TSN re an episode of WWE

NATIONAL SPECIALTY SERVICES PANEL
(CBSC Decision 02/03-1656)
R. Cohen (Chair), S. Crawford (Vice-Chair - Industry) H. Pawley (Vice-Chair - Public), R. Deverell, M. Hogarth, V. Morrissette and P. O'Neill

THE FACTS

August 18, 2003, from 9:00 pm until just after 11:00 pm, the specialty service TSN broadcast an episode of the WWE.  At the beginning of the program, the broadcaster aired a visual-only advisory that read as follows: “The following program contains material that may offend some viewers.  Discretion is advised.”  Although no Canadian classification icons were displayed, the American ratings icon “TV 14 DLV” did appear on the screen for 4 seconds at the start of the program and once again at 21:55 for 6 seconds.  The visual-only advisory was repeated after each commercial break.

This episode, like many others, is a combination of wrestling matches interrupted by outside-the-ring and behind-the-scenes dramatic segments that, with the wrestling sequences, are woven to some extent into a story line for the whole episode.  The episode started by naming, and showing pictures of, the wrestlers who would be competing that evening. Two of them were then shown with a model, Stacy, standing between them, following which the announcer advised that the winner would get “Stacy's services for the night”.  A visual announcement to this effect was also flashed on the screen.

Twelve minutes into the episode, Stacy was interrupted in the locker room by “Test” who used to be her previous “owner”.  He began sweet-talking her but then changed his tone and advised her that, when he won, “I'm gonna treat you like the little slut you are.”  At another moment, the announcer told the television audience that Test had mentally and physically abused Stacy in the past.

During another segment of the episode (which began in the second hour), the announcer talked to Linda, one of the customary WWE team, who had been injured and was staying at home.  When her doorbell rang shortly after, Eric Bishoff, another of the regular WWE team, dressed in a suit came into the room and talked to her about his anger towards her son, an opponent wrestler.   After the commercial break in the midst of the segment, Eric began coming on to Linda.  As a part of his approach, he then twisted her arm, asked her to show him where the bedroom was, called her “the big breasted beauty”, said, “You'll enjoy it so much more that way”, and kissed her against her will.

The segment that concerned the complainant in particular took place towards the end of the show.  In an incident presaged by a scene an hour and a half earlier in the show, the later segment depicted a wrestler tied up and unconscious while another angry wrestler poured gasoline on him and stuffed his mouth with a cloth.  When the “hostage” awoke, the angry rival lit a match, ostensibly threatening to put him on fire.  The threat did not materialize.

The Complaint

On August 18, the complainant sent the following complaint to the CBSC, in which he described those aspects of the episode that had troubled him (the full text of all the correspondence in this file is included in the Appendix):

The Specialty Services Panel of the CBSC has had several opportunities to consider professional wrestling programs created by the WWE or its predecessor entities, the WWFE and the WWF.  Those decisions include TSN re WWF Monday Night Raw (CBSC Decision 99/00-0398, January 31, 2001), TSN re WWF Raw Is War (CBSC Decision 99/00-0607, January 31, 2001) and TSN re WWF Monday Night Raw (CBSC Decision 01/02-0660, September 13, 2002).  On previous occasions, the Panel has dealt with, among other things, the nature of the programming as “sport”.  It has also been called upon to assess the undeniably non-sporting nature of other elements of the broadcasts.  There can not, after all, be any doubt that the WWE programming intends to present its characters in both in-the-ring and outside-the-ring soap-opera-ish plots.

The review of these commitments is a part of the CBSC's assessment of the current episode.

On August 18, the complainant sent the following complaint to the CBSC, in which he described those aspects of the episode that had troubled him (the full text of all the correspondence in this file is included in the Appendix):

I run a Community home for 4 adult Downes syndrome [sic, Down Syndrome] men and they are addicted to WWF. I find the portrayal of women on the show to be demeaning to say the least and it appears to be getting worse as illustrated on the show of 18th Aug. suggestion [sic] of a striptease for hulking men in a locker room, but what really did upset me was the depiction of a graphic scene as follows. One wrestler is handcuffed by another angry wrestler and suspended from a contraption of some sort. He is then verbally abused, has a rag shoved in his mouth and this other creature then pores [sic] over him gasoline (at least that is what it said on the gerry can). He then continues to be offensive and lights a match with the obvious intent of immolating this wrestler but decides then not to. I find this an extraordinary example of gratuitous violence that should NOT be allowed on Canadian screens. Can this XXX rated depiction of violent behaviour be stopped, if not why not?
The President of TSN responded to the complainant’s letter on August 28 in the following terms:

TSN had no intention of insulting or offending our viewers. We regret that the interactions between the two wrestlers during the WWE Raw program that aired on TSN on August 18, 2003 upset you. It is important to note that our viewer feedback on wrestling is quite varied. While some viewers – like yourself – think more editing is required in our wrestling programs, there are those who feel there is too much editing.

