TQS re an episode of Scrap Metal

quebec regional Panel
D. Meloul (Chair), G. Moisan (Vice-Chair), Y. Bombardier, R. Cohen (ad hoc), M. Ille, J. Pennefather (ad hoc)

THE FACTS

Scrap Metal is a reality program that follows host Alain Parisien as he and his colleagues restore or improve old vehicles.  On the May 22, 2009 episode, Parisien and his team restored a motocross motorcycle and attended a Supercross event at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

As is not atypical in urban Quebec, Parisien and his friends spoke primarily French to one another, but occasionally interjected English expressions.  The episode included a not insubstantial number of examples of coarse language in both languages.  The French curse words included “’ostie”, “tabarnac’”, “chrisse”, “calice” and “ciboire”, and the coarse English expressions “fuck off” and “don’t fuck around” appeared unedited in the program.  There were also two instances where Parisien raised his middle finger.

Scenes from the Supercross event showed Parisien and his team admiring the bikes, talking to other participants, as well as scenes of the motocross competitions and stunts.  As part of the event, attractive young women in tight t-shirts and short skirts served as cheerleaders, assistants, promoters and performers to fill the time between contests.  Parisien was shown posing for photographs with a group of these women, during which time he openly admired their figures.

Scans of the crowd showed women who were attending the event as spectators.  Some of them were also dressed in tight and revealing clothing.  At one point, a woman wearing very short jean shorts walked past Parisien, leading him to comment to the camera, in English, “The sweet smell of pussy.  Ah”, followed by, in French, “Juste un coup, juste un coup.”  He also bit his knuckle in a mock demonstration of his pleasure at seeing such an attractive woman.

The episode was broadcast at 8:30 pm.  There was no classification icon.  TQS did broadcast the following viewer advisory in audio and video format at the beginning of the program, but no further advisories were broadcast coming out of the commercial breaks:

[translation]

Warning: This program contains language and scenes that may not be suitable for young viewers. Parental discretion is advised.

The CBSC received a complaint dated May 22 about this episode of Scrap Metal.  The complainant was concerned about the coarse language as well as the vulgar language referring to women broadcast at a time when children could be watching television, as the complainant was in the company of his five-year-old son.  He outlined his concerns in the following terms (the full text of all correspondence can be found in the Appendix, available in French only):

[translation]

I was sitting in my living room with my five-year-old son watching television.  I switched channels and happened to find Scrap Metal on TQS.  I watched for a few minutes as I like motorcycles and all things mechanical, until the host said “It smells like sweet pussy” when a lovely young woman appeared on screen.  This was followed by a few instances of giving the finger and some curse words.  I had no idea what to say to my five-year-old who said, “Daddy, put the motorcycles back on!”  Is it normal to encounter such language on a Friday at 8 pm?  Curse words might be acceptable as of 10 pm, but “sweet pussy” and instances of “fuck you” – I don’t think so.  And we wonder why our young people are so precocious and disrespectful!  I would really like to know if it is possible to take action in order to put an end to this type of language that makes disrespectful behaviour and idiotic comments appear commonplace.

TQS responded to the complainant on June 15 with the following:

[translation]

We sincerely regret that this program offended you and we apologize.

Please note that Scrap Metal addresses an adult audience and that the audio and video version of a viewer advisory was broadcast at the beginning of the program as follows:  “Warning:  This program contains language and scenes that may not be suitable for young viewers.  Parental discretion is advised.”

Clearly, this style of program will not be to everyone’s liking, but that is more a question of personal taste than a judgement on the quality of this program.  It is therefore up to the viewers to determine if their children should view this type of program or not in light of the warnings given.

We thank you for your interest in the TQS network.

The complainant submitted his Ruling Request on July 1, indicating that TQS’s letter had not adequately responded to his concerns:

[translation]

The answer provided does not address my request in any way.

Even though it is indicated at the beginning of the program that it contains mature subject matter, what of those individuals who tune in when the program is already underway?  It would be appropriate to repeat this message at every commercial break (which was not the case for this program).  Moreover, according to the information available on the CBSC’s website, this program should be broadcast after 9 pm.  In any event, these aspects are not the problem, as they are technicalities and the real issue is a much deeper one.

