CTV re The Sopranos

(CBSC Decision 00/01-0130+)
R. Cohen (Chair), M. Hogarth, E. Holmes, J. Levy, M. Lewis, H. Pawley


The television series, The Sopranos, the story of a dysfunctional family whose head, Tony Soprano, is a New Jersey Cosa Nostra (often commonly referred to as the Mafia) boss, aired in the United States on the pay television service, Home Box Office (HBO).  Canadian rights for the first season of the series were licensed to CTV, a conventional television broadcaster.  The thirteen episodes (each of roughly one hour's duration) which were a part of that initial season were run nightly at 10 p.m. by CTV between September 17 and October 1 (except for September 23 and 30), 2000.  Complaints were received by the CBSC from 138 individuals; however, only ten of these filed Ruling Requests, which are required by the CBSC as evidence of the complainant's desire that the matter be adjudicated upon by a CBSC Panel.  In the circumstances, these alone form the basis for this decision.  They relate to the episodes of September 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, 24, 27 and 28.

The television series fully develops both the domestic family and the mob (syndicate) family lives of their common paterfamilias Tony Soprano, through the thirteen episodes which comprise the first series.  The principal characters on the household side are Soprano's wife Carmela, their children Meadow and Anthony Jr., Tony's widowed mother, Livia, his sister Janice and his late father's brother, Corrado (Junior). There is no need to review the extensive household crises which, although central to the story, cause no difficulties to the complainants.  The Panel does consider it important to emphasize, though, that The Sopranos depends on the recounting of the domestic side of events to differentiate itself from other Mafia-style programs and films and so develops these elements that any description of the series as a simple crime show would sell it far short of its real achievement.

The criminal activities centre around Christopher Moltisanti, “Paulie Walnuts” Gualtieri, “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, Silvio Dante, Furio Giunta, Tony Soprano's uncle, Junior, and “Hesh” Rabkin.  Other characters move in and out of the criminal circle from time to time.  Each of the challenged episodes includes two or so scenes of violence, which tend to be characterizable as realistic and quite graphic in their presentation.  In the first, for example, Christopher and Tony beat up a defaulting gambling debtor and Christopher executes Emil by shooting him in the back of the head.  In the second episode, Christopher hijacks a truck and beats up the driver.  There is a later scene in which Brendan and another aspiring criminal hijack a truck without the family's permission and shoot the driver.  In the third episode Brendan is executed in the bathtub by one of Junior's henchmen in retribution for his “unauthorized” hijacking.  In that episode, as a paid-for “favour”, Soprano family representatives severely beat a Hassidic Jew in order to extract a favourable settlement regarding his ownership of a motel business with his father-in-law, as a part of his divorce arrangements.  The other episodes are sufficiently similar that it is unnecessary to elaborate further on the specific violent components included in each.

With respect to language, it is fair to say that it is consistently foul, if not extremely coarse, at least in the discussions amongst the criminals.  Four-letter words or their derivatives constitute the lingua franca of the group, who, it is abundantly clear, are uneducated and have vocabularies which do not appear to extend frequently to polysyllabic utterances.  Viewers become accustomed to such communication on the mob side of the program.  In some respects, the usage of such words, far less frequently, on the domestic side of the story, is more shocking when it occurs.

Nudity and sexual activity are common in each episode, although they are rarely related.  The syndicate members meet at their “clubhouse”, the Bada Bing! Club, a strip joint, at which dancers in G-strings only are frequently seen in either the background or, occasionally, foreground.  They are essentially disregarded as sexual objects, at least by the criminals themselves; their role is more as a part of the business paraphernalia, much as computers might be in a different kind of corporate environment. That being said, the gang members deal with women outside of that environment as sexual objects.  With the exception of Christopher and his girlfriend Adriana, we see little of the home life of the family members other than Tony Soprano and, in his case, despite the strength of Carmela as a character, being unfaithful is a part of his “moral” creed.  The women who are the mistresses or short-term companions of the Soprano family members are never the Bada Bing! Club dancers and they are rarely, if ever, seen bare-breasted in the context of their sexual interactions with those men.


The Letters of Complaint

The full texts of the ten complaint letters (whose authors filed Ruling Requests) are reproduced in the Appendix hereto; excerpts only are provided in the body of this decision. The following are representative excerpts from the complaints received which fairly reflect the issues raised by all of the complaints:

[N]umerous times during the show the word “fuck” and words “mother fucker” were used.  This is contrary to the RSC Chapter 949, Broadcasting Act, Television Broadcasting Regulations, 1987 which provides:

File Number 00/01-0144, concerning the September 27, 2000 broadcast

1) CTV provided two warnings before the program began that it contained scenes of violence, course [sic] language and nudity.

