Showcase Television re The Cops

NATIONAL SPECIALTY SERVICES PANEL
(CBSC Decision 01/02-1076)
R. Cohen (Chair), R. Deverell, E. Duffy-MacLean, M. Harris, M. Hogarth and C. Murray

THE FACTS

At 5:00 pm on May 26, 2002, the specialty service Showcase Television broadcast an episode of The Cops, a British dramatic series that follows the professional and personal lives of a group of Stanton police officers.  The program depicts the gritty street life which the various characters face on a daily basis.  As might be expected in any dramatic attempt to realistically portray police life, coarse language is common in this program.  The May 26 episode included 17 instances of the use of the word “fuck” and its derivatives.

While the challenged episode contained very little reference to violence (relative to what one might expect in a police drama), the last scene depicted the results of a stabbing incident involving two women, who were seen sitting on a kitchen floor; one was holding the other hostage with a knife as police officers attempted to defuse the situation.  Although only the aftermath of the stabbing scene was evident, the hostage appeared to have a significant abdominal wound.  The stand-off, which was marked by tension rather than violence, lasted approximately two and a half minutes; it ended when the female attacker charged at one of the police officers who succeeded in bloodlessly wrestling the knife away from her.

The CBSC received a complaint about the episode on July 3, although the complainant had apparently filled out the complaint form on the CBSC's website on the same day as the broadcast (May 26).  Due to technical problems on the CBSC website, this complaint was never received by the CBSC prior to its resubmission.  In any event, it was of the essence of the complainant's July 3 e-mail that he objected to the broadcast of coarse language in a late afternoon time slot.  He also informed the CBSC that there had been no viewer warning during the program (the full text of all correspondence can be found in the Appendix to this decision).

Showcase responded to the complainant on July 18 and acknowledged that the May 26 episode did contain coarse language.  The broadcaster also agreed with the complainant that the program should have been accompanied by viewer advisories and that “as a result of your letter, we have added a viewer advisory of coarse language to all episodes of The Cops, effective July 7, 2002.”

The complainant wrote back to the CBSC on August 26.  He acknowledged that Showcase's inclusion of advisories was “a step in the right direction”, but that, in his opinion, Showcase was still in violation of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' (CAB) Code of Ethics for broadcasting coarse language before 9:00 pm.

In its letter accompanying the screener tapes requested by the CBSC in order to adjudicate this complaint (actual logger tapes were no longer available in this case due to the website-related loss of the initial timely complaint, which was, as explained above, filed well within the 28 day time limit), Showcase informed the CBSC that the program carries a rating of 14+.

THE DECISION

The National Specialty Services Panel considered the complaint under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' (CAB) Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming:

CAB Violence Code, Article 3.1.1 (Program Scheduling):

Programming which contains scenes of violence intended for adult audiences shall not be telecast before the late evening viewing period, defined as

CAB Violence Code, Article 5.0 (Viewer Advisories):

        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.

Broadcasters shall provide a viewer advisory at the beginning of, and during programming telecast outside of late evening hours, which contains scenes of violence not suitable for children.

The National Specialty Services Panel read all of the correspondence and viewed a tape of the challenged episode.  The Panel concludes that Showcase is in breach of Article 3.1.1 of the CAB Violence Code for broadcasting a program containing an excessive amount of extremely coarse language before 9:00 pm and in breach of Article 5.0 for failing to include viewer advisories to this effect during the May 26 episode.

Scheduling of The Cops

Although the complainant cited Clause 10 of the revised CAB Code of Ethics (which restricts the scheduling of programming containing unduly coarse language or sexually explicit material to a post-9:00 pm time frame), he was likely not aware that this new provision only came into effect in July of 2002 and applies only to programming aired after August 1 of that year.  It does not have a retroactive effect and therefore was not applicable to the May 26, 2002 broadcast of the episode of The Cops which is the subject of this decision.

The foregoing being said, the various CBSC Adjudicating Panels have frequently applied the provisions of the CAB Violence Code in order to deal with “adult-oriented” programming other than violence.  This is simply another such circumstance.