Using the public airwaves to broadcast a message such as “it smells like sweet pussy” upon seeing a woman is unacceptable.  And that is not a question of taste; it is a question of social values.  The host is in a position to influence our young people; he is a role model for them.  What message does this type of comment convey to a youth of 14, 15 or even 18?  How would you react, [Director, Legal Affairs], if your daughter was treated in this fashion by a group of young people before your eyes?  It is unacceptable.  I do not understand your reply!  We wonder why young people have become disrespectful, all the while giving them negative examples.  Do you see the inconsistency??

I reiterate my request:  Please take action in order to put an end to this inconsistency. I am not asking that the program be taken off the air.  However, it is up to you to find a solution.

THE DECISION

The Quebec Regional Panel examined the complaint under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics, Violence Code and Equitable Portrayal Code:

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 10 – Television Broadcasting

Scheduling

(a)        Programming which contains sexually explicit material or coarse or offensive language intended for adult audiences shall not be telecast before the late viewing period, defined as 9 pm to 6 am.  […]

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 11 – Viewer Advisories

To assist consumers in making their viewing choices, when programming includes mature subject matter or scenes with nudity, sexually explicit material, coarse or offensive language, or other material susceptible of offending viewers, broadcasters shall provide a viewer advisory

(a)        at the beginning of, and after every commercial break during the first hour of programming telecast in late viewing hours which contains such material which is intended for adult audiences, or

(b)        at the beginning of, and after every commercial break during programming telecast outside of late viewing hours which contains such material which is not suitable for children.

CAB Violence Code, Article 4.0 – Classification

E – Exempt

Programs exempt from classification.

This classification applies to:

8+  (General – Not Suitable for Young Children)

These programs are suitable for the general public but could contain mild or occasional violence that may disturb young children.  Viewing with adult supervision is therefore recommended for young children (age 8 and under) who are less able to distinguish between real and make-believe programming.

13+

The program may be viewed, purchased or rented only by persons 13 years of age or older.  Children under 13 may be admitted only if accompanied by an adult.

The Régie classifies in this category programs that require a certain level of judgement.  These programs contain passages or sequences that may offend the sensibilities of younger viewers.

Teenage viewers are more aware of the fact that a program is not reality and are therefore better psychologically prepared to follow more complex or dramatic programs.  Violence, eroticism, coarse language or horror may be more developed and may constitute a dominant characteristic of the program.  However, it is important that the program allow viewers to discern the meaning that should be attributed to the various characters and their actions, because teenagers are not necessarily prepared to face everything.  This is why certain themes (drugs, suicide, troubling situations, etc.) and their treatment are carefully examined.

16 +

The program may be viewed, purchased or rented only by persons 16 years of age or older.

At the age of 16, young people enter a transition period between the end of adolescence and the beginning adulthood.  They are more independent, and have usually attained a certain level of psychological maturity.

Programs with this rating present troubling themes, situations or behaviours and adopt a more direct point of view about things.  They may therefore contain scenes where violence, horror and sexuality are more graphic.

CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, Article 7 – Degrading Material

Broadcasters shall avoid the airing of degrading material, whether reflected in words, sounds, images or by other means, which is based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.

CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, Article 8 – Exploitation

a)         Broadcasters shall refrain from the airing of programming that exploits women, men or children.

The Quebec Regional Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and viewed a recording of the broadcast.  The Panel concludes that TQS violated Clauses 10 and 11 of the CAB Code of Ethics, and Article 4.0 of the CAB Violence Code, but not Articles 7 and 8 of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code.

Scheduling Of Coarse Language Content

The Quebec Regional Panel notes that almost all the complaints about coarse language with which it has dealt over the years have hitherto been on radio rather than on television.  In any event, the Panel has had considerable experience, even if it has occurred in the radio context, in dealing with the two groups of swear words, one being the series of religiously-oriented words particular to Canadian French, such as “’ostie”, “tabarnac’”, “chrisse”, “calice” and “ciboire”, and the other being the “secular” English phrases “fuck off” and “don’t fuck around”.

