BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Bray and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2002-197

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor
  • Mark Bray

Overboard – film – "bitch" – "slut" – inappropriate – offensive language

Standard 1 – not offensive in context – no uphold

Standard 9 – not unsuitable for children – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1] Overboard, a comedy film, was broadcast by TV2 at 6.30pm on Saturday 21 September 2002. It portrayed an arrogant and spoilt woman who, through a number of incidents, discovered humility and love. The film was rated "G".

[2] Mark Bray complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the language used was unacceptable during family viewing hours. He specifically referred to the use of the words "bitch" and "slut".

[3] In declining to uphold the complaint TVNZ said, in context, the language did not breach current norms of good taste and decency.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Bray referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8 (1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.


[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the film complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[6] Overboard was a comedy movie with a "G" rating. It was broadcast by TV2 at 6.30pm on Saturday 21 August 2002. According to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster:

The film is a comedy about what happens when a snob suddenly finds herself having to live ‘as the other half lives’. Through a series of comic incidents the main character – stuck-up, arrogant and spoiled – discovers the real virtues of humility, gratitude and love.

The Complaint

[7] Mr Bray complained to TVNZ that the language in the movie was offensive and unacceptable during family viewing hours. Mr Bray specifically complained about the use of the words "slut" and "bitch".

The Standards

[8] TVNZ assessed Mr Bray’s complaint against Standard 1 and Standard 9 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The Standards (and relevant Guidelines) provide:

Standard 1 Good Taste and Decency

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.


1a  Broadcasters must take into consideration current norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs. Examples of context are the time of the broadcast, the type of programme, the target audience, the use of warnings and the programme’s classification (see Appendix 1). The examples are not exhaustive.

Standard 9 Children’s Interests

During children’s normally accepted viewing times (see Appendix 1), broadcasters are required, in the preparation and presentation of programmes, to consider the interests of child viewers.


9a  Broadcasters should be mindful of the effect any programme or promo may have on children during their normally accepted viewing times – usually up to 8.30pm – and avoid screening material which would disturb or alarm them.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[9] In declining to uphold the complaint, TVNZ noted that neither word was inherently offensive in the context of the film, neither word was described as "vulgar slang" by the Concise Oxford Dictionary and neither word featured on the list of offensive words drawn up after research by either the New Zealand or British Broadcasting Authorities.

[10] In relation to Standard 1, TVNZ stated that the use of "bitch" and "slut" in this context did not stray beyond the grounds of "current norms of decency and taste". Both were old English words, it stated, regularly found in literature, and not inappropriate in a film with a theme about a "spoiled rich girl" finding out about the artificial world in which she had been living.

[11] TVNZ concluded that, taking into account the contextual matters stated above, the broadcast did not breach Standard 1.

[12] In relation to Standard 9, TVNZ noted that neither word was found to have been offensive in the sense that many exclamatory or swear words might be and it also declined to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

The Referral to the Authority

[13] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response in relation to the offensive language aspect of his complaint, Mr Bray referred it to the Authority and wrote:

To say that … the use of the words "bitch" and "slut" did not breach Standard 1 is a nonsense. If this is the case then the standards are slack and need reviewing so that the television our young children see is acceptable to decent New Zealand parents. No amount of spin doctoring and convenient interpretation, or use of the dictionary, can convince us that such language is acceptable to children of 6 and 9 years of age, and their parents.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[14] TVNZ disagreed with Mr Bray’s comment regarding the use of such language and stated "…as the dictionary confirms, the words ‘bitch’ and ‘slut’ are in quite a different category from those words which are described as ‘vulgar slang’."

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[15] In Mr Bray’s view TVNZ missed the point of his complaint, which did not involve debating the differences in the technical meaning of words. He said it related solely to the use of the words "bitch" and "slut" in the film "Overboard".

[16] Mr Bray considered that the words "bitch" and "slut" breached Standard 1. He said:

General standards of good manners, appropriate behaviour and language … good morals [within society] which is influenced by what children see on TV, should reflect the views and opinions of responsible parents rather than the technical meaning of a word in the dictionary…

The Authority’s Determination

[17] When the Authority determines a complaint that a broadcast contravenes Standard 1 of the Television Code, it is required to determine whether the material complained about breaches currently accepted standards of good taste and decency, taking into account the context of the film broadcast. The context is relevant, but does not determine whether the film breached the standard. Accordingly the Authority has considered the context in which the material complained about was broadcast.

[18] The Authority notes, contrary to the broadcaster’s assertion, that the word "bitch" is listed in the language section of its research publication "Monitoring Community Attitudes in Changing Mediascapes".

[19] However, in the Authority’s view the film presented a redeeming social theme and was, in effect, an articulation of the positive aspects of life in which material wealth does not necessarily equate to happiness. It notes in particular the limited use of the two words and the manner in which they were used. In the Authority’s opinion the words are in common usage and, in the context of film, are insufficient to effect a breach of Standard 1. Similarly the use of the words "bitch" and "slut" are unlikely to disturb or alarm children.

[20] Accordingly, the Authority concludes that neither Standard 1 nor Standard 9 were contravened.

[21] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to apply the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards and applies them in a manner which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.


For the reasons given above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Peter Cartwright
17 December 2002


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

  1. Mark Bray’s Formal Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 23 September 2002
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 4 October 2002
  3. Mr Bray’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 11 October 2002
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 23 October 2002
  5. Mr Bray’s Final Comment – 5 November 2002