BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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New Zealand Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal Inc and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1998-060

Members
  • R McLeod
  • L M Loates
  • J Withers
Dated
Complainant
  • New Zealand Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal Inc (the New Zealand Skeptics)
Number
1998-060
Channel/Station
TV2


Summary

Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County was the title of a programme broadcast on

TV2 at 8.35pm on 24 February 1998. It purported to show, in documentary fashion,

the abduction by extraterrestrial aliens of an American family, recorded on a home

video.

On behalf of the complainant, the Chair-Entity, Vicki Hyde, complained to Television

New Zealand Limited, the broadcaster, that, through editing, the broadcast was

designed to mislead viewers. One example given was the omission of the credits

listing the actors involved. It was alleged in addition that the broadcast breached a

number of other nominated broadcasting standards.

Maintaining that the programme included a number of clues as to its fictitious nature,

TVNZ nevertheless acknowledged that the dropping of the credits could mislead

viewers in contravention of standard G11(i). It upheld that aspect of the complaint

only, and advised that the credits would be reinstated should the programme be

rescreened.

Dissatisfied both that the complaint had not been upheld in full, and with the action

taken on the aspect upheld, Ms Hyde on behalf of the complainant referred the

complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the

Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons below, the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast

breached standard G7 in that it involved the use of a deceptive programme practice.


It declines to uphold any other aspect.


Decision

The members of the Authority have viewed the programme complained about, and

have read the correspondence (summarised in the Appendix). On this occasion, the

Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

The broadcast at 8.35pm on TV2 on 24 February 1998 was preceded with the

following announcement, which was also presented as a caption on the screen:

"This programme on TV2 – Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County – was

obtained exclusively from America's U P N Television Network and is presented

as received. Its authenticity is still under much debate in the United States. We

invite you to decide for yourself."


The broadcast did not include any credits and was followed by a regularly scheduled

programme, The X Files.

The introduction and the absence of the credits were the basis of a formal complaint

from the complainant group, which describes itself as the New Zealand Skeptics. The

Skeptics stated that the credits revealed that most of the participants in the

programme, including the aliens, were actors. Following inquiries at TVNZ, the

Skeptics continued, they had been told the credits had been removed "to keep the

mystique going", and that this had been done for promotional purposes.

The Skeptics complained that the broadcast breached standards G1, G7, G11(i), G16

and G19 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

The first three require broadcasters:

            G1    To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.

            G7    To avoid the use of any deceptive programme practice in the presentation

                     of programmes which takes advantage of the confidence viewers have in

                     the integrity of broadcasting.

            G11   To refrain from broadcasting any programme which, when considered as a

                     whole:

                     (i)    Simulates news or events in such a way as to mislead or alarm viewers.

The other two read:

            G16     News, current affairs and documentaries should not be presented in such a

                       way as to cause unnecessary panic, alarm or distress.

            G19    Care must be taken in the editing of programme material to ensure that the

                      extracts used are a true reflection and not a distortion of the original event

                      or the overall views expressed.

When dealing with the aspect of the complaint which referred to the absence of

credits, TVNZ advised the complainant:

It is our understanding that the decision to drop the credits was made with the

intention of adding to the mystery, and to aid in a seamless transition to another

science fiction fantasy, X-Files.

            In our opinion this was an error of judgement. The credits should not have been

            dropped. The programme title has now been "tagged" in the TVNZ computer

            so that, should this programme be replayed, it will be noted that the credits

            should be reinstated.


TVNZ advised that the standard G11(i) aspect of the complaint had been upheld and

apologised to the complainant.

The Skeptics referred the complaint to the Authority as it believed that the changes

misled viewers into thinking they were watching a conventional documentary and

maintained, therefore, that the broadcast had breached all the nominated standards.

Further, the Skeptics considered that TVNZ 's acknowledgment of the breach should

include a public statement acknowledging the deception.