In CKRB-FM re Prends ça cool … and Deux gars le midi (CBSC Decision 08/09-0689 & -1228, August 11, 2009), a decision rendered by this Panel at the same meeting as the matter at hand, the words “tabarnac’”, “calice”, “chrisse” and “crissez-moi” were considered in breach of Clause 9(c) of the CAB Code of Ethics, which applies to radio broadcasts of unduly coarse or offensive language.  This Panel previously concluded similarly in CKAC-AM re Doc Mailloux (six episodes) (CBSC Decision 06/07-0168 & -0266, August 23, 2007), where the host used “calice”, “chrisse”, “hostie”, “sacrement”, “ciboire” and “tabarnac’” as well as in the following decisions of this Panel, in which one or more of those religious epithets were used:  CHOI-FM re Le monde parallèle de Jeff Fillion (CBSC Decision 02/03-0115, July 17, 2003), CKOI-FM re comments made on Y’é trop d’bonne heure (CBSC Decision 04/05-0891, September 9, 2005), and CJMF-FM re a commentary on Bouchard en parle (CBSC Decision 05/06-0326, February 3, 2006).

Although all of the foregoing decisions related to radio broadcasts, the CBSC has consistently determined that the threshold for coarse language acceptability on radio is not dissimilar from that used in the television context.  For radio, the issue has been whether the broadcast occurred at a time of day when children could have been expected to be listening.  Neither the CBSC itself nor any of its Panels have yet attempted to define that hour with precision, although an hour as late as 8:51 pm has been accepted as a time of day when children could be expected to be a part of the audience.  The Quebec Panel considers that, even in the absence of an hour as precise as the television Watershed (9:00 pm), its coarse language radio decisions can reasonably be understood as having established in the radio context the equivalent of television’s pre- and post-Watershed.  In other words, coarse language not suitable for broadcast on radio at times of the day when children could be in the audience would need, in the television context, to be broadcast post-Watershed.

Based on this Panel’s previous decisions relating to religious epithets, such as those aired in the episode of Scrap Metal considered here, the Panel concludes that the program needed to be broadcast after 9:00 pm.  The 8:30 pm broadcast by TQS was in breach of Clause 10(a) of the CAB Code of Ethics.

The conclusion of this Panel has been the same when the English f-word has been broadcast on French-language radio.  Indeed, the issue has been straightforward.  In CKAC-AM re Doc Mailloux (six episodes) (CBSC Decision 06/07-0168 & -0266, August 23, 2007), for example, this Panel referred to a series of precedents and concluded that “the use of the f-word and/or any of its equivalent words, whether in English or French, such as the francized variations ‘fucké’ and ‘fuckailler’, is in breach of Clause 9(c) of the CAB Code of Ethics.”  Various other Panels have reached a corresponding conclusion in the case of the televised broadcast of the f-word before the beginning of the Watershed hour.  In the matter at hand, the Quebec Panel concludes that the broadcast by TQS of the f-word on French-language television prior to 9:00 pm was in breach of Clause 10(a) of the CAB Code of Ethics.

Viewer Advisories

Viewer advisories play an essential role in providing audiences with the information they require in order to make informed decisions regarding the appropriateness of potentially problematic programming for their households.  That is why their wording is meant to be simple, straightforward and to-the-point.  The nature of the potentially inappropriate content should be clear; it should refer, for example, to easily understood terms like violence, coarse language, sexual content, nudity, mature themes or the like.  It is also important that the advisories be provided before the program begins and at each opportunity thereafter, as indeed the complainant himself suggested.  That conforms to the Code and means “following each commercial break”.  After all, people will not always tune into a program at its very beginning.  For those who arrive late, there should still be a warning, advising late arrivals of potentially problematic content.

In the matter at hand, TQS did broadcast an appropriate advisory at the start of the program, at 8:30 pm. Unfortunately that viewer advisory was not repeated following each commercial break. In the circumstances, the broadcaster has breached the provisions of Clause 11 of the CAB Code of Ethics.

