broadcaster Codes.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 6, paragraph 3:

It is recognized that the full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and editorial is the prime and fundamental responsibility of the broadcast publisher.

CAB Sex-Role Portrayal Code, Article 4 (Exploitation):

Television and radio programming shall refrain from the exploitation of women, men and children. Negative or degrading comments on the role and nature of women, men or children in society shall be avoided. Modes of dress, camera focus on areas of the body and similar modes of portrayal should not be degrading to either sex. The sexualization of children through dress or behaviour is not acceptable.

CAB Violence Code, Article 1.1 (Gratuitous and glamorized violence):

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 integral role in developing the plot, character or theme of the material as a whole).

CAB Violence Code, Article 3.1 (Scheduling):

3.1.2 Accepting that there are older children watching television after 9 pm, broadcasters shall adhere to the provisions of article 5.1 below (viewer advisories), enabling parents to make an informed decision as to the suitability of the programming for their family members.

CAB Violence Code, Article 7.0 (Violence Against Women):

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

7.2 Broadcasters shall ensure that women are not depicted as victims of violence unless the violence is integral to the story being told. Broadcasters shall be particularly sensitive not to perpetuate the link between women in a sexual context and women as victims of violence.

CAB Violence Code, Article 4.0 (AGVOT Classification System, Icon Use Protocols):

Frequency The rating icon is to be keyed over the first 15-16 seconds of the program. It is expected the Americans will have their ratings up for 15 seconds. For programs which run longer than one hour, the icon is to be repeated at the beginning of the second hour. These are minimal use standards; stations may wish to use the icons more frequently on programs with particularly sensitive content.

The Adjudicators watched each of the episodes and reviewed all of the correspondence relevant to this decision. The National Conventional Television Panel considers that, for the reasons given below, the series does not violate any of the program content requirements of the private broadcaster Codes. It does, however, consider that the broadcaster has not fulfilled all of the Violence Code requirements with respect to the use of classification icons on two of the episodes. Consequently, to this extent, the Panel finds CTV in breach of the CAB Violence Code.

The Previous CBSC Decision

The decision of this Panel just over a year ago dealt with “the allegedly inappropriate portrayal of Italians as an identifiable group on the basis of their national origin, the presence of gratuitous or glamorized violence, the use of coarse, crude or foul language and the presence of nudity and sexual situations.” On each of these issues, the Panel decided in favour of the broadcaster. One of the complainants in the Season 1 decision has asked the CRTC to review that decision with respect to the “allegedly inappropriate portrayal of Italians as an identifiable group on the basis of their national origin.” While the regulator's decision has not yet been released, that issue is not germane to the matter at hand.

As to the substance of the previous CBSC decision, suffice it to say that the principles applied there apply here. The question for the Panel on this occasion is whether the facts (that is, the actual broadcast matter), which of course vary from episode to episode, are so materially different as to call for a different decision in the present circumstances. Moreover, as will be discussed at slightly greater length in the following section, the CRTC has applied the principles established in the previous CBSC decision to a Sopranos complaint with respect to a non-CBSC member broadcaster, which leaves the Council comfortable in their application to the matter at hand.

The CRTC Decision regarding The Movie Network

The Movie Network (TMN) is a pay television licensee which is not a member of the CBSC. Complaints relating to any of its programming are, therefore, filed with, and dealt with by, the CRTC. In May 2001, the Commission received a complaint regarding an episode of The Sopranos that was broadcast at 8:00 pm on April 8, 2001 in the Toronto area. (The CTV broadcast of Season 1, as well as Season 2, began at 10:00 pm.) In the course of its decision (Decision CRTC 2002-83, April 8, 2002), the Commission dealt with the issues of inappropriate portrayals of women, gratuitous nudity, and violence against women and specific groups (and incidentally in this regard, gratuitous or glamorized violence), as well as the issues of viewer advisories and scheduling. It concluded:

It is clear that The Sopranos is intended for adult audiences. The licensee itself applied an R rating and an on-screen advisory alerting viewers to the adult nature of the program, which is an acknowledgement of the mature nature of the content. This, combined with the particularly disturbing story and graphic content, especially the murder scene, as foreshadowed by the attack on the bodyguard, indicates that this episode should have been broadcast after the 9:00 p.m. watershed hour. […] TMN should therefore have respected the watershed provision of the Pay Violence Code. The Commission finds that, by not doing so, the licensee has committed a breach of condition of licence.

On all other substantive aspects of the programming, the CRTC did not find against the broadcaster. Those points of that decision relative to the matter at hand will be cited under the relevant headings below.

