Sportsnet East re Sportsnet Connected

national specialty services Panel
R. Cohen (Chair), R. Deverell (ad hoc), M. Omelus (ad hoc) and P. O’Neill

THE FACTS

Sportsnet Connected is a news program devoted to sports that features highlights, updates, news, interviews and the like, which airs multiple times on weekday mornings on Sportsnet East.  The episode of February 7, 2008 at 6:30 am provided the scores and highlights from a number of recent NHL hockey games.  The highlights included clips of fights between players, which occurred during the normal course of play and which had begun due to some sort of on-ice incident, such as shoving or high-sticking.  The video clips of the fights basically consisted of players punching each other about the head (both with and without helmets on) and pulling on each others’ jerseys.  None of these was a high-profile or prolonged incident. The Sportsnet Connected host described the events of the games, including the fights, in voice-over.  Her comments were neutral in tone, simply describing, in the case of the fights, which players had been involved, what had instigated the conflicts, and the result.  There were no verbal or visual warnings prior to airing the hockey fight clips.

The CBSC received a complaint from a viewer who felt that highlighting the hockey fights was inappropriate, particularly during a daytime broadcast.  She had initially contacted the broadcaster directly on February 7 with the following letter (the full text of all correspondence can be found in the Appendix):

I will begin by noting that I am not a regular viewer of your station, or of sports in general.  However, I do like to keep fit and go to my fitness centre on a regular basis.  As in many fitness centers, there are a number of televisions in the cardio room for the users to watch.  I have found repeatedly, when at the gym, that I have been exposed to violence presented on your television programs.  One example occurred today, 7 February 2008, between 6:30 and 6:45 am.  I believe the program was called Sportsnet Connected, but am not sure because I was not listening to the program.  Within a 5-minute period there were two instances of hockey fights presented on the screen in front of me.  I found myself falling off the treadmill, as I had to look away from the television with my repulsion.

[…]

I feel that programming specifically showing hockey players fighting, exploits violent action outside the activity of the sport.  While I understand that fights do occur in hockey, I do not believe they are sanctioned because it is my understanding that players are given penalties for this behaviour.  I do not believe the showing of a fight as part of news programming enhances the viewer’s understanding of the outcome of the game and demonstrates poor judgment in selecting and repeating video to illustrate the game.  […]

I do enjoy watching hockey as a sport, and have no problem with the normal physicality of the game, however I do not understand how fistfights and excessive violence contribute to the game.  I personally find the activity of fighting repulsive and it makes me physically sick to think that grown men are engaging in that behaviour.  The injuries sustained during these fights are dangerous and can result in long standing impairments for the players.  Regardless of whether I am supported in my beliefs by hockey fans or not, I am offended by the behaviour and do not wish to be exposed to it.  As a result, I do not normally watch hockey.

Unfortunately, I cannot change what is shown on the televisions at the fitness centre, and am not happy with what I must be exposed to.  I would suggest that the display of fights be confined to the hockey game programming itself, which is typically shown at night during the late evening viewing period, and within the specific time frame of the program.  I suggest the display of fights and excessive violence be kept out of the news or “highlights”, which are shown at any time throughout the day.

The broadcaster responded to that letter on the same day.  The letter made the following points about Sportsnet’s programming:

First and foremost, we would like to apologize if you were offended by any of the programming aired on Rogers Sportsnet and particularly Sportsnet Connected.  While I have forwarded your comments to the producer of Sportsnet Connected, please keep in mind that the debate over fighting in hockey extends beyond the realm of sports television.

Arguments regarding the validity of fighting’s place in the game of hockey have been made by both its supporters and detractors.  While you are obviously entrenched in and entitled to your opinion (and it is certainly welcomed by Sportsnet) there are equally those in our viewing audience who believe its place is very much an indelible part of the NHL game and very much inside “the sanctioned activity of the sport”.  As long as the NHL sanctions fighting, considers it a legitimate part of the game (as penalties are only assessed after a fight), and a percentage of our audience regards it as both entertaining and pivotal to the story of a game, then it is our responsibility to report on it within our game highlights.  […]

The complainant then chose to file an official complaint with the CBSC on February 10:

I would like to forward a complaint to your board for consideration.  This is regarding broadcasting sports fights during news programs, and during daytime hours.  I have approached the broadcaster directly as you will see in the attached letter.  I received an immediate response by email, also attached.  I continue to have concerns with television broadcasters showing any fights during daytime hours, particularly during news programs, as this not only unnecessarily exposes me to violence, but also potentially children.  The details of one instance are outlined in the attached letter; please note that this is only one example.

[…]  My issue is not really with whether fights in hockey are accepted or not, but rather how they are shown on television.  The broadcaster that I have written to here is merely one of many who share the same practices.

