TSN re WWF Monday Night Raw

NATIONAL SPECIALTY SERVICES PANEL
(CBSC Decision 99/00-0398)
R. Cohen (Chair), P. O'Neill (Vice-Chair), S. Crawford, M. Hogarth,E. Holmes, H. Pawley, S. Teicher

THE FACTS

On February 28, 2000, WWF Monday Night Raw was broadcast on TSN from 8:00 p.m.until 10:00 p.m. in Alberta, the challenged part of the show being the pre-9:00 p.m.portion. During the broadcast in question, one of the storylines involved a ringsidewrestling manager named Mae, whose apparent age would not have suggested that shemight be pregnant. In any event, the unlikely scenario leads to an emergency prematurelabour resulting from her physical involvement in a wrestling match. Mae is rushed by a”medic” and a group of wrestling officials to a hallway or room behind theseating area in the arena. Throughout the episode, viewers are shown updates of hersituation. In one scene, Mae is seen smoking a cigar while the “medic” preparesher for the delivery. Following a series of short cuts to and from wrestling matches, the”medic” uses a large but ordinary tool, rather than a medical device, namely, apair of pliers, to deliver the “baby”, which turns out to bea “human” hand, covered in a jelly-like substance. TSN provided a single vieweradvisory, broadcast shortly before the final delivery scene, which states “Warning:The following program contains material that may offend some viewers. Discretion isadvised.”

The complainant sent a complaint via e-mail dated March 30, 2000, in which he describedin detail the scenes in question, and stated, in part:

I bring this to your attention graphically so youwill be aware of the problem and do something to protect our children from such sick andobscene viewing. The kind of garbage that was on TV Monday night should not be allowed onCanadian television. The content is obscene and damaging to any young and impressionablemind. Our children need to be protected and a “contains adult content that some mightfind offensive” warning is not enough.

The full text of this complaint and the broadcaster’s response are provided in theAppendix to this decision. On March 17, the President ofTSN replied in the following terms:

With regard to the particular episode in question, we agree thatthe material could be considered offensive and all subsequent broadcasts will be editedfor this content.

That said, the network will continue to apply TSN programming codes and standards toour wrestling broadcasts. As a result, to ensure the programs meet our requirements, thefollowing activities will continue to be undertaken:

Preview all pre-taped programming for excessive material. Edit unacceptable material. Meet with the wrestling organizations to communicate our programming codes and ensure compliance. Enforce industry codes and our internal guidelines regarding discrimination and violence. Screen a disclaimer every half-hour advising parental guidance. You may also be interested to know that TSN recently revised its wrestling broadcast schedule. Please note that as of February 1, 2000, wrestling will air on TSN during evening hours only (9 pm and midnight ET). We feel the responsible thing to do is show the program in a later time slot. That having been said, TSN is currently licensed to operate only one national feed on an on-going basis, which is used to reach 7.5 million viewers across six time zones. As a result, unfortunately, it is not possible to broadcast the program at the same time slot in every region of the country. The complainant

The complainant was unsatisfied with this response, and requested, on March 19, that the CBSC refer the matter to the appropriate Adjudicating Panel.

It should, parenthetically, be pointed out that TSN only became a member of the CBSC amonth before the broadcast of the challenged WWF episode and that thecorrespondence between the specialty service and the CRTC referred to below occurred priorto TSN’s participation in the self-regulatory process.

THE DECISION

The CBSCs National Specialty Panelconsidered the complaint under the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB)Sex-Role Portrayal Code and Violence Code. The relevant provisions of thoseCodes read as follows:

Sex-Role Portrayal Code, Article 4 (Exploitation)

Television and radio programming shall refrainfrom the exploitation of women, men and children. Negative or degrading comments on therole 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 degradingto 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 havetraditionally differed, with more women portrayed in scant clothing and alluring postures.

CAB Violence Code, Article 3.1.1 (Scheduling)

Programming which contains scenes of violenceintended for adult audiences shall not be telecast before the late evening viewing period,defined as 9 pm to 6 am.

CAB Violence Code, Article 10.1 (Violence in Sports Programming)

Broadcasters shall not promote or exploit violentaction which is outside the sanctioned activity of the sport in question.

The National Panel adjudicators viewed a tape of the program in question and reviewedall of the correspondence. It does not consider that the episode of Monday Night Rawis in violation of any of the foregoing Code provisions.

A Threshold Issue: Wrestling as Sport Some may raise the question of the nature of this type of wrestling, arguing that it israther entertainment than sport. While there is no doubt that it does not partake of thenature of Greco-Roman wrestling or even freestyle wrestling, which audiences have beenaccustomed to watch as a part of, say, the Olympic Games or college sports or elsewhere,the National Panel has no doubt about its nature. It is sport. In the first place, that itmay be entertainment does not exclude the possibility that it is also sport. Notmany in the business of broadcasting would argue that, at the end of the day, they do notwish their programming to entertain that portion of the audience at which it is directed.That the rules have been modified from traditional collegiate or Olympic wrestling doesnot disqualify it from being considered as a form of sport. Nor is it an argument againstsuch wrestling being a sport that some part of the match has been scripted (and the CBSChas no way of knowing whether it has or not). After all, from the audience’spoint of view, it appears to be a contest. They do not know the outcome. While they maywatch the program in whole or in part for the shenanigans, the action in the ring involvesathletics, competition (however unorthodox) and a winner and loser. In TSN’s ownletter of April 16, 1999 to the CRTC, they refer to the “sport of professionalwrestling”. They also say that “WWF wrestling is intended to be a theatricalexhibition of agility and athleticism.” Moreover, it is presented as sport by thebroadcaster, which is licensed to air sporting events and related matters.