2) The warnings in 1) above are appropriate.  However, my complaint against the televised broadcast of this program is not remedied by appeal or recourse to the warnings provided by CTV; quite simply the program contravenes the Television Broadcasting Regulations, 1987.  In these Regulations, Section 5(1) we read: “A licensee shall not broadcast” continuing at (b) “any abusive comment or abusive pictorial representation that, when taken in context, tends or is likely to expose an individual or a group or class of individuals to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

3) I submit that the pictorial representations of persons of Italian origin or ethnic heritage taken in the context of this program are exposed to contempt and that this exposure contravenes both the letter and the spirit of the Television Broadcasting Regulations, 1987.  The perception of Italians provided and nurtured by this program is that of a group of persons in whom any degree of moral awareness is absent.  Obsessed by mindless violence they kill others and the taking of human life is regarded as unremarkable behaviour; the intention to kill is formed and the act simply flows from it.  This profoundly pejorative, and I would emphasize mistaken, perception of a particular group engenders contempt towards them.  It also diminishes us who are not of Italian origin or heritage if we remain silent and allow the pictorial representations of the perception to pass across our television screens as unremarkable.

File Number 00/01-0137 concerning the September 19, 2000 broadcast

I only watched a few minutes of this show, which aired at 10:00 pm EST, and I was shocked and disgusted at the filth that this so-called drama spewed both visually and verbally. 

In one 5 minute stretch, I not only heard multiple uses of the F word, but I also had the great displeasure of seeing two topless women bearing [sic] their breasts to the camera.  Nothing was left to the imagination.

This show is violating community standards, and CTV should be prevented from showing this trash.

File Number 00/01-0145, concerning the September 18, 2000 broadcast

My wife and I have never been so disgusted.  Every other word was a F… word, together with all kinds of other filthy language.  Also they showed the use of drugs as a normal thing to do.  The worst was however that the name of “Jesus Christ” was used as a joke and a mockery.

I am sure you would not allow jokes to be made of any ethnic or minority group.  You would not allow fun to made of any gay person, without having a lawsuit on your hands.

File Number 00/01-0174, concerning the September 18, 2000 broadcast

I have started this letter to you over and over again a number of times as I am trying to find the right words to complain once again and help you and the Council to understand how very dangerous and damaging this programme is. I am having trouble because this is so very important to me and I want to make sure that my words are as effective as possible. Yet I know that it is not words alone that I am trying to relay but more importantly my feelings.

I keep reading critics who have used the word “courage ” and applied this word to senior executives at BCE-CTV who 'courageously stood down the complaints' and aired this 'no holds barred television show, going where television has never gone before' and all I keep thinking is…. violence as we have never seen before on conventional television … more nudity and women being used as sex objects like we have never seen before on conventional television…. profanity like we have never seen on conventional television … and a horrifically dysfunctional family …. people are killed and the characters laugh afterwards … women being called “cunt” and treated as objects … how can the degradation of women being treated as objects be “good” for society, with all the violence we already have against women I watch this dysfunction and I think to myself … how can more violence be good for society … all this degradation is performed by characters who are Italian …. Italian words, food, rituals, are thrown into this mix and are forever married….. how can this not affect perceptions of Italians….. how can this show about the Italian mafia be any different than the other 314 that came before …. how can this disgusting programme [sic] be considered creative and imaginative, even an “epic”….God what is it that we are valuing? How horrific.. this disgusting violence, profanity, degradation of women, is being performed by Italian characters!! This defames Italians!!

In Canada .02 % of Italians are involved in crime. The figure is the same in the United States. Therefore 99.98% of Italians in Canada and in the United States are honest, law-abiding and contributing members of society and I might add have made significant contributions to these countries that seem to be ignored by mainstream media because they are overshadowed by this myth.

…  Yet our stories and contributions as Canadians are as heroic and life affirming as those Canadians in Mr. Matheson's world! This is the “real” community that has been hurt by the mobster mystique that is thrust upon us over and over and over again such that these accomplishments are clouded by the hovering negative portrayal that the mainstream is so fond of presenting and making money from. Televison is a mirror, and we all want to see ourselves reflected there. It makes us feel like we belong here and are part of the plurality that is Canada. How many years will it take for Canadians of Italian heritage to be Canadians with equal rights in this country such that we too have a right “not to be stereotyped”  and instead to be “real people”?  Again why are the Italians being singled out?