Violent Content

There can be no doubt but that the “business” side of the life of Tony Soprano and his cohorts is marked by an undercurrent of violence. While the surface motivation of the mobsters is profit, their enforcement system is neither contractual nor judicial; it is violence-based. Consequently, violent acts can be expected to be a part of the development of the plot of each of the episodes. They are not, however, the only theme of the program; nor are they even the principal theme of the Sopranos. Nor are there more violent sequences in the episodes of Season 2 reviewed by the Panel than there were in Season 1. In its earlier decision dealing with Season 1 of The Sopranos, this Panel said:

Many of the complainants expressed concern regarding the significant amount of violence in the series. While there is an undercurrent of the threat of violence, the quantity of on-screen violence in each episode is not significant. Of each 60+ minute show, there are not more than two scenes of violent action. That being said, when it occurs, the violent action tends to be graphic. Graphic true, perhaps because it is realistic in its presentation, but not excessive, and always contextual. The Panel considers that no act of violence in the episodes was dramatically unsubstantiated. In other words, every such act was contextual and had a clear role in the advancement of the plot or was “justified” (not, of course, in a societal legal context) by some previous action on the part of the victim. While such justification flows from the socially distorted rules of the Cosa Nostra or of Tony Soprano's mob family in particular, the story knows no random acts of violence such as those in some dramas which may only be circularly justified by the fact that the perpetrators “enjoy” or thrive on such random acts.

While recognizing the occasional graphic brutality of the violent acts, the Panel considers that the violence is relatively infrequent, playing a smaller role in the story-telling than some complainants suggest. It is not, as noted above, either gratuitous or glamorized in the context of the challenged episodes and was relegated to a post-Watershed broadcast (10 p.m.) accompanied by very specific viewer advisories […]. The National Conventional Television Panel finds no breach on this account.

In the part of its decision (Decision CRTC 2002-83) dealing with the violent scenes in the episode it reviewed, the CRTC concluded similarly.

The Commission considers that while the violent scenes could be characterized as disturbing and graphic, they played an integral role in the program's plot and character development. The character committing the two violent acts was depicted as an unstable and highly agitated individual, prone to irrational, violent outbursts. Further, the violence was not sanctioned by the other characters, who chastised the character for his actions.

The Commission considers that the violence in these scenes was integral to character and plot development in the story and was therefore not “gratuitous”. As well, it considers that the scenes did not sanction, promote or glamorize violence.

The Panel acknowledges that the scenes with violent elements in Season 2 are, generally speaking, structured with different components than those in Season 1. It would expect that, for reasons of dramatic diversity alone, this would be the case. For this or any other dramatic series, the Panel assumes that the creators would seek fresh ideas to maintain audience interest. Fundamentally, the Panel does not consider that the scenes with a violent component in Season 2 present any substantively different considerations to it than those in Season 1. It concludes that CTV has committed no breach of Article 1 of the Violence Code in broadcasting Season 2 of The Sopranos.

The Use of Coarse, Crude or Foul Language

Similarly, in Season 2, the Panel does not find that the use of coarse, crude or foul language differs in any material respect from Season 1. In the earlier decision, this Panel said:

There is no disputing that the language used in The Sopranos is exceedingly coarse. Moreover, it is constantly present in the dialogue among the Cosa Nostra members. There are few sentences in which one or another of the “forbidden” words, four-letter and otherwise, is not present. Religious epithets are also used. While, as noted above, these tend to be far less present in the domestic family dialogue, it must be admitted that they are present there as well from time to time.

In this case, the coarse, foul, indeed crude, language used by the mobsters is their vernacular. It is not employed gratuitously; it is used as one might expect that they would really use it. Uneducated, their choices are fewer than those of the more literate people in the show who use such terms infrequently or not at all. While not endorsing its usage, the Panel recognizes its relevance to the story being told. It is up to the broadcaster to play such programming in the correct time slot and to apply those other tools which the Codes require, such as explicit viewer advisories. Having aired the show at 10:00 p.m., timing is not an issue and advisories are dealt with below. The broadcast of the language itself, in the circumstances of this show, while not for everyone's ears, is not a sanctionable usage.

The CRTC did not deal with the use of coarse language in its decision relating to the broadcast of The Sopranos by TMN. In the present decision, the Panel can do no better than to reiterate its earlier position. The broadcaster is not, in this respect, in breach of Clause 6, paragraph 3, of the CAB Code of Ethics with respect to the broadcast of Season 2.

The Presence of Nudity and Sexual Situations

The case of nudity and sexual situations is also nearly identical between Season 2 and Season 1. In this respect, this Panel said of the first season that ” it [nudity] is rarely seen in combination with sexual activity.” In the episodes of Season 2 viewed by the Panel for the purposes of this decision, however, there is but a single scene (it is in the opening series episode on September 17) in which nudity and sexual intercourse are seen in combination. Otherwise, the observations of this Panel are apt: While nudity is present in virtually every episode of

The Sopranos, it is rarely seen in combination with sexual activity. In general, nude women are seen dancing on stage as a part of the business operations of Tony Soprano's Bada Bing! Club. They are so much the backdrop of more important activities that, even when one of the women comes forward to speak to one of the mobsters, her unclothed appearance seems to be virtually ignored, if not utterly unimportant. This is not to suggest that the syndicate family members are without interest in sex, but only that that interest is essentially sublimated in the Club context. In this respect, the Panel sees no reason to diverge from the view expressed by the Quebec Regional Panel in TQS re the Movie Strip Tease (CBSC Decision 98/99-0441, February 21, 2000). After reviewing the numerous CBSC Panel decisions regarding bare breasts, in both news and public affairs, and dramatic contexts, the Quebec Panel explained:

While acknowledging that the showing of bare breasts on strip tease dancers was intended by the filmmaker to be sexual, the Council considers that the absence of sexual contact or lovemaking in the film rendered it, to all intents and purposes, sufficiently innocent that there would not even be a requirement that its broadcast occur only in a post-watershed time frame. Moreover, by airing the film in a family-viewing period (at 8:00 p.m.) with appropriate advisories and the rating icon established by the Régie du Cinéma, the broadcaster had provided sufficient opportunity to make that choice to those who might prefer not to see the film or not to have it available for their families.