In its report to the Authority, TVNZ argued that a "spoof" was a legitimate genre of

programme making. It considered that the programme was clearly a spoof. However,

it conceded the deletion of the closing credits, which would have removed any

lingering doubts viewers might have held, amounted to a breach of standard G11(i).

The other standards, it maintained, were either not relevant, or not contravened.

In its final comment, the Skeptics contended that TVNZ had tried to manipulate

public opinion by presenting a programme as something that it was not.

There is no dispute between the complainant and the broadcaster as to the material

which was broadcast, and the reasons why changes were made to the programme

which was screened. The tasks for the Authority on this occasion are, first, to

determine whether any standards were contravened when Alien Abduction: Incident in

Lake Country was broadcast by TV2, and secondly, to decide whether TVNZ's action

on the acknowledged breach was sufficient.

There is also no dispute that the broadcast breached standard G11(i). TVNZ

considered that the broadcast was reasonably clearly a spoof, but because the removal

of the credits could mislead viewers who did not realise this, it accepted that the

standard had been transgressed.

Because the broadcast was a work of fiction, the Authority does not accept that it can

breach standards which refer to "facts" or which apply to "news, current affairs or

documentaries". TVNZ admitted to efforts to create an aura of authenticity about the

broadcast, and it was this approach which apparently prompted the Skeptics to

nominate breaches of standards G1 and G16. However, the Authority does not

consider these to be appropriate standards under which to assess the broadcast, and

therefore does not accept that it breached standards G1 or G16.

Similarly, as the purpose of standard G19 is to deal with complaints about editing

practices which distort programmes with a factual basis – such as current affairs and

documentaries – the Authority does not uphold the complaint that this standard was

breached by this particular broadcast.

In its response to the standard G7 aspect of the complaint, TVNZ argued that it was

not relevant as it was usually applied where "technical trickery" was used with the

intention to deceive.

However, the Authority has not absolutely limited standard G7 to the type of

technical trickery to which TVNZ referred – ie, "freeze frames and the like". It

considers that standard G7 applies when the broadcaster employs a practice which

results in the viewer being deceived. As TVNZ acknowledges that the addition of a

statement at the beginning of the broadcast, and the omission of the credits at the end,

could have misled viewers, the Authority concludes that the broadcast therefore also

breached standard G7.

The Authority now turns to the aspect of the referral where the Skeptics recorded

their dissatisfaction with the action taken by TVNZ when it decided that the

broadcast breached standard G11(i). In considering what should be the appropriate

action, the Authority also takes into account its finding that the broadcast also

breached standard G7.

The action taken by TVNZ was to tag the title in its computer to ensure, should the

programme be replayed, that the credits were reinstated. It has also advised its

relevant programming staff that the removal of the credits was "an error of

judgement". The Skeptics considered that TVNZ should issue a public statement

acknowledging that its action about the programme could have misled viewers.

The Authority emphasises that it regards the inclusion by TVNZ of its own

introduction as the primary reason why it considers that standards G7 and G11(i)

were breached. It is of the opinion that the introduction was deliberately designed to

create ambiguity when it reported:

"This programme on TV2 – "Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake Country" – was

obtained exclusively from America's U P N Television Network and is presented

as received. Its authenticity is still under much debate in the United States. We

invite you to decide for yourself."

The Authority believes that the addition of this statement was a clear breach of both

standards G7 and G11(i). However, it is of the view that none of the powers available

to it in s.13(1) or s.16(4) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 are appropriate. The Skeptics

sought a public statement from TVNZ, and the Authority considers that this is the

most appropriate of its possible powers. However, on this occasion, because of the

one-off nature of the broadcast, the Authority decides not to impose an order. It has

reached this decision on the basis that there is no readily apparent programming outlet

to which to attach such a statement in acknowledgment of the breach. Further, the

Authority takes into account that it is dealing with a work of fiction, or imagination,

the primary purpose of which was to entertain. Accordingly, it does not consider that

the misrepresentation involved was of such a level of potential seriousness as to

warrant further action.

