CANADIAN BROADCAST STANDARDS COUNCIL

national specialty services Panel

Teletoon re Team America: World Police

(CBSC Decision 07/08-1011)

Decided August 7, 2008

R. Cohen (Chair), R. Deverell (ad hoc), M. Omelus (ad hoc), P. O’Neill

 

THE FACTS

Team America: World Police is a motion picture by the creators of the animated adult cartoon SouthPark.  The movie features marionette puppets appearing more like humans than, say, animals or monsters.  Team America, a special police force established to combat global terrorism, includes Joe, Chris, Lisa and Sarah, and is led by Mr. Spottswoode.  When the original fifth member, Carson, dies, the Team recruits an actor named Gary Johnston to join them.

Teletoon broadcast the movie from 9:30-11:40 pm on December 8, 2007.  An 18+ icon appeared at the beginning of the broadcast, at the beginning of the second hour, and following all commercial breaks.  The following viewer advisory aired in audio and video format at the beginning of the broadcast and coming out of every commercial break:

The following program is intended for adult audiences.  It may contain mature subject matter and coarse language.  Viewer discretion is advised.

The movie contained numerous instances of coarse language, including the word “fuck” and variations thereof; “asshole”; “bastard”; “shit”; etc.

It also contained numerous scenes of violence.  For example, the opening scene involved the Team going after a group of terrorists in Paris.  There was considerable automatic or semi-automatic gunfire and a number of the terrorists were seen with bloody bullet wounds and other injuries.  The combat escalated as the Team employed larger weapons such as a bazooka and missiles fired from a fighter jet.  Towards the end of the scene, Team member Carson was shot from behind and his bloody fall to the ground was shown in slow motion.  There were other correspondingly bloody and gory scenes of violence throughout the movie, including a man being shot in the back of the head for no apparent reason, a man being eaten by a shark, a woman’s face being blown off, and a man being impaled on the spike of a helmet.

There was also sexual dialogue and a few scenes of sexual activity between the puppets.  The most explicit of those lasted one minute and 12 seconds.  It featured “naked” puppets Gary and Lisa engaged in simulated sexual activity in a variety of positions, such as Lisa straddling Gary, Gary penetrating Lisa from behind, and Gary penetrating Lisa while she stood on her head.

The CBSC received a complaint dated December 10, 2007 about the latter scene.  The complainant outlined his concerns as follows and attached electronic files of the images to which he referred:

This past Saturday night, our son (9) was watching the Teletoon channel 554.  Around 10:00 pm he came upstairs and told us there were puppets doing gross things on the TV.  We told him to turn off the TV as it was past his bedtime anyway.  The next morning we turned on the TV to find the following images frozen on our TV screen.  This is completely unacceptable to have this content airing on a children’s channel.  Please ensure justice is done to correct this.  Thank you.

Teletoon responded to the complainant on January 15, 2008 in pertinent part (the full text of all correspondence can be found in the Appendix):

We sincerely regret that you were offended by this broadcast, and we appreciate you [sic] taking the time to write to us as it provides us with the opportunity to give you some further information on how Teletoon makes concerted efforts to prevent children from viewing programming intended for adult audiences and how you may use parental controls to block programming.

As you may already know, Teletoon is a 24-hour animation station that is proud to offer cartoons and animation to a wide audience.  As specified in our license with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), we are a specialty station dedicated to providing a variety of animation for viewers of all ages.  Although we present programming for a wide mix of ages, we are conscious of the fact that for many viewers, animation is often associated solely with children’s programming.  In order to avoid confusion between children’s and adult programming we are very careful about the way in which we develop our schedule, ensuring that all shows are programmed responsibly at appropriate times of the day.

In order to reflect the diverse ages of our viewers, almost 40% of whom are adults 18+, we have divided our schedule into specific time blocks; from 6am to 6pm (et/pt), we air programs for children of all ages; from 6pm to 9pm (et/pt), our programming is intended for a wide audience including tweens, teens, young adults and adults; after 9pm (et/pt) our shows are geared towards a mature audience and are encompassed in a branded programming block called The Detour on Teletoon.

The Detour on Teletoon has become the point of reference for the 18-34 crowd looking for off-beat entertainment, and an edgier line-up with tongue-in-cheek humour or satirical points of view.  We make ongoing efforts to clearly distinguish between the daytime look of Teletoon and our late-night programming: branding elements of The Detour on Teletoon are completely different from those of our daytime programming, and shows and promotional events that belong exclusively to The Detour on Teletoon are only promoted and aired during this programming block.

