The Comedy Network re The Tom Green Show

ONTARIO REGIONAL COUNCIL
(CBSC Decision 98/99-0291)
A. MacKay (Chair), R. Stanbury (Vice-Chair), R. Cohen (ad hoc),P. Fockler and M. Hogarth

THE FACTS

The Tom Green Show is an unconventional comedy show which airs
Fridays at 11 p.m. on the Comedy Network. The show consists of a collection of segments,
skits and stunts involving the host, Tom Green, his “side-kick”, Glen Humplick,
and/or innocent bystanders who are persuaded or tricked into playing along with Tom
Green’s unusual and occasionally unorthodox antics. On January 8, 1999, the show
included a segment in which Tom Green convinced an unsuspecting passerby on the street, a
young woman named Laurie, to hold a dead pigeon by the tail. As she held the pigeon, Mr.
Green proceeded to shout to other passersby in order to draw attention to the woman
holding the dead bird. After a certain time, Laurie managed to rid herself of the bird
and, she thought, Green himself. When she entered a bank to go about her business, Mr.
Green followed her with the dead bird and continued to attempt to humiliate her.
Unsuccessful in that effort, he then tried to convince someone else to hold the bird, but
this time his efforts were in vain. The segment ended there.

On February 4, 1999, a viewer wrote a complaint to the CBSC stating
that:

The following is a viewer complaint,with regard to content on the Comedy Network, on the “Tom Green Show”, airedJanuary 8, 1999.

On this particular edition of the show, a woman, a member of thegeneral public, was accosted on the street by Mr. Green, who was holding a dead pigeon andconvinced this woman “Laurie” to hold it. Mr. Green then pointed to her as sheheld this poor dead animal [sic] and he yelled at passers by, “Laurie has adead pigeon” repeatedly. As “Laurie” politely protested that she had toleave, after a few minutes she gently lowered the pigeon to the pavement and entered herbank, outside which they had all been standing. Mr Green and the camera crew thenproceeded into the bank with the dead pigeon and held it up in front of the customersexclaiming remarks like “Look at the dead pigeon.”

How this is supposed to be funny is beyond me.

“Laurie” and the bank staff and customers were innocent,unprepared persons minding their own business when all this happened. I doubt very muchthat the pigeon was deemed by any veterinarian to be disease-free and, if true,”Laurie” could have been at risk. Although it has been assumed that”Laurie” signed a waiver, I doubt all the bank customers were consulted aboutpermission to appear on the show. Also, I am concerned that this segment may have caused ageneral safety problem for all concerned, because banks are always vulnerable to theft. Ifthe bank staff had to give Mr. Green their attention because of his unruly behaviour, theywould have been unprepared for a robbery. I would imagine his actions would have made thebank staff uncomfortable. It would be a shame if people with access to video camerasthought that unruly behaviour in public, and tormenting innocent bystanders was acceptableto emulate. It is for the many reasons cited above that I am complaining. If Mr. Greenwants a dead animal to be handled, he should do it himself.

The Vice President of Programming at the Comedy Network replied to the
complainant on February 24, 1999 with the following:

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Councilhas forwarded to us a copy of your letter dated February 4, 1999, regarding a segment of TheTom Green Show, which aired on the Comedy Network on January 8, 1999, 11pm for ourattention and response.

From the beginning, The Comedy Network has set out to present aprogram schedule that is adult, irreverent, politically incorrect and alternative to muchof the mainstream comedy that is available on conventional broadcasters. As a consequence,our programming tends to be more risqué and controversial.

As you may be aware, 9pm is generally accepted as the watershed inprime time where adult material appears. After 9pm, broadcasters may present programmingwhich portrays adult situations and explicit language. Such programming includes anadvisory at the beginning of the show, which alerts audiences to material which may beoffensive to some viewers.

In addition, all Canadian broadcasters have adopted a comprehensiveclassification system to provide guidance to audiences regarding program content on suchmatters as violence, language, nudity, sexuality and/or mature themes. All of our programsutilize this ratings system and specifically, after 9pm, a number of shows use the”18+” icon which advises viewers that the program may contain graphic languageand elements intended for adult audiences.

I regret that this particular sketch with a dead pigeon upset you. Theproducers of the show, and indeed Tom Green himself, would not want to place any otherpeople they encounter at risk. While it is true that much of the field material which theyproduce revolves around Tom engaging with unsuspecting passers by, they are careful toavoid potentially dangerous situations. It is also very clear to the passers by that theencounter is being taped for television. This is not “hidden camera” television.Further, the producer of the show obtains permission from each individual who appears oncamera.

Regarding your concern about bank security, please be advised that theshow personnel did not interfere with normal bank security cameras, security staff, northe alarm system.

It is not our intent to offend our viewers. In this specific case, TomGreen is an unconventional comic and is known to his dedicated fans for his extremebehaviour. The majority of his fans are university age and his audience seems to have noboundaries or limits. In fact, the more extreme, the stronger the reaction. So, althoughthis show is not to your liking, there is an audience for Tom Green and his show.

Please be advised that we take the opinions of our viewers seriously.We compile viewer feedback and consider trends and suggestions. However, we alsoappreciate that reactions to comedic material are subjective, and what one person findsoffensive, another may not. We are sorry that you object to The Tom Green Show, butappreciate the time you have taken to express your concerns.

I am also aware that you have made countless calls to our companyregarding this matter. Despite lengthy conversations with the appropriate staff members,including me, you have continued to call. We have listened, we have forwarded yourconcerns to the independent producer, and we are now in writing on this matter. And asmuch as you are entitled to express your opinion, I feel we have done all we can torespond to it.