I am tired and fed up with Italians being represented in this same old same old negative stereotypical paradigm of the mobster. The repetition and use of this same paradigm and the unbalanced representation of Italians on the screens has hurt our community in our real lives over and over again. We are also never given any other Italian American / Canadian heroes. When was the last time we were given a lawyer, a judge, a doctor, a professor with an Italian name on a televison programme or on a film screen. These are too few and too far between.

Instead  we are given a Tony Soprano who takes his daughter to visit colleges, and during that trip, with his bare hands and a wire, strangles a man, and goes back to his daughter like a “good” father, without skipping a beat. Recently I was told by a young Italian Canadian woman, that Tony has a “heart”. Is this not incredible …. he is not faithful, he kills with no thought, he spews profanity and bigotry, he cheats on his wife, he lies to his children and his family, he calls women “f ——- refugees, and cunts” and yet he has a “heart”. Our young men mimic the characters because they are romanticized and look “cool”. The audience is presented an evil character who is given “normal” characteristics such that the audience is manipulated to forget the animal and bigot that Tony Soprano is and instead “sympathize”  with him.

File Number 99/00-0763, concerning the September 17 and 18, 2000 broadcasts


The Broadcaster's Response

CTV's Vice President of Corporate Communications responded to each complainant with a letter addressing his or her specific concerns.  The following excerpts were chosen as a fair representation of the broadcaster's position on the various issues raised by the complainants:

is an excellent, critically acclaimed, award winning drama that we see as an imaginative story about families and the “human condition.”  Certainly the characters are Italian, and many of them are criminals.  But the genius of the series is that it draws the universal out of the particular so we see some of the Sopranos' life in all our lives. 

is controversial among people of Italian background.  Some disapprove of the program.  Others, including the show's creator and its Italian cast members, do not.

We do respect your opinion.  But we agree with those critics who say The Sopranos is an excellent drama and respect it for its artistry.  It has earned these laurels precisely because it is not stereotypical.  We cannot censor this drama because some people believe, however sincerely, that the program sends messages they abhor. 

does contain violence, sexual scenes and coarse language.  To alert viewers,  we ran on-air advertising spots strongly advising viewer discretion.  We also ran an advisory at the top of the program, as well as after the first commercial break.  The following was the exact wording of the advisory:

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.

After 9 p.m. is considered by the industry and the CRTC to be adult viewing time.

but we cannot censor this program because some people believe, however sincerely and strongly, that it contains messages inappropriate for television viewing.  There are many viewers who have expressed that they would have been equally disappointed if we had edited the series.


The National Conventional Television Panel Adjudicators considered the complaints under the following provisions of the various CAB private broadcaster Codes.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 2 (Human Rights)

Recognizing that every person has a right to full and equal recognition and to enjoy certain fundamental rights and freedoms, broadcasters shall endeavour to ensure, to the best of their ability, that their programming contains no abusive or discriminatory material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, marital status or physical or mental handicap.

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)

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 5.1 (Viewer Advisories)

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 evening hours which contains scenes of violence intended for adult audiences.

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 ViolenceCode requirements with respect to the use of viewer advisories, which enable viewers to choose, on an informed basis, whether or not they wish to view the series.  Consequently, to this extent, the Panel finds CTV in breach of the CAB Violence Code.


The Elements Considered

The series has raised many substantive issues of concern to viewers.  Those considered by the National Panel relate to 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.


Abusively Discriminatory Programming?

The essence of this aspect of the complaints is that Italians, as an identifiable group distinguishable by their national or ethnic origin, suffer discrimination on that basis as a result of this programming.  As aptly put by one of the complainants,

The perception of Italians provided and nurtured by this program is that of a group of persons in whom any degree of moral awareness is absent.  Obsessed by mindless violence they kill others and the taking of human life is regarded as unremarkable behaviour; the intention to kill is formed and the act simply flows from it.  This profoundly pejorative, and I would emphasize mistaken, perception of a particular group engenders contempt towards them.