Sportsnet responded a second time on March 20:

Sportsnet is sensitive to viewer concerns about violence in television programming, and in particular, about violence in sport.  As a specialty service offering sports and sports-related programming, we look to Clause 10 of the Violence Code for guidance.

[…]

It is important to note that the wording of Clause 10.1 makes specific allowances for physical contact when it is part of the sanctioned activity of the sport.  In the case of hockey, we do not believe that the game itself can be said to be inherently violent.  Hockey is a full contact sport and, as is the case with many contact sports, can be perceived by some viewers to be violent.  However, many of these concerns relate to actions that are an accepted part of the game.  In our respectful opinion, such actions are sanctioned activities in the sport of hockey, albeit not without penalty in the course of play.

Sportsnet Connected is Sportsnet’s flagship sports news and information program.  Launched in early 2007 to replace Sportsnet News, it features sports scores and sports-related news, with an emphasis on home-team coverage.  Our commentators read sports-related news in much the same way as newscasters report on the news, except our stories are lighter in tone and our commentators often try to inject a bit of humour in their reporting.

Our decision to show hockey fights on Sportsnet Connected is based on the desire to accurately reflect the tone of each of the games that is featured.  For example, if a game-winning goal was scored as a result of penalties being called for a fight, in all likelihood, we would show a clip of the fight in our highlights.  If there were multiple fights in a game, we will likely show a number of those fights in order to accurately convey the truculent tone of that particular game.

The complainant filed her Ruling Request on March 25 and explained her reasons for her dissatisfaction with Sportsnet’s response in the following terms:

I am not satisfied with the response that I received as it is the same response that I received the first time I contacted the broadcaster.  I think it shameful that our society and CBSC will allow such violence to be repeatedly broadcast when there are children viewing and when there are individuals obviously offended by that content.  It is not just one broadcaster or isolated event.  […]  There is no way to escape it.  It saddens and sickens me that such violence is acceptable.  If the same events happened on the street, outside of the hockey arena, I would think that there would be a different opinion as to its acceptability, and there would certainly be viewer warnings before broadcasting.  The visual images are exactly the same, therefore I am not clear how hockey violence is different.  I am not suggesting that it is not “part of the game”; what I suggest is that it merely be kept to the game and not visually broadcast outside of that venue.  This would allow viewers [to] have control over whether they will be subject to it or not.

THE DECISION

The National Specialty Services Panel examined the complaint under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Violence Code:

Article 6.0 – News and Public Affairs Programming

6.1        Broadcasters shall use appropriate editorial judgment in the reporting of, and the pictorial representation of violence, aggression or destruction within their news and public affairs programming.

6.2        Caution shall be used in the selection of, and repetition of, video which depicts violence.

6.3        Broadcasters shall advise viewers in advance of showing scenes of extra-ordinary violence, or graphic reporting on delicate subject matter such as sexual assault or court action related to sexual crimes, particularly during afternoon or early evening newscasts and updates when children could be viewing.

[…]

6.6        While broadcasters shall not exaggerate or exploit situations of aggression, conflict or confrontation, equal care shall be taken not to sanitize the reality of the human condition.

Article 10.0 – Violence in Sports Programming

10.1      Broadcasters shall not promote or exploit violent action which is outside the sanctioned activity of the sport in question.

The Panel Adjudicators viewed a recording of the program and read all of the correspondence.  The Panel concludes that the broadcaster did not violate any of the aforementioned Code provisions.

The Meaning of “Sanctioned” Activities in Sport

The complainant has raised a fair question in her statement “While I understand that fights do occur in hockey, I do not believe they are sanctioned because it is my understanding that players are given penalties for this behaviour. [Emphasis added.]”  There has only been one previous occasion on which a CBSC Panel has applied Article 10.1 in order to assess whether or not a particular type of action in the broadcast of a sporting event was outside the sanctioned activity of the sport.  In that case, TSN re WWF Raw Is War (CBSC Decision 99/00-0607, January 31, 2001), the sport was wrestling, not the Greco-Roman or freestyle style of wrestling seen at college level or in the Olympic Games, but the televised entertainment style, complete with its familiar shenanigans.  In that case, this Panel had to assess such admittedly unorthodox actions as the use by some wrestlers of devices such as a hockey stick, a substantial leather and metal championship belt, metal chairs and other items to strike other wrestlers.  This Panel’s determination was as follows:

[It] views the words “sanctioned activity” as constituting a limit (which they are meant to assess) of actions which might reasonably be viewed as so egregious as to be beyond its expectation of “sanctioned activity”.  […] While freestyle wrestling may permit rougher tactics than traditional Greco-Roman style wrestling, the Panel does not consider that this Code provision anticipates the use of dangerous objects, in effect, weapons not customarily in use for the purpose of either style of wrestling.  Whether this is or is not acceptable at actual ringside is not the concern of the CBSC, which deals only with the broadcast aspects of the wrestling contests.  In this respect, the Panel has no hesitation in concluding that, in its airing of WWF Raw Is War, the broadcaster is promoting or glamorizing the use of dangerous objects or weapons in wrestling, something which is egregious in terms of its reasonable expectation and which, consequently, falls outside of the allowable or sanctioned extent of the sport in violation of the provisions of Article 10.1 of the CAB Violence Code.