Condition of licence 1 for The Sports Network (Decision CRTC 94-603):

The licensee shall provide a nationalEnglish-language specialty service that consists of programming dedicated exclusively toall aspects of sports …; that is, programming covering professional and amateur sportsevents, sports newscasts, magazine shows, interviews, commentaries, documentaries,audience participation programs, instruction and training programs and other programs thatpromote physical fitness.

While the determination of this issue is not central to the outcome of this decision,it is the first occasion on which one of the CBSC Panels has the opportunity to considerthe WWF and it behoves the National Specialty Services Panel to make these observationsrelating to the nature of the programming in question. 

The Sex-Role Portrayal Issues In the opinion of the National Specialty Services Panel, there is no issue of”sex-ploitation” involved in this case. While it is true that Mae is a woman,the rather tasteless sequence which was a part of that episode of Monday Night Rawdoes not demean or degrade women or even Mae in particular although, arguably, it israther degrading with respect to the birthing process and experience. It is clear that thesituation in which an older woman is in the wrestling ring in the first place, gives birthat all in the second and has as her progeny a hand is far-fetched, to say the very least;however, the fact that the segment is absurd does not render it exploitative. The genderof Mae is essential to the particular “plot” but no reason is given to suggestthat the demeaning of women was in any way a goal of the producer. The post-event vomitingis more reflective of the presumed audience reaction than any comment on Mae’swomanhood.

The Scheduling Issue

Nor does the Panel consider that the program was inappropriately scheduled. While itaired prior to the Watershed, the challenged aspect of this episode cannot be said to beintended for adults in particular. There is, in fact, no component of the story which isat all exclusively, or even primarily, adult-oriented. Tasteless, if not disgusting, butnot intended for adults and that alone is the criterion which determines the need forbroadcast after the Watershed. As the Atlantic Regional Panel stated in CTV reW-Five (Swingers) (CBSC Decision 99/00-0347, February 14, 2001),

While the Panel has no quarrel with the importanceof broadcasters treating matters of public interest even when they may have an eroticcomponent, the issue is whether they are oriented exclusively toward adults.[Emphasis added.]

In the circumstances, the National Specialty Services Panel concludes that the hour ofbroadcast of this episode does not constitute a breach of the CAB Violence Code.

Matters of Taste For the CBSC, the importance of freedom of expression is an essential value; however,it is not the only value for the Panel to consider. That being said, the Panel doesunderstand that broadcasters expect this principle to be encroached upon and, effectively,restricted only to the extent that their common sets of standards have been breached.Consequently, it has always been the position of the CBSC that the Council has no role toplay with respect to matters of taste; these are for the viewer and the marketplace toregulate via the on/off switch or the channel changer. In one of the worst examples of badtaste encountered by the CBSC, the Ontario Regional Panel was called upon to consider aviewer complaint about an episode of the Jerry Springer Show in which one partnerhad developed the habit of vomiting on the other during sex. The Panel, in CFMT-TV rean episode of the Jerry Springer Show (CBSC Decision 98/99-1092, November 19, 1999),said:

In this case, the Council does not find that thecomplainant’s characterization of the episode in question is exaggerated when heobserves “this particular segment to be disgusting, repulsive, degrading anddehumanizing,” but this is not the determinative issue for the Council in theassessment of the broadcast in question. In the conflict between bad taste and freespeech, the Council always comes down on the side of speech. See e.g. CHOM-FM andCILQ-FM re The Howard Stern Show (CBSC Decision 97/98-0001+, October 17-18, 1997).Consequently, however bizarre the guest’s behaviour may have been, the OntarioRegional Council adopts the view of the Atlantic and Quebec Regional Councils inconcluding that it does not amount to a breach of any of the broadcast Codes which theCBSC administers. Such electronic exemplification of social misfits may not add tosociety’s knowledge base but such questions of judgment and taste must be left to theviewer to subscribe to or reject on his or her own.

Despite the fact that, in this WWF decision, the Panel considers that thechallenged sequence was repulsive and disgusting, it is not one which breaches a Code andmust, therefore, be left to the viewer to watch or ignore.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In addition to assessing the relevance of the Codes to the complaint, the CBSC alwaysassesses the responsiveness of the broadcaster to the substance of the complaint.In this case, the Panel considers that the broadcaster’s response addressed theissues raised by the complainant, albeit not as the complainant would have wished. ThePanel does, however, find it curious that, despite the broadcaster’s own reply ofMarch 17 to the viewer, which declares TSN’s undertaking to “screen a disclaimerevery half-hour advising parental guidance,” only one such disclaimer, or advisory,was aired. While, strictly speaking, the Violence Code does not require a vieweradvisory in this case, given TSN’s other declared commitments to this complainant,who was bound to see the show prior to the Watershed, TSN did leave the appearance ofundertaking to screen its own advisories. While the failure to do so every half hour doesnot constitute a breach of the Code in these circumstances, it is regrettable for theviewer that TSN did not conform to its own commitment. In any event, the Panel does notfind that the broadcaster has 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.