TQS re an episode of Coroner

QUEBEC REGIONAL COUNCIL
(CBSC Decision 98/99-0162)
P. Audet (Chair), Y. Chouinard (Vice-Chair), R. Cohen (ad hoc),S. Gouin, P.-L. Smith and P. Tancred

THE FACTS

On November 20, 1998, at 7:30 p.m., Télévision Quatre Saisons (TQS)
broadcast an episode of Coroner, a program which dramatises allegedly real case
files of a city coroner. Coroner is a docudrama style of programming. In addition
to a re-enactment of the events leading up to the death, it generally includes clips of
interviews with “experts” who explain the various aspects of the case.

The episode in question dealt with the death of a man who, it was later
explained, was involved in sado-masochistic practices. In the episode in question, a
pathologist explained the principles of mummification (in order to provide insight into
the reason for the body’s not having decomposed prior to being found), while a
criminologist-sexologist and a psychologist provided their respective insights into the
motive and intent related to the actions which led up to the death. The scenes of the
re-enactment showed a woman wearing a leather corset and fish-net stockings tying the man
up, putting a noose around his throat and pulling on the other end of the cord.

On November 27, a viewer wrote to the Secretary General of the CRTC
stating that:

[Translation] On Friday, November 20that 7:45 p.m. TQS took the liberty of showing scenes of sado-masochism during its broadcastof an episode of Coroner. A young woman wearing a leather bra strangles a man whilean off-camera voice explains that strangulation heightens the pleasure. Of course,ultimately it will come to be seen that this dangerous game ends in a man’s death. My10 year-old son saw a good portion of this televised garbage; hence my outrage.

TQS’s customer service personnel, whom I contacted after thisordeal, had the nerve to attempt to lay the blame at my feet, accusing me of not properlycontrolling what my son watches on television. Let’s not forget that it was 7:45 p.m.Faced with my tightly woven arguments, they changed their tune: the broadcast of theseobscene scenes was justified by the context of the program which links these sexualpractices to the man’s death.

I am really not a strict moralist; however, I know that the only thingmy 10 year-old son will remember from this “report” are the scenes of S&Mand the voice-over linking these with sexual pleasure. The “context” provided bythe show’s conclusion is only valid to those with at least some basic formalknowledge. This excludes children at the outset.

In accordance with the normal practics, that letter was forwarded to
the CBSC to deal with.

The Vice-President of Communications replied to the complainant on
December 18 with the following:

[Translation] We acknowledge receipt ofthe letter which you sent to the CRTC regarding your concerns with the November 20thepisode of “Coroner”.

We have duly noted your comments about this episode. The purpose ofthis show is to report the coroner’s investigations so that similar deaths can beprevented. Unfortunately, if I may say so, one of these investigations was in reference toa man who died while being strangled for sexual purposes, even if such a thing seemsshocking. And as you mentioned, the conclusion of the story touched on the sexualpractices in question.

The complainant was unsatisfied with the broadcaster’s response
and requested, on January 2nd, 1999, that the CBSC refer the matter to the appropriate
Regional Council for adjudication.

The CBSC’s Quebec Regional Council considered the complaint under
the Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming, the CAB Code of Ethics
and the Sex-Role Portrayal Code for Radio and Television Programming. The
relevant clauses of those Codes read as follows:

Sex-Role Portrayal Code, Clause 4 (Exploitation)

Television and radio programming shallrefrain from the exploitation of women, men and children. Negative or degrading commentson the role and nature of women, men or children in society shall be avoided. Modes ofdress, camera focus on areas of the body and similar modes of portrayal should not bedegrading to either sex. The sexualization of children through dress or behaviour is notacceptable.

Guidance: “Sex-ploitation” through dress is one areain which the sexes have traditionally differed, with more women portrayed in scantclothing and alluring postures.

Violence Code, Clause 3 (Scheduling)

3.1.1 Programming which contains scenes of violence intended for adultaudiences shall not be telecast before the late evening viewing period, defined as 9 pm to6 am.

3.1.5 Broadcasters shall take special precautions to advise viewers ofthe content of programming intended for adult audiences which is telecast before 9 pm inaccordance with article 3.1.3.

Violence Code, Clause 3 (Viewer Advisories)

5.1 To assist consumers in making theirviewing choices, broadcasters shall provide a viewer advisory, at the beginning of, andduring the first hour of programming telecast in late evening hours which contains scenesof violence intended for adult audiences.

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

Violence Code, Clause 4 (Classification System) in pertinent part

4.1 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.

The Regional Council members viewed a tape of the program in question
and reviewed all of the correspondence. While the Council does not consider that there was
any problem created by the content of the program or the hour at which it was broadcast,
the broadcaster’s failure to classify the program and to include the appropriate
rating icon on the screen constituted a breach of Clause 4.1 of the CAB Violence Code.

