The Comedy Network re Dream On

ONTARIO REGIONAL COUNCIL
(CBSC Decision 97/98-0571)
A. MacKay (Chair), R. Stanbury (Vice-Chair), R. Cohen (ad hoc), M. Hogarth and M. Ziniak

THE FACTS

Dream On is a half-hour situation comedy which is more risqué than
conventional network television fare. It airs most weeknights at 9:30 p.m. on The Comedy
Network. Starting on the evening of January 26, 1998, The Comedy Network aired a three
part series of Dream On titled “Oral Sex, Lies and Videotape”. The
storyline of these episodes follows the main protagonist of Dream On, publishing
house editor Martin Tupper, through an ordeal which arises out of his inadvertent
videotaping of a popular kids’ show host, Uncle Bouncy, receiving oral sex from a
prostitute in a public alleyway.

During the course of the three episodes, the video footage of Uncle
Bouncy receiving the services of a prostitute is shown on a few occasions. While the
positioning of the characters gives a clear indication of what is going on, the scene,
which is shown from afar, involves no nudity or sexual explicitness. There is,
however, an entirely different scene (with characters other than Uncle Bouncy) involving
nudity and sexual explicitness included in two of the three episodes in the series. A
videotape of Martin Tupper awkwardly having sex with a woman, presumably his wife, is
shown at the beginning of the first episode in the series and again in the last during the
course of Tupper’s testimony in a civil action brought against him for the sale of
the Uncle Bouncy videotape to a local television station.

A viewer advisory preceded the episodes in question. It stated
“The following program may contain material that some viewers may find
offensive.” The episodes were also rated “18+” and an on-screen icon to
that effect appears at the beginning of each episode.

On February 4, 1998, a viewer complained to the Secretary General of
the CRTC and copied her letter to the CBSC. Her letter stated that:

This is the first letter that Ihave ever written condemning anything that I have encountered through the media. However,it is now necessary to take a stand. I was shocked to see a program on the Comedy Network,January 27, 1998 at 9:30 p.m. I intentionally viewed it again January 28. The series isentitled “Dream On” and the shows viewed were called “Oral Sex, Lies andVideotape – Parts II and III.”

I consider myself a liberal person with a very open point of view, lovea good laugh – earthy or not, but this show went far beyond what is acceptable in mainstream media. At this time I am receiving it as a free cable service. The [Comedy Network]channel was one that already had restricted viewing in our home all day long for mychildren. There are too many shows during the day that have some areas that I findunacceptable for my family so rather than constant monitoring I have now banned italtogether. The golf, family and home shows were our focuses. People that I have talked toabout this scene have both been shocked and surprised that it was for common viewing.

Let me tell you what I found offensive. I should tell you that this isexactly what I saw and heard. I will say that all was in a context of a storyline -however when I saw the first offensive scene I was between channels and I did not know ofany storyline.

Woman having oral sex with a man. Woman was kneeling with her head inhis groin area. Man was standing. There was no question as to what was happening. [ShownJan 27, Jan 28 and probably Jan 26]

Man and woman engaged in sex. Visual shots complete with loud sounds ofintense love making. [Shown Jan 28]

Quotes from show on Jan 28

“What the fuck are you doing?” ….. “This isbullshit.”

He waved his penis in my face (man talking to man)

“I wonder what Randall looks like naked?” ….”I’ll rip your fucking fingers off.”

“I can’t fucking believe that.”

In addition, the characters were talking about having sex in publicplaces.

I spoke to the screener at the Comedy Network on Jan 29 and there wasvery little concern from her. Her response was that this show was in a time slot thatchildren are not watching and it has been labelled with a mature rating. She refused togive me a name within the Comedy Network which to address my immediate concerns. She saideverything came through her. Not only have I now spent a lot of time getting thisorganized to present to the CRTC, this attitude has caused me to spend even more timeresearching the proper names and numbers of people to contact. I am self employed and thisis time spent against my company. Is she representative of people working at the network?

The rating is shown as a very small 18+ in the upper corner and onlyfor a very short time at the beginning of the show. Few people sit and watch a show fromthe initial start [sic] through to the end. Most have a remote and are viewingseveral shows. Therefore, the initial rating is an ineffective warning. Secondly, thereare very few families that have children older than the preschool years that don’t attimes stay up late, summer vacation, weekends, being babysat, special treat to stay up,etc. In addition, if the rating is for 18+, how many 17 year olds are asleep in bed at9:30 p.m.? My children are nine and ten. I am a good parent concerned about all areas oftheir upbringing and yes they are up sometimes at 9:30 – it does happen.