The facts are indisputable.  It is the fairness of the alleged characterization which is at issue.  The programming does portray that element of organized crime known familiarly as the Mafia or the Cosa Nostra.  It is undeniably Italian.  It also portrays the general family life of Tony and Carmela Soprano, their children, parents and other relations.  They too are undeniably Italian. That being said, the Panel must make it clear that the mere mention of Italians (or any other national or ethnic group) does not constitute a breach of the human rights provision of the Code.  The issue is how they are portrayed.  It is with that matter which the Panel must come to grips.  Moreover, on an analogous basis, it should not be forgotten that the CBSC's lengthy jurisprudence under the human rights provision of the Code has made it clear, in dealing with many nationalities, that, to be in breach, comments must not merely be discriminatory, they must be abusively discriminatory.  The issue is not, in other words, whether programming deals with people of Italian nationality, but rather whether it portrays them in an abusively discriminatory fashion on the basis of that nationality.

In this respect, the Panel cannot fail to take into consideration the fact that this series constitutes a multi-dimensional and complex look at the notion of “family” on the two levels, criminal and domestic.  Because the stories are neither shallow nor uni-dimensional, they depend on involved value systems in both areas.  For those value systems to be credible, they require a cultural component.  The creators needed to choose a nationality to weave their story.  They chose the Italian nationality.  Why?  Perhaps because they, the creators, personally knew that cultural background better than any other.  Perhaps because they believed that, on the criminal level at least, the Cosa Nostra was better known to the general public than other organized criminal groups.  In some respects, it might be observed that the reputation of the Cosa Nostra is legendary, not because they were Italian but because they were, criminally speaking, successful and very public in their achievement of that success.  It should not be ignored that, historically speaking, Lucky Luciano's renowned partner in crime was the Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky.  Success, not nationality, was the issue in the historical criminal reality.

In the present matter, the Panel cannot ignore the fact that the series is about criminals acting as criminals, not about criminals acting as Italians.  Could the show's creators have chosen another national or ethnic group?  Undoubtedly.  Should they have?  What would have been gained by so doing?  Probably only satisfaction on the part of those persons who feel wronged or slighted by the choice which was made.  Moreover, this sensibility would have likely been replaced by the discomfiture of those who would have felt similarly on behalf of their own national or ethnic compatriots.

The point is that, understandably, no national or ethnic group would wish any of its members to be portrayed as criminal.  That, though, cannot be the determinative matter since all criminals have gender, skin colour, national origin and other characteristics.  Some persons may, in other words, feel offended by the fact that one of “theirs” was represented as a criminal.  The issue must be approached from the other side.  Not “How was the criminal portrayed?” but rather “How was the group (of which the criminal was a member) portrayed?”  In other words, in the end, it is not for the CBSC to challenge or question the choice of group to be portrayed by the creators of the program but rather only to evaluate the way in which they have executed that decision.  (The CBSC's link is not, of course, with the creators but rather with the broadcaster which has chosen to air the show.)

It is the view of the Panel that there is not any characterizion of Italians as bad, evil, nasty, despicable individuals.  To the contrary.  Apart from the criminal elements in the story, the household family, Tony and Carmela Soprano, Meadow and Anthony, Jr., represent very strong family values.  While dysfunctional in ways that correspond to modern families of many national backgrounds, that cohesive family unit displays admirable characteristics.  Carmela is a strong, even tough, emotional, sensitive, somewhat guilt-ridden, funny, religious, family-oriented woman.  Meadow is an intelligent, attractive, soft, loving, extroverted, albeit somewhat feisty young lady, who succeeds in her attempt to enter an Ivy League University.  Anthony, Jr., shows up as a contrasting figure.  Young, sports-loving, computer game-driven, a bit lazy, introverted, quiet, he is still a loyal member of the family.  Moreover, in most of the episodes considered by the Panel, the domestic family scenes represent as significant a part of the show's time as the scenes of criminal activity.  There are also admirable Italian figures outside of the domestic family, including the central figure, Jennifer Melfi, Tony Soprano's very professional psychiatrist, and Jean Cusomano, the financially successful, well-connected, clubby, snobby neighbour.  Recognition of Italian achievements is also not ignored throughout the series.  Moreover, the criminal activities in the series are not left solely in the hands of the Soprano gang.  There are criminals from other communities and one of the regulars, Hesh Rabkin, obviously a gangster of considerable experience, who appears to rank close to, if not with, Tony Soprano, in terms of rank, is Jewish.