The first time a CBSC Adjudicating Panel was called upon to address the issue of the broadcast of the f-word during daytime hours was in the context of songs played on radio in CIOX-FM re the songs “Livin' It Up” by Limp Bizkit and “Outside” by Aaron Lewis and Fred Durst (CBSC Decision 00/01-0670, June 28, 2001).  The two songs contained the words “fuck”, “motherfucker” and variations thereof and were played at 11:31 am, 4:00 pm and 8:31 pm.  Observing that research in other English-speaking countries has reported that those words are considered to be some of the most offensive examples of coarse language, the Ontario Regional Panel concluded that the songs, in their unedited versions, were inappropriate for broadcast at times of day when children could reasonably be expected to be listening.  That principle has since been applied in other cases involving the f-word in songs [see CJKR-FM re the song “Highway Girl (Live)” by The Tragically Hip (CBSC Decision 00/01-0832, January 14, 2002) and CFNY-FM re the song “Cubically Contained” by The Headstones (CBSC Decision 01/02-0456, June 7, 2002)].

The foregoing principles have also been applied by this Panel to daytime television programming in its decision Showcase Television re the movie Destiny to Order (CBSC Decision 00/01-0715, January 16, 2002).  The movie in that case aired at 2:00 pm and contained words such as “fuck”, “fucker”, “shit” and “asshole” throughout its duration.  The Panel made the following comment:

[H]ere the Panel is called upon to consider a movie replete with very coarse language, including the use of words or expressions such as “fuck”, “fucker”, “I'll blow your fucking balls off”, [.] etc. in a pre-Watershed time period.  At the same time, the National Specialty Services Panel considers it useful to observe that, were it called upon to characterize the severity and frequency of the coarse words and expressions in White Men Can't Jump and The Sopranos [two programs that contained the f-word in a post-Watershed context which had been the subject of previous CBSC decisions], it would find that, in both cases, the language would be “intended for adult audiences” and entirely inappropriate for broadcast in a pre-Watershed context.  Similarly, in Destiny to Order the Panel finds that the coarse language was “intended for adult audiences” and equally inappropriate for broadcast in a pre-Watershed context.

This Panel reached the same conclusion in WTN re the movie Wildcats (CBSC Decision 00/01-0964, January 16, 2002).  That movie was broadcast at 4:00 pm and contained several instances of coarse language, including “fuck”, and “motherfucker”, among others.  The broadcaster muted out the f-word in two instances, but not on four other occasions.  The broadcaster was found in breach of Article 3.1.1 for airing the film before the Watershed hour:

While the use of such expressions would present no difficulty post-Watershed, the Panel finds that such words are problematic in their unedited form at a time which was not merely pre-Watershed, but at an early enough hour that children could be expected to be watching television, as in this case of Wildcats which was broadcast from 4:00-6:00 pm on a Sunday afternoon.

As in the cases cited above, the Panel notes that the use of coarse language may well be relevant, in this case constituting an accurate representation of how urban police officers and the individuals with whom they interact would speak.  That, however, is not the issue here.  When dealing with scheduling, the Panel is not called upon to determine whether the coarse language is gratuitous (in terms of the CAB Violence Code) or undue (the test provided in the revised CAB Code of Ethics).  The National Specialty Services Panel must merely determine whether the inclusion of such coarse language as was found in the challenged episode of The Cops was sufficient to cause it to fall into the same category of programming “intended for adult audiences” as the broadcasts of Destiny to Order and Wildcats noted above.  The Panel finds that the numerous instances of the f-word and its derivatives in this dramatic scripted program should not have aired in a pre-Watershed environment.  By scheduling this program at 5:00 pm, Showcase is thus in violation of Article 3.1.1 of the CAB Violence Code.

