Broadcast Standards Council Decision On Comedy Routine

Ottawa, December 19, 1996 – The Ontario Regional Council of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) released its decision today concerning a comedy routine broadcast by CHUM-FM (Toronto).

During CHUM-FM's Sunday Funnies show broadcast between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. on October 22, 1995, the station played a comedy routine by American comedian Foster Brooks. He purported to tell stories about his in-laws, of Polish descent. A viewer complained to the CBSC that the routine "attempted to portray Polish people as stupid and brainless via a series of denigrating jokes." The listener added, "I cannot believe that in 1995, in a pluralistic society that Canada aspires to, CHUM had the nerve to air such an obvious attack on Poles." In response to the listener, CHUM-FM's Program Director noted that, "The Foster Brooks piece is not a direct reference to Polish people. Rather it's a humorous attempt to portray people (in this case, in-laws) in funny situations."

The CBSC's Ontario Regional Council is composed equally of representatives of the public and of the broadcasting industry. Council members viewed a tape of the segment and reviewed the complaint under the industry's Code of Ethics, which requires broadcasters to avoid abusive or discriminatory material or comment based on matters of ethnic origin. In its decision (attached), the Council drew a distinction between "a broadcast which is intended to be serious ... and one which clearly does not. It is not that the standard to be applied to the potentially offending statement will be different. It is rather the question of audience perception. Consequently, the Council reasoned that, "a remark which might reasonably be assessed as abusive in a serious context and thus in breach of the Code of Ethics may not be so viewed in the comedic environment."

Applying those principles to the broadcast in the CHUM-FM case, the Council concluded that, "the primary thrust of the humour was toward in-laws (traditional targets of stand-up comics) and not persons of Polish descent", but Council members agreed that, "had the latter been the case, they would not have found the jokes abusive or discriminatory." Thus, CHUM-FM did not breach the industry's Code of Ethics.

In addition to administering industry codes on ethics, the CBSC administers the Voluntary Code Regarding Violence on Television, the Sex-Role Portrayal Code and the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics. Nearly 400 private sector radio and television stations from across Canada are members of the Council.

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For more information, contact Ronald I. Cohen, National Chair of the CBSC, at (###) ###-####.