The Comedy Network re an episode of Gutterball Alley

NATIONAL SPECIALTY SERVICES PANEL
(CBSC Decision 01/02-0450 & 01/02-0481)
R. Cohen (Chair), Sarah Crawford (Vice-Chair), R. Cugini, M. Hogarth, H. Pawley

THE FACTS

On January 22, 2002 at 9:30 pm, The Comedy Network broadcast an episode of its half-hour game show called Gutterball Alley, during the course of which contestants from the studio audience perform stunts or answer questions in order to win bowling balls that they then throw down a bowling alley to win cash prizes. The majority of the stunts and quizzes have a sexual aspect or component to them. For example, on the January 22 episode, in one game, the contestant had to watch video clips of pornographic movies and then guess what the actor's next line would be.  (The f-word appeared in one of these clips and once more immediately beforehand.) In another, a male contestant had to taste a series of flavoured condoms, which had been placed over dildos, and guess what the flavour was. The stunts were also interspersed with comedy skits that also generally had sexual themes.

As well, at the end of this particular episode, members of the performance art troupe “Puppetry of the Penis” appeared as special guests and were incorporated into a game show stunt. Two men, wearing only capes, manipulated their penises and testicles into various shapes; the contestant had to guess what each form represented.

The program was preceded by a viewer advisory in audio and visual form, which stated:

The following program contains mature subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised.

Viewer advisories did not appear after any commercial breaks. A classification icon of 14+ appeared during the first 17 seconds of programming.

The CBSC received complaints from four individuals about this episode of Gutterball Alley (the full text of all correspondence can be found in the Appendix to this decision), two of whom returned their Ruling Requests. The first came from a viewer who characterized the program as “a disgusting display of pornographic, humiliating filth” (he made specific mention of the segments involving the condom tasting and the penis puppetry). He added: “I have an open mind and do not easily get unglued by television programming, but this filth goes way beyond the limit of artistic freedom.” He also stated his concern that children and young teens are watching television at that time of day.

The second complainant also referred to the program as “pornography”. She stated that she had only seen the last few moments of the program, but had been “shocked” to see “a close up of [a man's] penis as he held his foreskin with his fingers and mimicked as if his penis were talking.”  She was greatly concerned that such “sex, nudity and foul language” was coming into her home.

The Comedy Network's Vice-President and General Manager sent responses to both complainants. He explained that The Comedy Network aims to “present a program schedule that is adult, irreverent and alternative much of the mainstream comedy that is available on conventional broadcasters. As a consequence, our programming tends to be more risqué and controversial.” He went on to mention that the program was scheduled after the Watershed hour of 9:00 pm, included an advisory at the beginning alerting viewers to potentially offensive material and featured an “18+” classification icon. In addressing the complainants' specific concerns about the penis puppetry, he wrote:

With regard to your specific concern, Gutterball Alley is known for its outrageous stunts and games. The segment that you saw was a portion of a performance from the play “Puppetry of the Penis.” The highly acclaimed production has toured the U.K., Australia, and North America – including Montrealand Toronto – and is currently playing in New York. Many international media sources have also had the group as guests. While we recognize that their humour is risqué, their performance has been met with wide popularity and positive reviews. Both the producer's and the network's decision to air it was based on this information.

In conclusion, he advised the complainants that The Comedy Network never intends to offend its audiences, but that it recognizes that “humour is subjective and what one person finds funny, another may not.”

Both complainants wrote back to the CBSC and requested that the matter be referred to the appropriate Adjudicating Panel. Both stated that an intention to be “risqué” and “irreverent”, as well as airing appropriate ratings and advisories were not justification for airing this type of “degrading” and “disrespectful” material, especially as young people may have access to it regardless of what time it is shown.

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 and Sex-Role Portrayal Code:

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 4.0 (Classification System):

Exempt Descriptive Exempt programming includes: news, sports, documentaries and other information programming; talk shows, music videos, and variety programming.

Note: Exempt programming does not require an icon for on-screen ratings.

14+ Descriptive Programming with this classification contains themes or content elements which might not be suitable for viewers under the age of 14. Parents are strongly cautioned to exercise discretion in permitting viewing by pre-teens and early teens without parent/guardian supervision, as programming with this classification could deal with mature themes and societal issues in a realistic fashion.

Content Guidelines
      Language: could possibly include strong or frequent use of profanity
     might include scenes of nudity and/or sexual activity within the context of narrative or theme

18+ Descriptive This classification applies to programming which could contain content elements that would make it unsuitable for viewers under the age of 18.

Content Guidelines Language:
might contain graphic language Sex/Nudity: might contain explicit portrayals of sex and/or nudity

CAB Violence Code, Article 5.1 (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 last evening hours which contains scenes of violence intended for adult audiences.

The National Specialty Service Panel Adjudicators viewed a tape of the program and reviewed all correspondence. The Panel concludes that there is no breach of Article 4 of the CAB Sex-Role Portrayal Code or the CAB Violence Code; however, it does find a breach of Article 5 of the CAB Violence Code, relating to viewer advisories.