Classification

As Article 4 of the CAB Violence Code anticipates, there are certain types of programming that are exempt from the requirement to post a ratings icon.  In Classification System for Violence in Television Programming, 18 June 1997, P.N. CRTC 1997-80, which approved the classification system, the Commission stated that “classifications should be applied, at a minimum, to children’s programming (programs intended for children under 12 years of age), drama, “reality‑shows” (reality‑based dramatic programs), feature films, promotions for any of these programs and advertisements for theatrical releases.”  The question for the Quebec Panel is whether Scrap Metal falls into one of the exempt categories or not.  This Panel reviewed that issue in TQS re an episode of the program Faut le voir pour le croire (CBSC Decision 99/00-0460, August 29, 2000), and it drew an important distinction between documentary and information programming, which are the only other categories into which Scrap Metal could conceivably fall, and reality programming.

As is perfectly clear from the Commission’s Public Notices, the establishment of the classification system has a considerable amount to do with children and what parents may wish their families to see and not to see.  Moreover, from all of the foregoing, it is clear to the Council that it was the intention of the broadcasters and of the Commission that all programming was intended to be classified except for those types of programming included in the Exempt category.  It remains for the Council to determine whether the programming under consideration in this decision falls into any of the types of programming listed in the Exempt category.  It concludes that this is not the case.

The question turns on what is meant by “documentaries and information programming”.  The Council has no doubt that it does not include all non-dramatic programming.  Apart from anything else, the Commission’s policy criteria on violence establish that “reality-shows” are included in their anticipated list of types of programming requiring classification.  There is, in other words, a spectrum of reality-based programming running from that which is intended to be exempt, namely, documentaries and information programming, to that which is intended to be rated, namely, reality shows programming.  The Council considers that a method of describing this distinction in simple terms would be to say that such non-dramatic programming ranges between enlightening and entertaining.  This is not to suggest that enlightening programming cannot be entertaining or that entertaining programming cannot be enlightening.  It is only to say that that programming which is primarily enlightening is what the broadcasters and the CRTC expected would be exempt and that which is primarily entertaining which the broadcasters and the industry expected would be subject to classification.

See also this Panel’s decisions that reached similar conclusions in TQS re the program 2000 ans de bogues (CBSC Decision 99/00-0116 and -0345, August 29, 2000) and TQS re an episode of Loft Story (CBSC Decision 03/04-0200 & -0242, April 22, 2004).  The Panel, on this occasion, can do no better than to apply the conclusion it reached in Faut le voir pour le croire, namely, that “the episode of [Scrap Metal] under consideration was intended as unadulterated entertainment and was subject to the requirement that it be classified in accordance with the rating system applied by the Quebec Régie du Cinéma.”

The next question is, of course, which level of classification would be correct.  On that issue, the Panel considers that 16+ would be appropriate.  The Panel has judged the swearing as much too frequent to be broadcast before 9:00 pm.  Nonetheless, it considers that teenagers of 16 years have the judgment to be able to view such programming with discernment, and that a rating of 16+ would have been the appropriate rating.

In conclusion, the Panel finds that, by not having included a 16+ classification icon at the beginning of the program, TQS has breached Article 4 of the CAB Violence Code.

Representation Of Women

The Panel recognizes the skimpy and revealing clothing chosen for the “cheerleaders” as well as the female spectators, as well as the ogling of them by Parisien and his cronies.  It acknowledges the crudeness and poor taste of Parisien and the bikers.  It finds nothing redeeming in that aspect of the program.  That said, the issue for the Panel to determine is whether or not such content breaches any Code provision.  That is a very different issue.  Nor is the problem new.  In the 15-year old decision in CHCH-TV re an episode of Baywatch (CBSC Decision 94/95-0045, August 23, 1995), for example, the Ontario Regional Panel described the setting for the still skimpier beachwear in that television series in the following terms:

Baywatch is set on a beach and focuses on the lifeguards who work on this beach.  Accordingly, it is reasonable to expect that characters depicted in this program will often be seen in swimming attire, i.e. bathing suits.  The Council does not consider that it is stretching the point to suggest that the producers of the program have chosen this setting in the belief that young persons in bathing suits may be likely to attract audience attention.  This, however, is the prerogative of producers, who are entitled to look for formulas to create commercially successful television programming.  The only issue for the CBSC is to determine whether or not the choice in any particular case “crosses the line” and breaches one of the Codes administered by the CBSC.