For the reasons above, the Authority decides that the broadcast by Television

New Zealand Limited of Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, on TV2 at

8.35pm on 24 February 1998, breached standard G7 of the Television Code of

Broadcasting Practice.


It declines to uphold any other aspect of the complaint, including the referral of

the complainant's dissatisfaction with the action taken by the broadcaster when

it upheld part of the complaint.


As explained in the body of the decision, the Authority decides not to impose an

order on this occasion.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Lyndsay Loates
Member
18 June 1998


Appendix


New Zealand Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the
Paranormal Inc.'s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 25 February 1998


Vicki Hyde, Chair-Entity of the New Zealand Committee for Scientific Investigation

of Claims of the Paranormal Inc. (on notepaper which carries the headnote New

Zealand Skeptics) complained to Television New Zealand Ltd about the programme

Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, broadcast on TV2 at 8.35pm on 24

February 1998.

Ms Hyde described the broadcast in the following terms:

The programme contained clippings from an allegedly "home" videotape

purporting to show alien attacks on an American family, complete with low-

level violence and high levels of anxiety, and culminating in an apparent

abduction of the surviving members of the group. It was treated in

documentary/reality television style, interspersed with clips from commentators

including alleged US government agents, scientists, abductees, medical personnel

etc.

One aspect of the broadcast had resulted in the Society's decision to complain

formally, and breaches of the following standards were alleged – G1, G7, G11, G16

and G19.

When the programme was screened in the United States a month earlier, Ms Hyde

stated, the broadcast had included credits which "clearly revealed that most of the

participants – including Aliens 1 and 2 – were actors working on a prepared script

assisted by visual effects personnel". These credits, she added, were carried on the

Web site related to the programme. However, they had not been broadcast in New

Zealand. The Skeptics had been advised by Simon King of TVNZ that the credits had

been removed for the broadcast "to keep the mystique going", and that it had been

done for promotional purposes. Ms Hyde continued:

By presenting the material as a documentary, complete with a carefully worded

announcement beforehand informing the viewer that the authenticity of the

videotape was "under debate", TV2 undertook deceptive programming practices

to take advantage of the confidence that viewers have in the integrity of the non-

fiction area of broadcasting.

Moreover:

While the bulk of our concern has been TV2's unwarranted and unprofessional

manipulation of the programme in this fashion, we also have concerns about the

use of "reality television" techniques to promote the belief that aliens are

attacking peaceful citizens in the confines of their own homes. The people

involved were clearly highly distressed by what was apparently happening to

them and the suggestion that this was, in fact, real serves only to heighten the

potential for alarm.


In conclusion, Ms Hyde called upon TVNZ to advise the viewing public that it had

deliberately sought to mislead them through editing.

TVNZ's Response to the Formal Complaint – 16 March 1998


Assessing the complaint under the nominated standards, TVNZ summarised the

complaint in the following way:

You said that by making a deliberate decision to delete credits at the end of the

programme which revealed the "experts" to be actors, TVNZ misled viewers and

presented a programme which was inaccurate and the cause of unnecessary

panic, alarm or distress.


TVNZ said that the broadcast was preceded with the following visual and verbal

statement which was designed to introduce doubt into the mind of viewers:

"This programme on TV2 – Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County – was

obtained exclusively from America's U P N Television Network and is presented

as received. Its authenticity is still under much debate in the United States. We

invite you to decide for yourself."


TVNZ noted that the programme contained a number of clues about its fictitious

nature, but shared the complainant's concern:

... that the credits at the end of the programme, which identified the experts as

"actors" and thereby revealed the whole programme as a spoof, were missing.


TVNZ added:

It is our understanding that the decision to drop the credits was made with the

intention of adding to the mystery, and to aid in a seamless transition to another

science fiction fantasy, X-Files.

In our opinion this was an error of judgement. The credits should not have been

dropped. The programme title has now been "tagged" in the TVNZ computer

so that, should this programme be replayed, it will be noted that the credits

should be reinstated.