In a case closer to the matter at hand in some respects, namely, CHEX-TV re Sportscast (CBSC Decision 03/04-0926, October 22, 2004), the Ontario Regional Panel dealt with a complaint about a television commentator’s promotion of violence in sports programming.  During an early evening sports report, the sportscaster stated that he was addressing the local hockey team when he said, “when somebody takes a cheap shot at the heart and soul of your team, somebody has to and should’ve stepped up and, well, […] deliver a message, and I think you know what I mean by that.”  The Ontario Panel found a breach of another clause in the CAB Code of Ethics for this editorial incitement, but it did not find a breach on the basis of Clause 10.1.

Although the Panel has concluded that the sportscaster’s exhortation was improper, it does not consider that it amounts to a breach of the broadcasters’ obligation not to promote or exploit violent action which is outside the sanctioned activity of the sport in question.  There are, in the view of the Panel, numerous ways to deliver a message which are inappropriate or, as noted above, improper but which, technically speaking may, fall within the scope of the game, within the “sanctioned activity of the sport.”  There are, for example, some actions which may amount to no more than minor penalties, such as holding or interference, which, although subject to a penalty, do fall within the anticipated scope of play.

Applying these precedents to the issue of the hockey fighting seen on this segment of Sportsnet Connected, the National Specialty Service Panel considers that sanctioned activities are best understood as reasonably anticipated activities.  In another way of explaining its understanding of the intention of the codifiers, the Panel expects that actions that could be expected to occur would be of such a type.  The Panel does not consider that the application of a penalty to a particular action turns that element of play into an item that ought not to be broadcast.  It is relevant to the Panel that having too many players on the ice and using a hockey stick with an excessively curved blade attract penalties of the same duration as physical penalties such as tripping, slashing or cross-checking, while cursing the referee may attract a more serious penalty than fighting.  That said, the foregoing offences, whether technical or physical, including fighting, are all in the hockey rulebook.  It is expected that they will occur.  They are, in that sense, anticipated and sanctioned.  It is the view of the Panel that none of these fall outside the “sanctioned activity of the sport.”  They may be the subject of a broadcast without violating Clause 10.1 of the CAB Violence Code.

An Additional Necessary Element in Considering Article 10

Even if the Panel were to find that violent action outside the sanctioned activity of the sport were broadcast, in order to assess a breach of Article 10.1, it would have to conclude that the broadcaster had promoted or exploited such violent action in its broadcast.  The Panel considers that fighting is a normal part of NHL hockey and that the reporting of the fighting was matter-of-fact, attracting no greater emphasis than the scoring of the goals or other exciting plays during the game updates.

Selection of Violent Footage

In the context of news and public affairs reporting, broadcasters are obliged to use caution and judgment in the reporting and pictorial representation of violence or aggression.  As would be anticipated from the immediately preceding section of this decision, the Panel considers that there was simply no emphasis on the fighting in the games reported on February 7.  Moreover, it does not find a single element in any of the game summaries that would amount to the extra-ordinary violence anticipated in Article 6.3 of the CAB Violence Code.

The Panel does appreciate, and in no way diminishes, the sensibilities of the complainant regarding fighting in hockey games.  In her original complaint, she wrote, “I do not understand how fistfights and excessive violence contribute to the game.  I personally find the activity of fighting repulsive and it makes me physically sick to think that grown men are engaging in that behaviour.”  The Panel considers that her reaction is to an element of the sport itself.  It regrets that the reporting of that sanctioned component of the game has not been excised or edited to her satisfaction, but it does consider that the broadcaster has not in any way overstepped its codified bounds in the challenged broadcast of Sportsnet Connected.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

It is a fundamental requirement of the CBSC’s process that broadcasters respond to audience complaints about their programming filed with the Council.  While not required to agree with a complainant, broadcasters are expected to respond in a timely and thoughtful manner to those audience members who have taken the time to express their concerns.  In this case, Sportsnet East provided an initial letter to the complainant, following it with a separate and revised letter once the complaint had been made to the CBSC.  While the arguments did not resonate with the complainant, the Panel considers that the broadcaster has met its obligations in terms of responsiveness and nothing further is required of Sportsnet East in this regard on this occasion.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.  It may be reported, announced or read by the station against which the complaint had originally been made; however, in the case of a favourable decision, the station is under no obligation to announce the result.