The fact that the Soprano syndicate members tend to be unfaithful and appear generally to use women sexually, according them little respect except in their roles as wives and mothers, does not bear upon the nudity issue. The sex role portrayal is presented as a cultural issue on the part of the syndicate members primarily and even their sexual proclivities are isolated from the nudity at the Bada Bing! Club.

As to the single scene in which bare breasts are seen in the context of sexual intercourse, it must be noted that the episode is shown well past the Watershed hour and that such a scene is not, in that context, problematic in any event.

Moreover, with respect to the issue of sex-role portrayal, the observations of the CRTC in its TMN decision are germane:

The Commission examined the issue of inappropriate portrayals of women in relation to the principle set out in the Sex-Role Portrayal Code which indicates that the portrayal of women and men should reflect “their actual social and professional achievements, contributions, interests and activities.” The Commission notes that the episode in question depicted women in a variety of roles, not only as strippers, but also as mothers, daughters and as Tony Soprano's psychiatrist. The Commission considers that the depiction of each of those roles was not inappropriate, nor was the presence of any of those roles inappropriate to the story line. Consequently, the Commission finds that TMN did not breach the Sex-Role Portrayal Code.

The National Conventional Television Panel finds no breach with respect to any of the aspects of the broadcast of Season 2 in connection with nudity, sexual situations or sex-role portrayal.

The Use of Classification Icons

Neither the CBSC in its decision on Season 1 of The Sopranos nor the CRTC in its decision relating to TMN dealt with the issue of the use of classification icons as these are presented to the CBSC in the matter at hand. In this case, one of the complainants, Mr. M (2), raised his concern about elements of the September 30 episode as a function of his expectation of seeing the 11:00 pm news when he tuned his television set to CTV:

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: On September 30th at 11:02 P.M. I switched channels to CFRN, expecting to watch the 11 o'clock news. Instead I heard a conversation between a woman and a male acquaintance. The male (I presume) had told the woman that she reminded him of another woman. The woman, facing into the camera said something like this. You say that I remind you of this other woman. I get the impression (not the right words) that you want or wanted to f– her, or me, (unsure).

The reason for Mr. M's dilemma results from the fact that the program was produced for HBO rather than a conventional broadcaster. Consequently, the programming requirements relate to the needs of a subscriber-driven service rather than an advertiser-driven network and are not such that each episode be precisely of a certain length. In fact, on the majority of broadcast dates examined for this decision, The Sopranos ended after 11:00 pm, anywhere between two and ten minutes after that hour. The viewer who filed the complaint regarding the September 30 episode was clearly caught by surprise, as other viewers may well have been (although Mr. M(2) was the only person to have raised the issue). While it must be acknowledged that this would have been the case even if the icon had been present, the reality is that it was not. It would at least have constituted modest, but useful, advice to the viewer whatever the nature of the on-screen activity. The rule is clear: “For programs which run longer than one hour, the icon is to be repeated at the beginning of the second hour.” Moreover, the classification system's Icon Use Protocol provides that these are “are minimal use standards” and the Protocol advises that “stations may wish to use the icons more frequently on programs with particularly sensitive content.” It is clear that the Protocol attempts to ensure that further viewer information is provided for those who tune to a program at the top of the hour. It was not provided in this instance and the Panel finds the broadcaster in breach of its obligations under the classification requirements of the Violence Code.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

The CBSC reviews and comments on the broadcaster's responsiveness to the complainant(s) in every file which reaches the adjudicative process since it is a part of the broadcaster's CBSC membership obligations that its representative respond carefully to individuals who take the time to write of their concerns. In this case, the letter written to each of the complainants by CTV's Vice President, Programming Communications, was informative and reflective of the complainants' concerns. Nothing more could be expected pursuant to the Council's standard of responsiveness.

ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE DECISION

CTV is required to: 1) announce this decision, in the following terms, once during prime time within three days following the release of this decision and once more within seven days following the release of this decision in the time period in which The Sopranos was broadcast; 2) within fourteen days following the broadcast of the announcements, to provide written confirmation of the airing of the announcements to the complainants who filed the Ruling Requests; and 3) at that time, to provide the CBSC with that written confirmation and with air check copies of the broadcasts of the two announcements which must be made by CTV.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that CTV has breached the classification provision in the CAB Violence Code in its broadcasts of The Sopranos during the Fall of 2001. Although it provided a rating icon of 18+ at the start of each episode of the program, as required, many episodes ran more than sixty minutes and CTV failed to run that rating icon again at eleven o'clock. Consequently, CTV has breached the requirements of the article of the Violence Code that deals with classification issues.

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