The complainant was unsatisfied with the broadcaster’s response
and requested, on March 10, 1999, that the CBSC refer the matter to the appropriate
Regional Council for adjudication.

THE DECISION

The CBSC’s Ontario Regional Council considered the complaint under
the Code of Ethics and the Violence Code of the Canadian Association of
Broadcasters (CAB). The relevant clauses of those Codes read as follows:

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 1 (General Programming)

Recognizing the varied tastes of thepublic it shall be the responsibility of the broadcasting industry to so program itsvarious stations that as far as possible, all groups of listeners and viewers shall havefrom these, some part of the programming devoted to their special likes and desires.

CAB Violence Code, Clause 9 (Violence against animals)

9.1 Broadcasters shall not telecastprogramming which sanctions, promotes or glamorizes violence against animals.

9.2 Broadcasters shall not be restricted in the telecast of legallysanctioned activities associated with animals. In such telecasts, judgment shall be usedin the selection of video and associated audio, particularly if the telecast is broadcastoutside of late evening hours.

The Regional Council members viewed a tape of the program in question
and reviewed all of the correspondence. The Council does not consider that the program in
question violates any broadcaster Code.

The Question of Taste As to the first area of concern detailed by the complainant, namely,
the use of the “poor dead animal”, the Council finds that there is no way that
one can reasonably conclude that the program segment involving the dead pigeon sanctions,
promotes or glamorizes violence against animals. The pigeon was, after all, obviously dead
before being used as part of the stunt. Moreover, the Council notes that the air of
disgust on Laurie’s face as she held the dead bird went a long way towards negating
any glamorization of the bird’s fate. There is not, in fact, any reason to assume
that it was a violent act which even resulted in the death of the bird. In the end, the
issue relates to the use made of the dead bird and that is, if anything a question
of taste, rather than any issue of violence to animals.

The Council has often explained that the broadcaster’s programming
responsibility under the Codes does not extend to questions of good taste. As long ago as CHTZ-FM
re the Morning Show
(CBSC Decision 92/93-0148, October 26, 1993), the Ontario Regional
Council stated:

On the questions of fact in this case,the Regional Council agreed that the tone of the host’s statement was accuratelyrecalled by the listener and that the host’s statement was in extremely poor taste.At the same time, the Council was unanimous is in view that the bad taste did not amountto a breach of any of the Code provisions cited above. … The sanctioning of bad taste,unpalatable as it may be, does not fall within the ambit of the CBSC’s mandate underits Codes.

More recently, in CHOM-FM and CILQ-FM re Howard Stern Show (CBSC
Decision 97/98-0001+, October 17-18, 1997), the Quebec and Ontario Regional Councils
jointly concluded that the September 1997 broadcasts of the Howard Stern Show contravened
the Code of Ethics and Sex-Role Portrayal Code . Many complaints highlighted
the vulgar, rude, tasteless nature of the Show. However, in the view of the CBSC,
questions of taste should be left to the marketplace where listeners can vote with their
on/off switch.

Many of the complaints receivedregarding the Howard Stern Show related to questions of taste. Stern was accused of beingoffensive, vulgar, adolescent, rude, unsuitable, outrageous, sick, tasteless and so on…. The Quebec and Ontario Regional Councils are, however, agreed that, under the presentCodes, matters of taste must be left to be regulated by the marketplace. Such choicesremain those of the listener. This is the time when the on/off switch is thelistener’s coping mechanism. Unless comments made by a broadcaster are of a nature tobreach provisions of one or more of the Codes, the CBSC will not judge them one way or theother.

In once again affirming that the CBSC will not rule on issues of
“bad taste”, the Council notes that broadcasters are required to offer
programming which meet different tastes and desires. The Council notes specifically that
Clause 1 of the CAB Code of Ethics states

Recognizing the varied tastes of the public it shall be the responsibility of the broadcasting industry to so program itsvarious stations that as far as possible, all groups of listeners and viewers shall havefrom these, some part of the programming devoted to their special likes and desires.[Emphasis added.]

While The Tom Green Show may be unpalatable for some, it may
also be meeting the special likes and desires of others. That is a question to be
determined, on the one hand, by the broadcaster in its decision to put the show on the air
and by the viewer, on the other hand, in deciding to watch or not watch the program.

A Frivolous Issue As to the allegation that The Tom Green Show poses a threat to
public safety, the Council considers this part of the complaint to be unsubstantiated and
frivolous. If there had been any danger to the participants in the show or to bank
security, it could easily have been dealt with via either public mischief laws or private
litigation. The Council considers that the existence of these legal recourses would have
logically quelled any of the publicly dangerous “unruly behaviour” conjectured
by the complainant. In any event, these are issues for the public law, if anywhere,
and not questions which come within the purview of the CBSC’s mandate.

The frivolity of the concerns raised by the complainant appear to the
Council to reveal the complainant’s underlying general sense of discomfort with the
show, an uneasiness that “one shouldn’t do that on television.” The Council
considers this, coupled with the complainant’s statement “How this is supposed
to be funny is beyond me”, to indicate concerns relating to the potential bad taste
of the program in question and the Council has dealt with this issue above.

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. In this case, the Council considers that the broadcaster’s response
addressed fully and fairly all the issues raised by the complainant. The Council notes the
broadcaster’ s statement regarding the various steps it has taken to respond to the
complainant’s concerns. In the circumstances, the Council commends the broadcaster on
its response and those steps. 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.