Additionally, as a responsible broadcaster, Teletoon uses the Canadian Television Ratings system (E, C, C8+, G, PG, 14+, 18+), as developed by the Action Group for Violence on Television (AGVOT) to inform viewers about the content and suitability of a program.  An icon bearing the rating of the show is depicted in the upper left-hand corner of the screen at the beginning of each show.  During our programs rated 18+ or higher, this icon reappears after each commercial break.  Team America: World Police was rated 18+ (intended for viewers 18 years and older) and the 18+ icon appeared at the beginning of the broadcast and after each commercial break.  This rating also allows the use of parental control features that allow parents to block specific programs according to their rating; these programs can only be unblocked by keying in a personal identification number, or PIN.  [...].

Teletoon also uses audio and visual viewer advisories that serve to caution viewers about the suitability of the program on all programs broadcast after 9pm (et/pt).  Specifically, the advisory broadcast for Team America: World Police stated: "The following program is intended for adult audiences.  It may contain mature subject matter and coarse language. Viewer discretion is advised."  This advisory was broadcast prior to the beginning of the program and after every commercial break.

While we recognize that the content of Team America: World Police is not to everyone’s taste, this series does comply with all applicable broadcasting codes and is scheduled to air at a time when an older audience is present.  Recognizing that our viewers and their selection in programming are diverse, we believe Team America: World Police is appropriate programming to be presented on The Detour on Teletoon.

The complainant responded to Teletoon on January 15:

I am disappointed in your response to my complaint.  Programming of this type has no place on a children’s channel at any time.

Bell ExpressVu categorizes Teletoon channel as a family channel.  [...].

I believe Canadian broadcasters must be held accountable and broadcasters of children’s programming must be held accountable to a higher degree.  As a parent, I and many others considered that Teletoon was a safe viewing channel as it is being portrayed as a cartoon channel for kids.  With this mind-set came a trust that hardcore pornographic material would not be broadcast following the Bugs Bunny show.  I did not expect this type of programming so I did not feel it was necessary check the ratings of every cartoon.  You have overstepped your bounds and violated my trust of being a responsible children’s broadcaster.

As a parent, I am sickened by the fact my 9-year-old son’s mind has been filled with these images at this age by you!  Damages, in my opinion, are insurmountable.

The Team America: World Police program rating warning of "The following program is intended for adult audiences.  It may contain mature subject matter and coarse language.  Viewer discretion is advised." inadequately describes the depicted content and falls short of stating the program contains explicit portrayals of sex and/or nudity.

The complainant then filed his Ruling Request with the CBSC on January 17, reiterating the points he had made in his January 15 letter to Teletoon.

 

The Decision

The National Specialty Services Panel examined the complaint under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Codes:

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 10 – Television Broadcasting

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. Broadcasters shall refer to the Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming for provisions relating to the scheduling of programming containing depictions of violence.

b)         Recognizing that there are older children watching television after 9 pm, broadcasters shall adhere to the provisions of Clause 11 below (viewer advisories), enabling viewers to make an informed decision as to the suitability of the programming for themselves and their family members.

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.

Suggested language for suitable viewer advisories is outlined in Appendix A.  The suggestions are meant as possible illustrations; broadcasters are encouraged to adopt wording which is likeliest to provide viewers with the most relevant and useful information regarding the programming to which it applies.

CAB Violence Code, Article 3.0 – Scheduling

3.1        Programming

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

3.1.2     Accepting that there are older children watching television after 9 pm, broadcasters shall adhere to the provisions of article 5.1 below (viewer advisories), enabling parents to make an informed decision as to the suitability of the programming for their family members.

CAB Violence Code, Article 4.0 – Classification System

Icon Use Protocols

 

Frequency

The rating icon is to be keyed over the first 15-16 seconds of the program.  [...]  For programs which run longer than one hour, the icon is to be repeated at the beginning of the second hour.  These are minimal use standards; stations may wish to use the icons more frequently on programs with particularly sensitive content.

CAB Violence Code, Article 5.0 – 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.

5.3        Suggested language for suitable viewer advisories is outlined in Appendix A

The Panel Adjudicators viewed the broadcast of the film and read all of the correspondence.  The Panel concludes that Teletoon did not violate Clause 10 of the CAB Code of Ethics or Article 3.0 of the CAB Violence Code regarding scheduling, but it did violate Clause 11 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 5.3 of the CAB Violence Code regarding viewer advisories.

