Excessive Repetition of Violent Content without Warnings Breaches Code, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, February 14, 2007 - The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning a segment of Entertainment Tonight broadcast on the Global Television Network on April 21, 2006, which profiled an upcoming episode of the American public affairs program Primetime on the subject of dysfunctional step-families. The segment included disturbing footage of parents and step-parents verbally and physically abusing their children. The CBSC’s National Conventional Television Panel concluded that the broadcast violated the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Voluntary Code regarding Violence in Television Programming provision relating to news.

The Entertainment Tonight episode began at 7:30 pm and the three-minute-long segment on the Primetime story on dysfunctional step-families began at 7:52. Prior to the beginning of the challenged segment, Entertainment Tonight had included numerous teasers to inform viewers about the upcoming material. Both the teasers and the actual segment contained repeated footage of a step-mother yelling, unprovoked, at her step-daughter, and of a father repeatedly punching his teenaged daughter. The teasers and segment also included clips of Primetime host Diane Sawyer commenting on the severity of the situation in these families. Although the Entertainment Tonight host noted that the footage was “jaw-dropping”, “explosive” and “horrifying”, there was no real warning about the nature of the images until part-way through the actual segment.

The CBSC received a complaint from a viewer who complained that this disturbing footage was inappropriate for broadcast during family viewing hours. Global explained that the purpose of the segment was about trying to help the step-families and did not glorify or condone the behaviour.

The National Conventional Television Panel examined the complaint under Article 6 of the CAB Violence Code, which requires appropriate editorial judgment in the pictorial representation of violence and aggression; caution in the repetition of violent video clips; the provision of warnings to viewers in advance of showing scenes of violence; discretion in the use of stories which could disturb children; and no exaggeration or exploitation of situations of aggression, conflict or confrontation. The Panel concluded that Global did not violate the Code for merely airing the segment, but that the repetition of the violent clips and the failure to warn viewers in advance resulted in a Code breach. The Panel made the following observations:

[T]he Panel does not for a moment consider that the episode ought not to have been aired. Indeed, the Panel readily accepts the relevance of the segment announcing the coming ABC Primetime story on conflict in step-families and considers that the excerpts of the Diane Sawyer comments reflected the sensitivity of the forthcoming discussion on Primetime. The controversial nature of the underlying issue is not the problem. It is rather the method of presentation of it to the audience. The language employed in the CAB Violence Code anticipates that the issues associated with violent content in news and public affairs programming require thoughtful, sensitive, discreet treatment. [...]

There are two components to the broadcast material that the Panel has considered. One is the less than three-minute Entertainment Tonight segment and the other is the significant role placed by the teasers throughout the episode of ET.

[...] After three of the five combative clips were shown but before the last two were repeated, the host alerted the audience about what was coming [...]. For the Panel, the brief spoken advisory is a case of too little, too late. It alerted no member of the audience before the spate of violent moments in the succession of teasers or before the first 60% of the violent clips in the three-minute segment. [...]

As to the video clips, the Panel considers that it is the overall, combined effect of their presentation that is the issue. They are repeated too frequently. They are shown repetitively, without regard for the caution required in Article 6.2 or the discretion demanded in Article 6.4. Their re-use added nothing useful to the story. The Panel concludes that they were no more than viewer magnets. There is a difference between alerting viewers about what is coming and attracting them to the content. There is, it goes without saying, nothing inappropriate in attracting viewers, provided this goal is achieved without violating codified standards. In the matter at hand, the Panel is of the view that the combination of the images and the choice of sensational language breach the requirement in Article 6.6 that broadcasters shall neither exaggerate nor exploit situations of aggression, conflict or confrontation, all of which are present in this broadcast.

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, gender portrayal and television violence by which they expect the members of their profession will abide. In 1990, they also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those professional broadcast Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic practices first created by the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA) in 1970. More than 600 radio and television stations and specialty services from across Canada are members of the Council.

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All CBSC decisions, Codes, links to members’ and other web sites, and related information are available on the CBSC’s website at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the CBSC National Chair, Mme Andrée Noël CBSC Executive Director, John MacNab