I would like to see “Dream On” unavailable for viewing inCanada. As well further and ongoing screening of each show from the Comedy Network beforeairing on Canadian television should be a priority.

The Vice President of Programming for the Comedy Network replied to the
complainant on February 18, 1998 with the following:

The Canadian Radio-television andTelecommunications Commission (CRTC) and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC)have both forwarded a copy of your letter dated February 4, 1998 regarding the program”Dream On“, for our attention and response.

It is not our intent to offend our viewers and we regret that you wereoffended by this show. From the beginning, The Comedy Network has set out topresent a program schedule that is adult, irreverent and alternative to much of themainstream comedy that is available on conventional broadcasters. As a consequence, ourprogramming tends to be more risqué and controversial.

As you may be aware, 9:00 p.m. is generally accepted as the watershedin prime time where adult material appears. After 9:00 p.m., broadcasters may presentprogramming which portrays adult situations and explicit language. Such programmingusually includes an advisory at the beginning of the show which alerts audiences tomaterial which may be offensive to some viewers. Such is the case with this program.

In addition, all Canadian broadcasters have recently adopted acomprehensive classification system to provide guidance to audiences regarding programcontent on such matters as violence, language, nudity, sexuality and/or mature themes.This system was developed by representatives of the Canadian broadcast, cable andproduction industry and based on extensive research and consultation with parents and withpublic interest groups. The guidelines centre on violence, but include language and sexualcontent as well.

The complainant was unsatisfied with the broadcaster’s response
and requested, on February 26, 1998, that the CBSC refer the matter to the appropriate
Regional Council for adjudication. On April 16, 1998, the complainant sent a note to the
CBSC explaining her reasons for requesting a ruling by a Regional Council. The note read
as follows:

Further to our conversation ofthis morning, I would like to say why I rejected the response from the Comedy Network.

  1. I still firmly believe that the program of concern does notmeet the guidelines set but far exceeds the limits. (Paragraph 3)

  2. This program is readily available to all children. The ratingssystem briefly appears at the beginning of the show. (Paragraph 4)

  3. The rest of the letter is mostly generic with [the] exception ofparagraph 6. (A separate issue for their concern only) meant to appease me.

  4. I have taken to viewing this program on occasion and have seenequally or more graphic and vulgar scenes, words & phrases!

Attached are two items that may be of interest. I have received verysatisfying response from the advertisers in particular Campbells & Procter &Gamble.

The two items indicated as attached were an article from a local
newspaper entitled “Children taping X-rated shows” and the response received
from one of the advertisers contacted. These documents were illustrative of a societal
issue but were not pertinent to the evaluation of the program in question; consequently,
they were not considered by the Council in arriving at its ruling.

The CBSC’s Ontario Regional Council considered the complaint under
the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Sex-Role Portrayal Code and
the Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming. The relevant
clauses of those Codes read as follows:

Sex-Role Portrayal Code, Clause 4 (Exploitation)

Television and radio programmingshall refrain from the exploitation of women, men and children. Negative or degradingcomments 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 shouldnot be degrading to either sex. The sexualization of children through dress or behaviouris not acceptable.

Violence Code, Clause 3 (Scheduling)

Programming which contains scenes of violence intendedfor adult audiences shall not be telecast before the late evening viewing period, definedas 9 pm to 6 am.

Accepting that there are older children watchingtelevision after 9 pm, broadcasters shall adhere to the provisions of article 5.1 below(viewer advisories), enabling parents to make an informed decision as to the suitabilityof the programming for their family members.

Violence Code, Clause 4 (Classification System)

Canadian broadcasters are in theprocess of co-operatively developing with other segments of the industry, aviewer-friendly classification system, which will provide guidelines on content and theintended audience for programming.

Once complete, the classification system shall complement thisVoluntary Code. As it is recognized that a classification system will have a bearing onprogram scheduling, the provisions of article 3.0 above shall be reviewed at that time.

Violence Code, Clause 5 (Viewer Advisories)

To assist consumers in making their viewingchoices, broadcasters shall provide a viewer advisory, at the beginning of, and during thefirst hour of programming telecast in late evening hours which contains scenes of violenceintended for adult audiences.

The Regional Council members viewed a tape of the program in question
and reviewed all of the correspondence. The Council considers that the program in question
does not violate either of the Codes mentioned above.