Classification As noted above, the broadcast included a 14+ icon; as also noted, the broadcaster's Vice President and General Manager replied to the complainants that the programming had included an 18+ advisory. Whether this was a simple error on the part of the broadcaster or evidence of the General Manager's belief that the show merited that extra precaution is not known to the Panel. In any event, it is the view of the Panel that Gutterball Alley, by its nature, is a variety type of program and, consequently, is exempt from the requirement to include an on-screen classification at all. The Panel particularly commends the broadcaster for including an icon despite the fact that it was not required to do so. As this Panel has stated in its decision of the same date in Bravo! re the film Chippendales & the Ladies (CBSC Decision 01/02-0379, September 13, 2002),

the Panel considers that the broadcaster's decision to include such information is thoughtful, helpful and praiseworthy. It inevitably assists viewers in making their television-watching choices. The Panel also considers that, had an icon been required, the 14+ choice would have been correct: “scenes of nudity and/or sexual activity within the context of narrative or theme” are permitted at this ratings level. Those boundaries were not exceeded.

The Panel wishes to suggest to all broadcasters that they adopt the practice of Bravo! applied in the case of Chippendales & the Ladies. Even where the content is such that the program would, according to the rules, fall into the exempt category, it would be a courtesy benefiting both the viewer and the broadcaster, whose interest is best served by ensuring that people who do not wish to see a genre of programming have the information to avoid it.

Consequently, there is no breach of the classification requirement of the CAB Violence Code. >The Panel wishes to add, though, certain observations regarding the rating that was chosen in the light of the substantive expression of the complainants' concerns. First, a few words regarding the sexual commentary and double entendres. In the Panel's view, there is nothing in the sexual content of the episode of Gutterball Alley reviewed by it that exceeds the 14+ level; while there was sexual innuendo, at its most serious, or sexual silliness, at its least serious, there was no element of explicit portrayal of sexuality or nudity that would have elevated the program to an 18+ level. What depiction there was fell easily within the definition of “scenes of nudity and/or sexual activity within the context of narrative or theme.” On the other hand, the presence of the f-word has, in other CBSC decisions, such as Showcase Television re the movie Destiny to Order (CBSC Decision 00/01-0715, January 16, 2002), qualified those programs as “intended for adult audiences.”In that decision, this Panel found

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, 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.

Similarly, in WTN re the movie Wildcats (CBSC Decision 00/01-0964, January 16, 2002), this Panel decided that the ” use of 'fuck' and 'motherfucker' in a dramatic film renders it programming 'intended for adult audiences'.” The logical result of those rulings in the present file is that this episode of Gutterball Alley is intended for adult audiences, which would necessitate the application of the 18+ rating in circumstances in which a rating would be required. In other words, the use of “fuck” and derivatives qualifies as “graphic language” in the Content Guidelines of the AGVOT classification system.

Exploitation The Panel understands that the purpose of the CAB Sex-Role Portrayal Code is generally to ensure the equality of the sexes on the airwaves and that, more specifically, the purpose of Article 4 of the Code is to ensure that there will be no inequality in the form of exploitation or degradation of either gender on the airwaves. The portrayal of the one sex vis-à-vis the other must be degrading or exploitative for such a conclusion to be drawn. The Panel does not find that the stunts and scenes in Gutterball Alley are degrading or exploitative of either gender.

Viewer Advisories

Although Article 5.0 concerning viewer advisories mentions violence only, it has long been CBSC practice to apply that provision to other types of content, such as nudity, sexuality and coarse language.

Viewer advisories differ slightly from classification issues. They are broader and more descriptive (and have, on the basis of CBSC decisions, been required in the case of programming including scenes of any type intended for adult audiences). They provide people with more than a single “catch-all” basket category for levels of coarse language, violence, nudity and sexual content. In descriptive words, they advise viewers of the kind of content they can anticipate encountering in a program about to be, or currently being, aired. In the matter at hand, the broadcaster is obliged to advise its audience of the coarse language in the program. It has done so only once, at the start of the program, and then only mentioned “mature subject matter”. There was no reference to coarse language at all, nor was there any subsequent viewer advisory coming out of the later commercial breaks. This amounts to a breach of Article 5.1 of the Violence Code.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

Broadcaster responsiveness is always an issue considered in CBSC adjudications. The CBSC considers that the dialogue between broadcasters and complainants is an extremely positive component of the self-regulatory process, to the point that it is in fact a membership responsibility of all CBSC broadcaster members; however, this assessment of the dialogue process does not affect the findings of CBSC Adjudicating Panels with respect to the actual content of the programming. In this case, the broadcaster responded to the complainant in a timely manner and adequately addressed the complainant's concerns, although the discrepancy between the rating applied to the program and referred to in the broadcaster's letter may suggest less care in reviewing the actual show than would have been helpful. The National Specialty Services Panel concludes that The Comedy Network has met its responsibilities of membership in this regard.

CONTENT OF BROADCASTER ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE DECISION

The Comedy Network 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 program Gutterball Alley 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 Request; and 3) 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 The Comedy Network has breached the provisions concerning the use of viewer advisories in the industry's Violence Code. The Council decided that the coarse language used in the episode of Gutterball Alley broadcast at 9:30 pm on January 22, 2002 necessitated viewer advisories. The Council concluded that, by failing to air any viewer advisories during the course of the program, alerting potential viewers to the coarse language in the program, The Comedy Network breached Article 5.1 of the Violence Code, which requires the use of viewer advisories following each commercial break during the program.

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