Episodes in Law & Order Spin-off Series with Off-screen Violence May Air before Watershed, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, March 4, 2009 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning two episodes of the spin-offs of the crime drama series Law & Order broadcast on OMNI.2 (CJMT-TV, Toronto).  Episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit were broadcast from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm on March 21, 2008.  The CBSC concluded that the programs could be broadcast before the Watershed hour of 9:00 pm and, therefore, that the station did not violate the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Violence Code.

In Criminal Intent, the police officers investigate high profile crimes.  The March 21 episode, entitled “Want”, focussed on two related crimes in which women had been given “homemade lobotomies” and had their calf muscles removed.  While there was no actual violence committed on-screen, the episode included scenes with dead bodies and others with injured victims, as well as conversations about the disturbing assaults.  In Special Victims Unit, the officers investigate sex-related crimes.  The March 21 episode was entitled “Pure” and dealt with the disappearance of a teenaged girl and an investigation of a man who preyed on virgins.  Again, the episode included scenes with bodies or injured individuals and discussions about the nature of the crimes, but no actual violent acts.  OMNI.2 aired a viewer advisory at the beginning of each program and coming out of every commercial break.  It also rated the programs 14+.

The CBSC received a complaint from a viewer who was concerned that the episodes aired at a time when children were likely to be watching television.  The broadcaster argued that the focus of the programs is on the investigation of the crimes, rather than on the commission of violence.  The Ontario Regional Panel examined the complaint under Article 3.0 of the CAB Violence Code, which states that scenes of violence intended for adult audiences shall only be shown during the Watershed period of 9:00 pm to 6:00 am.  Citing numerous precedents, the Panel concluded that the content of these programs did not amount to “scenes intended for adult audiences” and pointed out that “the conclusion that a program may be permitted to play before 9:00 pm does not mean that it will be suitable for children under 12.”  It added:

The bottom line is that the pre- versus post- 9:00 pm decision is the responsibility of the broadcaster, but once a program is properly situated in one of those categories, suitability issues become the responsibility of the parents.  The role of broadcasters in assisting parents to draw such suitability conclusions as are appropriate for their own families goes further.  Licensees have to provide parents with informational tools, such as viewer advisories and on-screen and encoded ratings, which will permit them to make informed choices.  And those choices are likely to differ from home to home; such familial choices are, after all, very individualized matters.

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While the Panel acknowledges that the episodes contained disturbing themes, it does not consider that there are sufficient on-screen violent acts or visual consequences of off-screen violent acts that would drive the programs into the adultness camp.

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, equitable portrayal, television violence and journalistic independence by which they expect the members of their profession will abide.  In 1990, they also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those professional broadcast Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic ethics created by the RTNDA – Association of Electronic Journalists in 1970.  More than 720 radio stations, satellite radio services, television stations and specialty services from across Canada are members of the Council.

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