The Ontario Regional Council recognizes that Dream On is a
comedy intended for adult audiences. By broadcasting the show in a 9:30 p.m. time slot, it
is clear that the program is not marketed to children. This is a reason for the creation
of the watershed hour in the first place, namely, the differentiation of programming which
precedes the 9:00 p.m. watershed hour from that which follows the watershed.
After 4œ years of Canadian experience with the watershed (which has become used by
broadcasters as the border between programming destined for the family and programming
intended for adults, even beyond the originally intended concern for programming
containing violent material suitable for adult audiences), members of the public have had
much opportunity to become familiar with the heads-up provided by the arrival of 9:00 p.m.
That being said, the Council understands that some children may, despite reasonable
efforts by concerned parents, tune in to the show, whether advertently or inadvertently.
This does not mean, however, that no programming considered inappropriate for children can
be broadcast because of that risk. It is one of the costs associated with the rapid
advance of the communications industry, whether on television, via the Internet or
otherwise. The major steps taken by broadcasters to put systems in place to assist with
parental vigilance, such as the broadcast Codes, the watershed, the classification system,
on-screen icons, viewer advisories and the coming V-chip technology, set Canada far ahead
of most Western countries in this area.

On the other hand, the Council must take into account the apparently
(in this case) countervailing requirement laid down in the fundamental legislative
expression of the will of the Parliament of Canada, namely, the Broadcasting Act.
As stated in CIII-TV (Global Television) re Before It’s Too Late (CBSC
Decision 95/96-0172, October 21, 1996),

to offer a diversity of programming to meet the needs and desires of all Canadian men,women and children. The Broadcasting Act provides that, as part of the broadcastingpolicy for Canada

(i) the programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting systemshould

(i) be varied and comprehensive, providing a balance of information,enlightenment and entertainment for men, women and children of all ages, interests andtastes.

The Council notes that specialty programming services play an importantrole, service by service, in the provision of diverse programming to Canadian audiences.

A similar point was made by the Quebec Regional Council in CFJP-TV (TQS) re Été sensuel (CBSC Decision 95/96-0233, August 14,
1998). In that decision which dealt with an erotic film aired under TQS’s late-night
series title Bleu Nuit, the Quebec Regional Council confirmed Canadian private
broadcasters’ right to cater to the tastes of some members of its audience
with programming which might be offensive to others.

The Quebec Regional Council takesno issue with the assertion by the complainant that the film in question is an eroticfilm. … If there is no breach of a Code (or, of course, the Broadcasting Act orRegulations or other laws of the land), the broadcaster is entitled to put the filmon its airwaves. In a world which has become increasingly oriented toward nichebroadcasting, any station or network appreciates that its choices will never appeal to everyone.This does not mean that such choices should not be made but only that, in making suchchoices, the broadcaster knows that only some, but not all, of the public will be pleased.It goes without saying that the broadcaster hopes always to make the correct choices but,where no Code is breached, the viewer is always free to go elsewhere. That is, in the end,the viewer’s only option and it is, from society’s perspective, a fair option,provided that society’s codified values have not been breached.

The Council has no hesitation in concluding that such programming as Dream
On
has a place on Canadian television. In this case, the Ontario Regional Council does
not consider that any provisions of the Codes administered by the CBSC has been breached
by the Comedy Network, and, accordingly, is of the view that the broadcaster did not err
in broadcasting the episodes of Dream On in question.

The Council considers that The Comedy Network rated the program
appropriately and notes that it also included a viewer advisory to alert its viewers of
the potentially offensive content of the show. While the Council notes that the advisory
did not include an audio component, contrary to the broadcaster’s statement in its
response to the complaint, and is of the view that the visual component could have been
clearer (both with respect to the size and font of the writing and with respect to the
content of the advisory), it considers that the broadcaster acted judiciously by
displaying this advisory. In this case, although suggested by the Violence Code,
such an advisory was not required by any Code.

With respect to the complainant’s view that “the initial
rating is an ineffective warning”, the Council notes that the icon display is only a
first step in the introduction of a classification system for Canadian television
programming. Programming ratings will eventually be used in conjunction with
“v-chip” technology which will permit viewers to block out undesirable
programming. Until such time as v-chip technology is fully developed and widely available
to the public, the Council considers that the display of the rating icon at the beginning
of a program and then at the top of each subsequent hour of that program provides an
appropriate balance between viewers’ competing rights to receive ratings information
and to view programming unobstructed.

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. In this case, the Council considers that the broadcaster’s response
addressed fully and fairly all the issues raised by the complainant. Consequently, the
broadcaster has not breached the Council’s standard of responsiveness. Nothing more
is required.

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.