Failure to Broadcast Sufficient Viewer Advisories on Violent Programming Breaches Code, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, March 23, 2011 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning four episodes of CSI: Miami, broadcast by specialty service Séries+, each broadcast at 5:00 pm on June 3, 4, 7 and 8, 2010 with a rating of 13+.  A viewer advisory alerting viewers to “scenes that may not be suitable for some viewers” (without any reference to violent content) was only provided at the start of the program.

The CBSC received a complaint from a viewer who was concerned that the program was too violent for the 5:00 pm time slot that Séries+ had selected for the series.  The complainant also referred to an earlier decision of the Quebec Panel dealing with Les experts: Manhattan (CSI: New York) in which the Panel concluded that the violent content in that series required post-Watershed broadcast.  The Quebec Regional Panel found no breach of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) Code of Ethics on that account.  In the words of the Panel, “the violence was far less graphic, explicit, realistic, vivid and intense” than that dealt with in the CSI: New York decision.

The Panel expanded on its rationale for the determination that the four challenged episodes were not in breach of the Watershed requirement for exclusively adult program content.

While the Panel did take note of the rather early post-school pre-dinner scheduling of the series, it is equally aware of the fact that the broadcaster is entitled to air this or any other program episode that is not intended exclusively for adults at any hour of the day.  The Panel is equally aware of the fact that Séries+ is a specialty service, which is by definition accessible only to homes that pay an additional fee to receive it.  That said, the Panel hastens to add that the rules relating to mature content and the Watershed are identical for specialty and conventional services.  The Panel’s point is only that the customary duty of parents to control what their families access on their television sets is perhaps slightly greater when they have chosen to import specialty services that may be more susceptible of airing programming that is unsuitable for some members of their families.  When broadcasters provide the informational and technological tools that enable viewers to make informed choices and to restrict access via the V-Chip or set-top digital controls, it is only reasonable that parents take the fullest advantage of their availability.

The Panel also pointed out that its decision related solely to the four episodes of CSI: Miami assessed by them.  It warned that the “broadcaster needs to remain vigilant about ensuring that other episodes of the series do not cross over the ‘intended exclusively for adults’ content line.”

The Panel was, however, concerned with the substance and frequency of appearance of the viewer advisory, which is intended to provide audiences with notice of forthcoming programming that they might not wish to have on their television screens.  The Panel concluded that Séries+ had breached the clause of the Code of Ethics that requires viewer advisories to alert audiences to the specific nature of the potentially offensive content and to be broadcast at the start of the program and following every commercial break.

On the substantive (content) side, Séries+ did not provide any indication of the nature of the potentially disturbing content, namely, the scenes of violence.  The non-specific reference to [translation] “scenes that may not be suitable for some viewers” is of little or no help to viewers and is in violation of Article 5.2 of the CAB Violence Code.  As to the frequency of broadcast of the advisories, the import of Clause 5.1 […] is clear.  The appropriate viewer advisory must appear at the start of the program and following every commercial break.  The reason for that rule is obvious.  People tune in and out of programs.  They channel surf.  The rule was established in the expectation that viewers may not arrive at the start of the show.  They are not on that account less entitled to the information about the program than those individuals who are there from the very beginning of the broadcast.

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 and the pay television Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic ethics created by the RTNDA – Association of Electronic Journalists in 1970.  Nearly 760 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