Viewer Advisories

Due to the technical problems experienced by the CBSC website complaint form, the CBSC did not receive this complaint until two months after the broadcast date.  Since broadcasters are required to retain logger tapes of their programming for only 28 days following a broadcast, the official logger tapes of this episode had, in the normal course of things, been recycled.  Showcase was, however, able to provide a copy of the program.  Logger tapes reflect a program as it was actually aired; that is with commercials, promotional material, viewer advisories and other interstitial content.  In contrast, “screener tapes” of a program feature a pre-broadcast version of the program alone.

Despite the absence of logger tapes, the Panel is in a position to comment on the issue of viewer advisories in this case, since there is agreement as to the facts of this matter.  In his complaint, the viewer clearly stated “There was no viewer warning.”  In its response, Showcase then agreed that the program warranted advisories and “as a result of your letter, we have added a viewer advisory of coarse language to all episodes of The Cops, effective July 7, 2002.”  There is obviously no discrepancy as to the fact that the May 26 episode did not contain any viewer advisories.

The CBSC Panels have stated in the past that the absence of any viewer advisories on programming which contains scenes intended for adult audiences is unequivocally in breach of Article 5.0 of the CAB Violence Code.  This omission is particularly problematic when a program that should have been aired after 9:00 pm was aired pre-Watershed.  This was precisely the case in the aforementioned Wildcats decision.  The movie, which contained coarse language intended for adult audiences, was broadcast at 4:00 pm without any viewer advisories.  The Panel explained the provision regarding viewer advisories in the following terms:

Had the broadcaster aired Wildcats in its appropriate time-slot, that is, after due to the coarse language in the film, it would still have been required to air viewer advisories at the beginning of and during the first hour of the program as outlined in Article 5.1 of the Violence Code.

The broadcaster's failure to provide viewer advisories is, however, further exacerbated by the fact that it aired the film well before 9:00 pm.  Article 5.2 makes it clear that programming telecast outside of late evening hours, which contains scenes not suitable for children, must carry advisories at the beginning of and during the entire program.  Although the Panel has found WTN in breach of the scheduling provision of the Violence Code since it determined that the unedited coarse language amounted to “scenes intended for adult audiences”, at the very least, the broadcaster was obligated to provide viewers with information as to the content of the film being broadcast in such an early time-slot.

As outlined in the Wildcats decision, the unedited broadcast of “fuck” and related words requires viewer advisories.  Had Showcase included such advisories during The Cops, it might have been helpful to viewers to also refer to the one scene depicting the knife wound.

In its response, Showcase indicated its agreement with the complainant that viewer advisories should have been present in the earlier broadcasts of this episode and committed to airing such advisories for all future broadcasts of this program effective immediately.  The complainant declared himself satisfied on this point, stating this to be a “step in the right direction.”  Since the action taken by the station in correcting this issue has met the expectations of both the complainant and the CBSC, the Panel sees no reason to oblige Showcase to announce this aspect of the decision on-air.

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.  The Panel finds that Showcase was very responsive to this complainant.  By agreeing with him that the episode should have been accompanied by viewer advisories and indicating that future broadcasts of this program would be carrying such advisories effective immediately, they satisfied him that his concerns had been taken seriously.  In fact, but for the additional issue regarding the scheduling of the program, Showcase, by responding in such an attentive and pro-active manner, may well have avoided the need for adjudication by a CBSC Panel at all.  The Panel commends Showcase for the conciliatory approach taken in its response which demonstrates the effectiveness of the broadcaster-complainant dialogue process.  Nothing more is required in this respect in this instance.

ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE DECISION

Showcase 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 within seven days following the release of this decision during the time period in which The Cops is broadcast.; 2) within fourteen days following the broadcast of the announcements, to provide written confirmation of the airing of the statement to the complainant who filed the Ruling Request; 3) at that time, to provide the CBSC with that written confirmation and with air check copies of the broadcasts of the two announcements.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that Showcase Television breached the scheduling provision of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' Violence Code in its broadcast of The Cops on May 26, 2002.  By broadcasting the program, which contained frequent coarse language before the 9:00 pm Watershed hour for programming intended for adult audiences, Showcase has violated Article 3 of the Code.

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