In the end, the Conventional Television Panel considers that this series, while focussed on an Italian family, does not in any way disparage Italians.  The sophisticated television series goes behind the “ordinary” Cosa Nostra stories which have been relatively common fare for many years, to demonstrate the domestic lives of a complex web of distinctive family relationships, with its pluses and minuses.  The show probes issues which focus on Italian cultural and traditional values, poking fun at some, underscoring others with admiration.  As the Ontario Regional Panel stated in History Channel re the movie Midnight Express (CBSC Decision 98/99-0203 and 0244, June 17, 1999)

From the Council's perspective, the undeniably negative comments made about the Turkish people by Billy Hayes must be narrowly viewed, even if they are framed by him in general terms.  The fact of the matter is that the only Turks in the film about whom Hayes has any justification to evaluate are those with whom he has had the worst experiences, namely, the representatives of the legal and penal system.  They are painted brutally by director Alan Parker but they are the only segment of the Turkish population the viewer has contact with.  There is no assessment made by the screenwriter, the director or the film's characters about the Turks or Turkey in general.  It is a story of penal injustice.  When Billy Hayes screams in the courtroom “I hate you, I hate your nation, I hate your people”, he does so in anger and bitterness for the lengthy sentence handed to him when he had hoped to be free in 53 more days.  That he lashes out against the country and the people does not mean that the film or the broadcaster has gone to such extremes of generality, for they have not.  The context is the prison, not the country. The comments are directed at the keepers, not the people.  The film is a drama, not a documentary.  …  In the view of the Council, the discriminatory comment does not target the Turkish people or the nation.  The bitter discriminatory perspective is limited to injustices perpetrated by the jailers, the lawyers and the judges and this perspective of the system is a legitimate political point of view, one protected by freedom of expression and artistic license and, therefore, is not in breach of any Code.

The show's view is not, as noted above, limited to the criminal activities.  It is an entire perspective of the good and the bad, seen as a whole, the domestic and “business” sides of the life, it should be remembered, of one family, not an entire community.  And that family is hardly representative.  It is, on the business side of its paterfamilias,a criminal family.  It is not everyfamily.  Nor is there any indication that the creators or broadcasters propose that their view of this family ought to be extended beyond its own boundaries.  The Panel does not consider that there has been any attempt whatsoever to suggest that the creators' or broadcaster's view of this microcosm is to be understood as reflective of the nature, habits or practices of an entire people.  Accordingly, it does not constitute abusively discriminatory comment and is not in breach of the CAB Code of Ethics.


The Use of Coarse Language

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.  While off-colour language has been raised as an issue in the past, there has been but one occasion when it has been as constantly present as it is in this series.  In CJOH-TV re “White Men Can't Jump” (CBSC Decision 94/95-0060, March 12, 1996), the Ontario Regional Panel, in dealing with the language of youths in the streets of Venice Beach, California, applied the principle laid down by the same Panel in CFRA-AM re Steve Madely (CBSC Decision 93/94-0295, November 15, 1994).

While it is not the same language which was used in this film, the Council considers that the same principles are applicable and that it cannot interfere with the broadcaster's choice to air the film.  The Council also adopts the conclusion of the Ontario Regional Council in the Madely decision, namely, “While good taste and judgment might have dictated the non-use of the expression on the public airwaves, it was not a sanctionable usage.”

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 Appropriateness of the Violence

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.

It follows that, in terms of Article 1 of the Violence Code, none of the violence in the episodes under consideration here is gratuitous.  The Panel equally considers that none of it is glamorized.  Where acts of violence occur, they are, as noted above, retributory.  They tend to be brutal and sometimes the result of sheer anger on the part of the perpetrators that the victim has not respected the Soprano rules for which they are being punished.  The violence is, in that sense, a part of the business of the Soprano family but never an enjoyable part of their work.  The family members are interested in the money which they earn from their activities, not in the violent tactics which may occasionally “need” to be employed to ensure that their livings are not interfered with.  What glamour there is in their world flows from their power and the respect/fear which they generate from outsiders.  There is no glamour in their retributory acts, not even by their own colleagues.  If anything, there is periodic regret, which results from the inefficiency of being able to achieve the result of making money without the need to resort to such 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 (of which more below).  The National Conventional Television Panel finds no breach on this account.


Nudity and Sexual Activity

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 long as the nudity is identified by viewer advisories, as it is here, its context in The Sopranos is not in violation of the Codes.


