BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Bamber and MediaWorks TV Ltd - 2019-096 (23 April 2020)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
Dated
Complainant
  • Wendy Bamber
Number
2019-096
Programme
The Simpsons Movie
Broadcaster
MediaWorks TV Ltd
Channel/Station
Three

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

The Authority has not upheld a complaint that a remark about suicide made by Mr Burns at the end of The Simpsons Movie was in breach of the good taste and decency, children’s interests and violence standards. The Authority acknowledged that the remark pushed the boundaries of the G (General) classification and recognised the need for broadcasters to take particular care when addressing subjects such as suicide. However, noting the nature of, and audience expectations for, The Simpsons as well as the nature and position (within the credits) of the remark, the Authority concluded that the programme was unlikely to cause widespread undue offence or distress or to be unduly harmful or disturbing to children. The Authority also noted that there were no scenes of violence depicted.

Not upheld: Good Taste and Decency, Children’s Interests and Violence


The broadcast

[1]  The Simpsons Movie is a feature-length film based on the animated series, The Simpsons. This complaint relates to a short clip during the credits at the end of the movie. In the clip, Mr Burns said to Smithers:

Smithers, I don’t believe in suicide but if you’d like to try it, it might cheer me up to watch.

[2]  The item was broadcast on 28 September 2019 on Three at 5:00pm. In considering the complaint, we have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

The complaint

[3]  Wendy Bamber complained that the item breached of the following standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice:

  • Standard 1 - good taste and decency
  • Standard 3 - children’s interests
  • Standard 4 - violence

[4]  Ms Bamber submitted that the item was aired during a time where children and young adults would be watching, it trivialised the act of suicide, and there was a risk that the content may encourage children to attempt, or encourage others to attempt, suicide. Ms Bamber also submitted that vulnerable children and young adults may not be able to recognise parody or satire and the programme should not have been played at this time.

The broadcaster’s response

[5]  MediaWorks acknowledged that Mr Burns’ remark was ‘somewhat jarring’ and apologised to Ms Bamber for the offence caused.

[6]  MediaWorks did not uphold the complaint for the following reasons:

  • In its context, it is unlikely that viewers would perceive the remark as trivialising or encouraging suicide or that it would cause widespread undue offence to likely viewers:
    (a)  The Simpsons is a programme well known for its irreverence and satire.
    (b)  Mr Burns’ suicide remark was ‘illustrative of his callous character and the nature of his relationship with his long-suffering assistant, Smithers’.
  • The remark was limited to a single verbal reference and was not expanded or accompanied by inappropriate imagery. It was therefore unlikely to have disturbed or harmed children.
  • The violence standard has limited application because the suicide comment was limited to a brief, verbal reference that did not include graphic or otherwise inappropriate detail.

The relevant standards

[7]  The good taste and decency standard (Standard 1) requires broadcasters to maintain current norms of good taste and decency consistent with the context of the programme and the wider context of the broadcast. Context is crucial to the Authority’s assessment under this standard, including the programme’s classification and time of broadcast, the target and likely audience, and any pre-broadcast warnings (guideline 1a).

[8]  Where broadcasters take effective steps to inform their audiences of the nature of their programmes, and enable viewers to regulate their own and their children’s viewing behaviour, they are less likely to breach the good taste and decency standard (guideline 1b).

[9]  The children’s interests standard (Standard 3) requires broadcasters to ensure children can be protected from broadcasts which might adversely affect them, including material that unduly disturbs them, is harmful, or is likely to impair their physical, mental or social development. It is concerned in particular with material that is outside audience expectations of the programme’s classification (guideline 3a).

[10]  The purpose of the violence standard (Standard 4) is to protect audiences from unduly disturbing violent content.1 The standard requires broadcasters to exercise care and discretion when portraying violence. Violent content should be appropriate to the context of the programme and classified carefully.

Our analysis

Freedom of expression and harm

[11]  The right to freedom of expression, including the broadcaster’s right to impart ideas and information and the public’s right to receive that information, is the starting point in our consideration of complaints. Equally important is our consideration of the level of actual or potential harm that may be caused by the broadcast. We may only interfere and uphold complaints where the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.

[12]  The Simpsons is a satirical cartoon programme described as having ‘pioneered a new wave of popular satire in the 21st century’.2 Its episodes use satire and parody as a tool for social commentary. Satire and parody are important and valuable forms of creative expression which create and add to social and political discussion.  The Simpsons Movie follows the same style and tone as the television series, adopting the characterisations built through the series. 