The Council acknowledges that the program in question dealt with mature
subject matter. Indeed, it is the maturity of the subject matter which provoked the
complaint. In CFSK-TV (STV) re an episode of Friends (CBSC Decision 95/96-0159,
December 16, 1997), the Prairie Regional Council dealt with a similar complaint regarding
alleged “blatantly promiscuous behaviour” depicted in a sitcom which aired at 7
p.m. In the episode of Friends in question, one of the female characters was faced
with the reluctance of her boyfriend to have sex with her. The Council there concluded
that

has takena very tongue-in-cheek approach to male/female interaction and sexual relationships.Joey’s summary of Phoebe’s behaviour (where he states: “So let me get thisstraight, he got you to beg to sleep with him, he got you to say he never has to call youagain and he got you to thinking that this is a great idea?”) emphasizes thesuperficiality of Phoebe’s approach to physical relationships. While the morality ofthis approach will not be accepted by everyone, perhaps not even by the majority ofviewers, its purpose is to amuse and, the Council assumes, to make people thinkabout the issue. The ultimate responsibility for determining whether such mature themesshould be viewed by everyone must be left to individual families. [Emphasis added]

While the Quebec Regional Council is here dealing with a program
intended to be serious, not amusing, as in the CFSK-TV case mentioned above, it
considers that the basic principles established by Prairie Regional Council in the
aformentioned case also apply here. The Council does not consider that the episode of Coroner
in question was any more explicit or graphic than the Friends episode described
above. Accordingly, it does not find that any of the descriptions or scenes in the program
fall within the category of programming “intended for adult audiences”. Such a
conclusion would have required, among other things, that the broadcaster air the program
only after the watershed hour, set in the Violence Code (but generally used by
broadcasters and the CBSC for all types of adult programming) at 9 p.m.

In CITY-TV re Ed the Sock (CBSC Decision 94/95-0100, August 23,
1995), the CBSC had its first opportunity to examine issues of principle relating to the
watershed hour. The Ontario Regional Council there observed, among other things, that

In its literal sense, [the watershed],of course, denotes the line separating waters flowing into different rivers or riverbasins. Popularly, the term has been applied to threshold issues but the literal meaningof the word gives the best visual sense of programming falling on one side or the other ofa defined line, in this case a time line. Programming seen as suitable for children andfamilies falls on the early side of the line; programming targeted primarily for adultsfalls on the late side of the line. It should be noted that the definition of that timeline varies from country to country, from 8:30 p.m. in New Zealand to 10:30 p.m. inFrance. (Great Britain, Finland, South Africa and Australia all share the Canadian choiceof 9:00 p.m. as the watershed.)

In Canada, the watershed was developed as a principal component of the1993 Violence Code, establishing the hour before which no violentprogramming intended for adult audiences would be shown. Despite the establishment of thewatershed for that purpose, the Council has reason to believe that broadcastersregularly consider this hour as a rough threshold for other types of adultprogramming. …

In CFMT-TV re an Episode of “The Simpsons” (CBSC
Decision 94/95-0082, August 18, 1995), the Ontario Regional Council elaborated on the
significance of the watershed hour and the tendency for broadcasters to apply it not only
to programming containing violent material intended for adult audiences but also
programming containing other kinds of material deemed by the broadcaster to be more
suitable for mature viewers.

There has been a tendency, since theintroduction of the 9:00 pm watershed hour for everyone to treat that moment as the GreatDivide. The community has tended to consider that all post-watershed programmingfalls into the “adults only” category and that all pre-watershedprogramming falls into the “suitable for everyone, including youngchildren” category. Neither generalization is wholly accurate.

… material broadcast in the early evening falls within “the richbroadcasting fare” mentioned above and should be vetted by parents as to itssuitability in their homes.

While the broadcaster did not provide any information as to the violent
or sexual content of the Coroner episode in question, the Council notes that, in
the circumstances, it was not required to do so. In the Council’s view, the violent
and sexual component of the episode was suggested rather than manifest or blatant
and that, consequently, the broadcast in question did not trigger the application of
Clause 5.2 of the Violence Code, which requires that “broadcasters … 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 questions of the requirement for viewer advisories and
classification advice are different. Regardless of the resolution of the former, the
broadcaster was required to provide an on-screen icon indicating a rating for the program
in accordance with the classification system approved by the CRTC in Pubic Notice CRTC
1997-80: Classification System for Violence in Television Programming (June 18,
1997). The only programming exempted from the need for a rating is described as follows.
“Exempt programming includes: news, sports, documentaries and other information
programming; talk shows, music videos, and variety programming.” All other
programming, regardless of the hour at which it is broadcast, requires classification and,
at least until such time as the V-chip support system is in force, an on-screen
icon representing that rating. This episode of Coroner falls within that genre of
programming sometimes referred to as “reality” programming. As to its
presentation, it is primarily a dramatic recreation of a story declared to emanate
from the real files of a coroner’s office. It is also undeniable that there is
documentary content in the form of interviews with professionals on aspects of the case in
question but these do not change the fundamentally dramatic character of the programming
and the requirement that it be classified. By not including a rating, the broadcaster has
breached the requirements of the Violence Code and the classification system
adopted pursuant to Clause 4.1 thereof.

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,
while brief, 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.

The station is required to announce this decision forthwith, in the
following terms, during prime time and, within the next thirty days, to provide
confirmation of the airing of the statement to the CBSC and to the complainant who filed a
Ruling Request.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that TélévisionQuatre Saisons breached provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcaster’s ViolenceCode in its broadcast of an episode of Coroner on November 20, 1998. While theCouncil does not consider that there was any problem created by the content of the programor the hour at which it was broadcast, the broadcaster’s failure to classify theprogram and to include the appropriate rating icon on the screen constituted a breach ofClause 4.1 of the CAB Violence Code.