The Use of Advisories

The purpose of viewer advisories is sometimes thought to be oriented toward children.  While their utility for that purpose is clear and important, they are, as a tool, media literacy based and oriented toward adults as much as children.  They are intended to provide viewers with sufficient information to enable them to determine, whether for their children or for themselves, what will be suitable viewing fare.  It is of the essence of the Canadian broadcasting system, which, the Broadcasting Act provides, encourages diversity of programming for the broad range of interests and tastes of Canadians, that potential viewers be advised, even after the protective Watershed hour (which is principally children-oriented),that programming may contain elements which they may not find palatable.

To assist broadcasters in providing such information to their audiences, Canada's private broadcasters have provided a number of different wording choices as a part of their Violence Code. In this case, however, the broadcaster has chosen to tailor, more carefully, in the view of the Panel, than the “boilerplate” options would suggest, a form of advisory which is targeted at the precise nature of this unusual show.  CTV has clearly and assertively provided the following advisory, in both written and oral formats, prior to the rolling of the opening credits and immediately following them, so that viewers are twice informed of the extreme nature of the programming before the program even begins.

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.

In addition to telling viewers what is in the programming, the broadcaster has adverbially underscored both the coarseness of the dialogue and the advisability of discretion in making this viewing choice.  It has also made it laudably clear that the program is not only not intended for children but that some adults may be offended by the content.

Despite all of the foregoing positive observations regarding the excellent advisory structure, the Panel is disappointed by the failure of the broadcaster to adhere to the provisions of the ViolenceCode regarding the frequency of its use.  In Article 5.1 of the Code, it is provided that, where advisories are required, they must be broadcast “at the beginning of, and during the first hour of programming telecast in late evening hours.”  This means that, where advisories are required, they must be shown comingout of each commercial break.  As the Ontario Regional Panel said in CTV re Poltergeist – The Legacy (CBSC Decisions 96/97-0017 and 96/97-0030, May 8, 1997), in which there was an advisory at the start of the film, no others in the first hour and sporadic advisories during the second hour,

The rationale underlying the requirement of viewer advisories is found in the background section of the Code, which state 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 repetition of viewer advisories during the course of the first hour serves as a second, third and fourth chance for viewers to receive important information concerning the program they are considering watching, even where they may tune in late.  The Code takes into account that many viewers make their viewing choices after the first few minutes of a program, which may result in a viewer missing an initial advisory.  The Council is of the view that CTV's approach to viewer advisories in this case, i.e. other than the initial advisory, providing them only in the second hour of the program, is insufficient for viewers and in breach of the spirit and wording of the Code.

It is a strength of the Canadian private broadcasters' system that they have looked at matters from the point of view of the audience.  They established a set of mandatory standards in 1994, by which they agreed that programming containing scenes with violent content would be subject to rules which they themselves, the broadcasters, would apply to their programming.  There would be no gratuitous or glamorized violent content.  Special rules would apply to children's programming.  A classification system would be established to assist viewers in assessing the applicability of programming in a family context.  There would also be a system of viewer advisories which would enable audiences to determine inwords, in addition to the ratings icons, just what there was about their programs that might assist viewers in their tuning choices.  Advisories inform.  The foregoing rules are a package.  They are not meant to be separated.  They are collectively essential to the operation of the broadcasters' ViolenceCode safeguards for public viewing.

In the present case, the excellent advisories were present coming out of each of the commercial breaks on the shows of September 17 and 18 but each of the remaining shows only employed the advisories following the first commercial break.  They were missing following the second and third sets of commercials in each of the shows of September 19, 21, 22, 24, 27 and 28.  They should not have been.  Nor is this, as noted above, a simple “technical” issue.  Consequently, CTV is in breach of Article 5.1 of the Violence Code with respect to each of the six broadcasts mentioned.



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 responses attempted to address the issues raised by each of the complainants.  Consequently, the broadcaster has not breached the Council's standard of responsiveness.  Nothing more is required.



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 during the time period in which The Sopranos was broadcast; 2) within the fourteen days following the broadcast of the announcements, to provide written confirmation of the airing of the statement to the complainants who filed the Ruling Requests; and 3) 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 viewer advisory provision in the CAB Violence Code in its broadcasts of The Sopranos on September 19, 21, 22, 24, 27 and 28, 2000.  By failing to provide viewer advisories following each of the commercial breaks during the first hour of the show advising audiences of its coarse language, nudity and violent content, CTV has breached Article 5 of the Violence Code.