[13]  We are also mindful of the need for responsible broadcasting surrounding suicide noting that New Zealand’s youth suicide rate is the highest among the 41 OECD countries.3

[14]  In this case, we are required to determine whether the brief statement made the end of the movie, may have caused harm to audiences by trivialising suicide or by encouraging vulnerable youth to attempt, or encouraging others to attempt, suicide and, if so, whether that potential harm outweighs the value of the programme.

Contextual factors

[15]  We considered the following contextual factors relevant in assessing the complaint under each standard:4

  • The Simpsons is a long-running series, well known for its satirical nature that has been aired on New Zealand television for 30 years.5
  • The programme was rated G and was broadcast between 5pm to 6pm.6
  • There were no warnings before or accompanying the programme. However:
    (a)  The item did not depict a suicide or suicide attempt.
    (b)  The item did not contain any description of suicide, or how to commit suicide.(c)   Mr Burns’ remark was not discussed or expanded upon.
  • The short clip appeared after the end of the programme, during the credits, it was not a central theme in the movie.
  • Mr Burns is the antagonist in The Simpsons and is a character well-known for his mean-spirited and bullying nature. It is not outside audience expectations for Mr Burns to make such a remark, showing a lack of regard for the wellbeing of his staff.

Good taste and decency and children’s interests

[16]  We acknowledge the complainant’s concerns with the broadcast of a joke about suicide immediately before the 6:00pm news in a movie that is at least to some degree targeted at children and aired well within children’s normally accepted viewing times.7 We agree that this pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable for the G (General) classification. However, considering the contextual factors above, we have concluded that the remark is unlikely to cause widespread undue offence or distress or to undermine widely shared community standards.8 We also find the remark is unlikely to be unduly harmful or disturbing to children or to impair their physical, mental or social development.9

[17]  As noted at paragraph [12] and previously accepted by the Authority10, satire and parody are important tools of creative expression and the threshold for our intervention is higher with programmes of such value. In this case, we consider that any potential for harm is outweighed by the right to freedom of expression.

[18]  In addition, due to his character, and the nature of the programme, a remark made by Mr Burns is very likely to be dismissed as evil and wrong. The relevant excerpt contained no suggestion that Mr Smithers took the remark seriously.

[19]  We recognise the need for broadcasters to take particular care when addressing subjects such as suicide which may present a significant risk of harm to vulnerable viewers. For that reason, we have given careful consideration to the fact that the programme did not contain any warning or audience advisory (a factor which has been important in previous similar cases11). However, we concluded that an audience advisory would have been misplaced in this case for the reason that the reference to suicide appeared in the credits rather than in the movie itself. In addition, the excerpt in question was a fleeting verbal remark and contained no portrayal of suicide, or suicide attempts.

[20]  Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint under either the good taste and decency or children’s interests standards.

Violence

[21]  The excerpt in question does not depict any scenes of violence and is accordingly more properly dealt with under the good taste and decency and children’s interests standards.

[22]  We therefore do not uphold the complaint under the violence standard.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

 

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

23 April 2020

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1.  Wendy Bamber’s original complaint to MediaWorks – 1 October 2019

2.  MediaWorks’ response to Ms Bamber – 29 October 2019

3.  Ms Bamber’s referral to the BSA – 5 November 2019

4.  MediaWorks’ further comments – 21 November 2019

5.  Ms Bamber’s further comments - 27 November 2019

6.  MediaWorks’ confirmation of classification – 3 December 2019

7.  Ms Bamber’s further comments – 14 January 2019


1 Commentary: Violence, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 14
2 The Globalization of The Simpsons: A Study of Satire in International Media (Medium.com, August 18 2016)
3 What’s behind New Zealand’s Shocking Youth Suicide Rates? (BBC.com, June 15 2017). See also New Zealand’s Suicide Statistics Increase on Last Year (Newshub, 26 June 2019) and NZ has Highest Death Rate For Teenagers in Developed World (Newstalk ZB, 26 February 2019)
4 Guidelines 1a, 3b and 4a
5 Is it time for The Simpsons to end? (Stuff, 19 June 2015). See also: The Simpsons looked very different 30 years ago (NZ Herald, 20 April 2017) and ‘The Simpsons’ becomes longest-running scripted TV series (Stuff, 1 May 2018)
6 G-General programmes exclude material likely to be unsuitable for children.  Programmes may not necessarily be designed for child viewers but should not contain material likely to alarm or distress them. G programmes may be screened at any time. See Definitions, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 09
7 Children’s normally accepted viewing times for free-to-air television are usually up until 8:30pm and/or during G or PGR programming, see Definitions: Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 9
8 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
9 Commentary: Children’s Interests, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 13
10 See for example Osborne and Canwest TV Works Ltd, Decision No 2007-027 and Duffy and Lister And Television NZ Ltd, Decision No 1997-040 and 041
11 See for example Young and TV Works Ltd, Decision No 2012-085