In order to strike a balance between these opposing views and meet the network’s commitment to quality programming, TSN edits WWE programming by referencing Canadian Broadcast Standards Council guidelines. We understand and agree that violence and violent behaviour is an ongoing concern in the world and therefore TSN strictly follows the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Violence and Gender Portrayal Codes when it comes to WWE programming.

TSN will continue to apply programming codes and standards to all our wrestling broadcasts. To ensure the programs meet our requirements, the following activities will continue to be undertaken:
Broadcast the program during evening hours only (9 p.m.and midnight ET)
Preview all pre-taped programming for excessive material
Preview all scripts for excessive material
Edit unacceptable material where possible (program is live at 9 p.m. ET)
. Meet regularly with the WWE to communicate and discuss our programming codes
Screen a disclaimer at the beginning of the episode and out of every commercial break during the program advising viewer discretion
The complainant was unsatisfied with this response, and requested, on August 28, that the CBSC refer the matter to the appropriate Adjudicating Panel.

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 CAB’s Sex-Role Portrayal Code.

CAB Violence Code, Article 1 (Content)

1.1 Canadian broadcasters shall not air programming which:
! contains gratuitous violence in any form*

! sanctions, promotes or glamorizes violence
(*”Gratuitous” means material which does not play an integral role in developing the plot, character or theme of the material as a whole).

CAB Violence Code, Article 5 (Viewer Advisories)

5.1 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 late evening hours which contains scenes of 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 of violence not suitable for children.
CAB Violence Code, Article 10 (Violence in Sport Programming)

10.1 Broadcasters shall not promote or exploit violent action which is outside the sanctioned activity of the sport in question.
CAB Violence Code, Article 7.0 (Violence against Women):

7.1 Broadcasters shall not telecast programming which sanctions, promotes or glamorizes any aspect of violence against women.
7.2 Broadcasters shall ensure that women are not depicted as victims of violence unless the violence is integral to the story being told. Broadcasters shall be particularly sensitive not to perpetuate the link between women in a sexual context and women as victims of violence.
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.

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

The National Panel Adjudicators viewed a tape of the episode of WWE in question and reviewed all of the correspondence. The Panel concludes that the WWE episode in question has breached the provisions of the Violence Code relating to the display of viewer advisories and classification icons.

The Panel finds no comfort in the overall presentation or treatment of women in the wrestling program context. The forced dance scene with Stacy and the aggressive treatment of Linda by Eric Bishoff are examples of the offhand acceptance of women in a position of diminished power relative to the dominators, who, at least, are presented as mindless or gawking aggressors. Since, among other things, the two scenes taper away into non-events from their initial plot-setting moments, there is actually no dramatic conclusion to, or even development of, either scene, and, accordingly, nothing that carries them to the level of breach of either Article 4 of the Sex-Role Portrayal Code or Clause 7 of the Violence Code.

A Not So Fiery Scene

The complainant's main concern relates to a segment of the broadcast in which the creators bring an out-of-the-ring rivalry established earlier in the show to its dramatic conclusion. That concluding scene depicted a wrestler tied up and unconscious while the other angry wrestler covered him with what appeared to be gasoline and gagged him with a cloth. When the “hostage” wrestler awakened, the angry rival lit a match and threatened to put him on fire. The scene did not even extend to the point of simulating any fire and did not amount, in the view of the Panel, to a scene containing actual violence, much less gratuitous violence. Moreover, it was broadcast in the context of a program that only began following the beginning of the Watershed. The Panel finds no breach of Article 1 of the Violence Code.

The Use of Viewer Advisories

The broadcaster acknowledges that there ought to have been advisories as a part of the broadcast. In the TSN President's words, they will “[s]creen a disclaimer at the beginning of the episode and out of every commercial break during the program advising viewer discretion.” Although they have done so in this case, each of the advisories was only presented in video form. It has long been clear in CBSC decisions that viewer advisories need to be provided in both video and audio formats whenever they are required. In Showcase Television re the movie Police 10-07 (CBSC Decision 00/01-0613, January 16, 2002), the National Specialty Services Panel dealt with a broadcast in which there were insufficient advisories during the course of the program but, apart from the pre-program advisory, the later advisories were presented in audio form only. This Panel stated “The provision of oral-only viewer advisories […] was clearly inadequate in terms of the Code requirements.” In TQS re the movie Les Girls de Las Vegas (CBSC Decision 01/02-0478, December 20, 2002), the Quebec Panel was called upon to deal with the presence of an advisory in video format only, as in the matter at hand. The Quebec Panel ruled:

Then, more recently, in TQS re Film de peur (CBSC Decision 02/03-0940, April 22, 2004), the Quebec Panel elaborated on this point:

In the present decision, the Panel considers that TSN's commitment to broadcast advisories (called “disclaimers” by them) must respect the requirements of the Council's rules, namely, that they must be presented in audio and video formats whenever they are aired. The failure to employ both formats in the present matter constitutes a breach of Article 5 of the Violence Code.