The Ontario Panel went on to acknowledge that

the taste and viewing habits in some, if not many, homes would lead parents to wish to avoid programs such as Baywatch but the view of the Council is not that such programming is so inherently unacceptable as not to be entitled to be shown on television.  In this connection, the CBSC generally considers that the depiction of men and women in bathing suits does not in and of itself constitute exploitation in violation of the Sex-Role Portrayal Code […].

In the context of the Sex-Role Portrayal Code, the Council was less comfortable with the dream sequence (which lasted very close to 3 minutes) in which the female lifeguard poses in scanty clothing and alluring postures.  Although, in the Council’s view, this sequence was used as an opportunity to make use of the stardom of the actress playing the lifeguard character in the program by drawing a parallel with her modelling career, the Council does not conclude that the sequence in question constitutes exploitation contrary to Clause 4 of the Sex-Role Portrayal Code.  While the dream sequence may have exploited the actress’ modelling career, it did not exploit her as a woman nor was it degrading to her or to women in general.

Similarly, in CKX-TV re National Lampoon’s Animal House (CBSC Decision 96/97-0104, December 16, 1997), various low-brow sexual situations remained in the television version of the feature film in an apparent attempt to depict the extent of Delta House’s depravity.  There were four occasions in the course of the film in which bare breasts or buttocks were shown.  The longest of these involved a Delta House fraternity brother peeping into the window of a girls’ dormitory.  His reward was the sight of many young women engaged in a pillow fight, some of whom were wearing nothing but their underwear, and others of whom were topless.  When he moved to another window, he saw a woman facing the window (and the camera) and undressing slowly, exposing her breasts and beginning to masturbate.  In other words, there were several scenes that were arguably cruder and more tasteless than those in Scrap Metal.  The Prairie Regional Panel concluded:

While the portrayal of the women in the film is not overly flattering, it cannot either be said that the portrayal of the men is any better or advantages them in any way.  All in all, the presentation of almost every one of this group of young college people is as unflattering as one might expect from a film emphasizing the frivolous, narcissistic, often gross, occasionally disgusting portrait of college fraternity life which can best be characterised as high farce.  The question of portrayal inequality does not come into play.

Bearing those precedents in mind, the Quebec Panel concludes that the skimpy clothing, ogling and crass reactions of the motorcycle crowd were crude and tasteless, but not to such an extent that they approximated the levels needed to breach the degradation or exploitation provisions of Articles 7 and 8 of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code.  Indeed, it is arguable that the crassness reflects badly on the motorcycle aficionados.  And broadcasters do retain considerable entitlement to tell the style of story they wish to tell, even involving negatively portrayed individuals such as Parisien and his gang without falling afoul of the codified standards.  The Panel finds no breach of either Article 7 or 8 in this episode.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In all CBSC decisions, the Council’s Panels assess the broadcaster’s responsiveness to the complainant.  In the present instance, the Panel finds that the broadcaster’s Director of Regulatory Affairs provided a brief reply to the complainant, who had formulated a fair and reasonable request.  While the response was specific regarding the nature of the programming, it could, in the view of the Panel, have been more fulsome and sensitive to the complainant.  Nonetheless, the Panel is satisfied that the letter has passed the threshold of adequacy, in terms of the broadcaster’s membership obligation of responsiveness.

Announcement Of The Decision

TQS is required to: 1) announce the decision, in the following terms, once during prime time within three days following the release of this decision and once more within seven days following the release of this decision during the time period in which Scrap Metal was broadcast, but not on the same day as the first mandated announcement; 2) within the fourteen days following the broadcasts of the announcements, to provide written confirmation of the airing of the statement to the complainant who filed the Ruling Request; and 3) at that time, to provide the CBSC with a copy of that written confirmation and with air check copies of the broadcasts of the two announcements which must be made by TQS.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that TQS, now V, violated the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics and its Violence Code in its broadcast of an episode of Scrap Metal on May 22, 2009.  By airing unduly coarse and offensive language prior to 9:00 pm, TQS breached Clause 10(a) of the Code of Ethics, which prohibits the broadcast of such language prior to 9:00 pm.  By failing to include viewer advisories alerting audiences to the presence of coarse and offensive language following each commercial break, TQS breached Clause 11 of the Code of Ethics.  By failing to include a 16+ classification icon at the start of the program, TQS breached Article 4 of the Violence Code.

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