Turning to the standards, and on the basis that the programme could have been

mistaken for a genuine documentary, TVNZ upheld the complaint that the broadcast

was a breach of standard G11(i). It declined to uphold the complaint under the other

standards, and concluded:

We are sorry you felt misled by the programme and trust that our action in

ensuring that the credits will be included in any repeat broadcast meets with

your approval. Copies of this letter will be sent to the relevant programming

staff.


The New Zealand Skeptics' Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards
Authority – 6 April 1998


Dissatisfied that the complaint had not been upheld under all the nominated standards,

on behalf of the complainant Vicki Hyde referred the complaint to the Broadcasting

Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

The main aspect of the complaint, Ms Hyde wrote, was that viewers, as a result of

the editing, were misled into thinking they were watching a conventional documentary.

This was the result of the introduction at the beginning of the programme and the

deletion of the credits from the broadcast.

Consequently, Ms Hyde wrote, the complainant society contended that the

broadcast, in addition to the acknowledged breach of standard G11,(i), also breached

standards G1, G7, G16 and G19. She stated:

TVNZ admits the show could have been mistaken as a documentary; it certainly

was by many American viewers, despite their advantage in having credits on

their showing. This is the essence of our complaint – that TVNZ ingenuously

presented fictional material as fact in an act which deceived viewers and which

was designed merely to prevent channel-switching (or a "seamless transition to

... another fantasy", as [TVNZ's] Mr Edmunds puts it).

Viewers should not have to try and puzzle out whether TVNZ is lying to them

or not.


Moreover, the Society did not accept that the reintroduction of the credits, should the

programme be screened again, was an adequate action on the aspect upheld. A

statement from TVNZ admitting the deception was proposed.

TVNZ's Response to the Authority – 14 April 1998


In its report to the Authority, TVNZ emphasised that the standard G11(i) aspect of

the complaint had been upheld. The credits, it said, should have been retained.

TVNZ maintained that a "spoof" was a legitimate genre of programme making,

observing:

In this case we believe Alien Abduction was clearly a spoof, from beginning to

end. The closing credits which reveal the presence of actors in the cast would

have removed the last lingering doubts any viewer might have had about the

authenticity of the information provided.

In that some viewers may have been misled, we believe standard G11(i) was the

relevant standard to consider. We consider the other standards to be either not

relevant to this complaint, or not to have been breached.


The Skeptics' Final Comment – 23 April 1998


On behalf of the Skeptics, Vicki Hyde wrote:

Our position remains, as in our previous correspondence, that TVNZ has acted

irresponsibly and untruthfully in a manner unbecoming our national broadcaster

and that it should publicly acknowledge this. It has attempted to deliberately

deceive the viewing public in an attempt to "heighten the mystique" of a shoddy

programme (i.e. boost ratings) and provide "a seamless transition" to another

programme (i.e. boost ratings by preventing channel switching).

The Skeptics, she added, accepted the potential service to skeptics that spoofs could

provide. Had this programme included the credits and excluded the misleading

announcement which preceded it, there would have been no complaint. However, on

this occasion, TVNZ had tried to manipulate public interest, and Ms Hyde

continued:

However, we do not feel that it is the place o TVNZ, an organisation with no

connection to the programme makers, to manipulate the programme to make it

appear something that it is not.


The Sceptics did not consider that TVNZ's action in upholding the standard G11(i)

aspect was sufficient. It also believed that the requirement in standard G7 had been

contravened. Turning to the accuracy requirement in standard G1, Ms Hyde stated:

TVNZ, in claiming that they were broadcasting the material as received and in

stating that the authenticity of the material was under debate, when they clearly

knew it to be fictional, was neither truthful nor accurate.

We believe that they should admit this to the public so that the people of New

Zealand are aware that our national broadcaster is not above manipulating

material and lying to the public in their quest for better ratings. This has

important implications for the integrity of our broadcasting system, and we

hope that you will concur with us in this view and support our call for TVNZ

to acknowledge and apologise for their action.