 

Animation: Exclusively a Children’s Domain?

The Panel considers it extremely important to begin its decision by pointing out that animation is not the strict equivalent of children’s programming.  It understands the complainant’s confusion on that point because much animated programming has, over the course of time, been created for, and targeted at, children.  That said, to assume such exclusivity of program content on the basis of form is neither reasonable nor correct.  For example, in Decision CRTC 96-598 (4 September 1996), which first granted the broadcast licence to Teletoon’s owners, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) drew that distinction by ensuring a precise time of day exclusively for children, thus implying that there were other times of day which would not be of a similar nature:

With respect to TELETOON's general plans for programming, the Commission notes the licensee's commitment that the service "will create a unique 'safe haven' for young children throughout the day" and that "TELETOON will broadcast twelve hours of programming every weekday from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. suitable for unsupervised viewing by young children."

The notion of the “safe haven” was reiterated in the Teletoon licence renewal, Broadcasting Decision CRTC 2004-12 (21 January 2004).  In that renewal, there was also discussion of a redefinition of Teletoon’s “peak viewing period” (for business purposes, relating primarily to the calculation of Canadian and foreign content issues), which, as the licensee explained, would permit the licensee to “establish an appropriate demarcation point after which Teletoon/Télétoon’s primary target audience would change from its younger viewers to an audience primarily made up of parents, teens and young adults.”  And the Commission itself noted that a “revised peak period would also have the potential to stimulate some production of Canadian animated material that would appeal to a slightly older audience.”

The point of all of the foregoing is that it is unjustified to view Teletoon as a children’s channel.  In conformity with the scheduling provisions in Article 3 of the CAB Violence Code and Clause 10 of the CAB Code of Ethics, there is a Watershed period that runs from 9:00 pm to 6:00 am.  Before the Watershed, there shall be no programming broadcast that is intended exclusively for adult audiences.  After the Watershed, audiences ought to be aware that any television service, including Teletoon, may provide programming that is intended exclusively for adult audiences.

In somewhat analogous circumstances, this Panel dealt with a viewer complaint about a sexually explicit documentary film about a pornographic movie actress that played on The Documentary Channel.  That complainant also felt that the challenged content was inappropriate for a documentary channel.  This Panel disagreed on that occasion, as it does in the matter at hand.  In The Documentary Channel re the documentary Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (CBSC Decision 04/05-1522, July 20, 2005), this Panel concluded that that “there is no inherent reason that a program with sexual content, even one with adult sexual content, cannot play on The Documentary Channel.”  In the file under consideration here, the Specialty Services Panel again finds that there is no reason why Team America cannot be broadcast on Teletoon, provided, of course, that it meets all the requisite codified standards.

 

Content Intended for Adults

Even though puppets, not people, were involved, the violence in Team America was bloody and gory, the sexuality was explicit, and there were numerous examples of coarse and offensive language.  Each of those components would on its own have relegated the animated feature to a post-Watershed broadcast.  Consequently, Teletoon was required to broadcast the film after 9:00 pm.  That is, as noted above, what it did.  There was, therefore, no breach of the scheduling provisions of either the CAB Violence Code or the CAB Code of Ethics.

 

Viewer Advisories and Other Audience Tools

In addition to respecting the scheduling rule for exclusively adult content, broadcasters are required to provide: a classification icon which indicates the intended audience age group for the program; and detailed viewer advisories alerting audiences to the nature of the upcoming content.  While the advisories must be shown at the start of the program and following every commercial break (in this instance, required only for the first hour, but thoughtfully inserted by Teletoon throughout the entire feature film), the appropriate level of ratings icon must be aired at the start of the show and at the beginning of the second hour, in the case of a program longer than one hour in length.  In the case of the challenged film, Teletoon broadcast viewer advisories with the required frequency; however, it took the additional step of broadcasting the classification icons with the same frequency, that is to say, well in excess of the minimum codified requirements, in order to ensure that viewers would have generous information, on the basis of which to make more informed viewing choices.

Although Teletoon took that additional step with respect to the ratings icons, the Panel finds that it fell short on the issue of viewer advisory content.  The CBSC has previously stated that advisories must explicitly state the type of adult programming, namely “violence”, “sexual content” and “coarse language” because the advisories are not just for the benefit of children, but also for adult viewers who may wish to avoid certain types of content.  The National Conventional Television Panel made the point in the following terms in CTV re The Sopranos (CBSC Decision 00/01-0130+, March 8, 2001):

The purpose of viewer advisories is sometimes thought to be oriented toward children.  While their utility for that purpose is clear and important, they are, as a tool, media literacy based and oriented toward adults as much as children.  They are intended to provide viewers with sufficient information to enable them to determine, whether for their children or for themselves, what will be suitable viewing fare.  It is of the essence of the Canadian broadcasting system, which, the Broadcasting Act provides, encourages diversity of programming for the broad range of interests and tastes of Canadians, that potential viewers be advised, even after the protective Watershed hour (which is principally children-oriented), that programming may contain elements which they may not find palatable.

In the present case, while Teletoon specifically advised viewers of the “coarse language” in the film, it characterized the violence and the sexual content under the amorphous heading “mature subject matter”.  [On this precise point, see The Comedy Network re an episode of Gutterball Alley (CBSC Decision 01/02-0450 & 01/02-0481, September 13, 2002) and Comedy Network re Puppets Who Kill (“The Island of Skip-Along Pete”) (CBSC Decision 05/06-0383, March 30, 2006).]  The Panel finds this patently insufficient for viewers who may wish to know what kind of subject matter they and their families may encounter.  Some who may be offended by sexual content may have no difficulty with violence.  Others may tolerate both those categories but be troubled by the use of coarse language.  While the Panel has no problem with the additional designation “mature subject matter”, it concludes that this is insufficiently precise in the face of any of the categories of sexual content, violence, or coarse or offensive language.  They must be explicitly identified in viewer advisories.  [For previous similar examples of insufficiently descriptive viewer advisories, see Showcase Television re the movie Rats (CBSC Decision 99/00-0772, August 23, 2001), Showcase re an episode of Queer as Folk (CBSC Decision 01/02-0217, September 13, 2002), Showcase Television re the movie Frankie Starlight (CBSC Decision 02/03-0682, January 30, 2004), CITY-TV re the feature film Jade (CBSC Decision 03/04-0382, October 22, 2004), Bravo! re the movie Perfect Timing (CBSC Decision 03/04-1719, December 15, 2004), Bravo! re the movie Up! (CBSC Decision 03/04-0930, December 15, 2004), among others.]

The Panel also finds the use of the following language in the advisory problematic: “It [the program] may contain mature subject matter and coarse language [emphasis added].”  Simply stated, either it does or it does not.  The duty of the broadcaster is to inform the viewer of exactly what he or she will encounter during the program.  While the advisories listed in Appendix A to the CAB Violence Code are but examples and not at all exhaustive, each one uses either “contains” or “deals with” in reference to the program whose content is being described.  Nothing wishy-washy.  Just plain language.  The phrase “may contain” or “may deal with” looks and feels “off the shelf”, a short-cut.  Such language is not helpful to the viewer.  It does not provide what Clause 11 of the CAB Code of Ethics requires, namely, “wording which is likeliest to provide viewers with the most relevant and useful information regarding the programming to which it applies.”

For the foregoing reasons, the Panel finds the viewer advisory chosen in breach of Clause 11 in fine of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 5.3 of the CAB Violence Code.

 

Broadcaster Responsiveness

It is a fundamental requirement of the CBSC’s process that broadcasters respond to audience complaints about their programming filed with the Council.  While not required to agree with a complainant, broadcasters are expected to respond in a timely and thoughtful manner to those audience members who have taken the time to express their concerns.  In this case, Teletoon provided a lengthy and substantive letter which described the nature of its programming responsibilities and outlined its policies regarding the service’s division of the broadcast day and its efforts to prevent children from viewing programming intended for adult audiences.  While the arguments did not resonate with the complainant, the Panel considers that Teletoon has met its obligations in terms of responsiveness and nothing further is required of the broadcaster in this regard on this occasion.

 

Announcement of the Decision

Teletoon 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 Team America: World Police was broadcast; 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 Teletoon.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that Teletoon violated the provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics and Violence Code relating to viewer advisories in its broadcast of the film Team America: World Police on December 8, 2007.  In that broadcast, Teletoon did not alert viewers to the violence and sexual content in its viewer advisories.  Teletoon’s failure to mention those specific audience concerns constituted a breach of Clause 11 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Article 5.3 of the CAB Violence Code.

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