BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Percy and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1999-118, 1999-119

  • S R Maling (Chair)
  • J Withers
  • L M Loates
  • R McLeod
  • L D Percy
Shortland Street


Two consecutive episodes of Shortland Street contained a story-line about a nine-year-old boy, previously diagnosed with leukaemia, suffering a relapse and needing further medical treatment. His "mother" was shown receiving medical advice that his chances of survival with a bone marrow transplant were about one in ten. In the next episode, the child was shown bleeding profusely from mouth and nose, because his blood was not clotting properly. The episodes were broadcast on TV2 on 29 and 30 April 1999, commencing at 7.00 pm.

L D Percy complained to Television New Zealand Limited, the broadcaster, that the portrayals had a frightening impact on family and child viewers, particularly children who had returned to normal lives after receiving treatment for leukaemia. The depictions should only have been shown in an AO-rated programme, if at all, L D Percy wrote.

TVNZ, in declining to uphold the complaints, responded that the programme’s medical stories were thoroughly researched, and its producers were responsible in portraying medical matters within the guidelines for material broadcast at 7.00 pm. It wrote that every medical story was likely to have parallels in real life which could cause uncomfortable memories for some viewers.

Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, L D Percy referred the complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons below, a majority of the Authority declines to uphold the complaints.


The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the items complained about, and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.

An episode of Shortland Street contained a story-line in which a nine-year-old boy, suffering from leukaemia, suffered a relapse and was hospitalised. His "mother" was depicted being advised by a doctor that his chances of survival after a bone marrow transplant were about one in ten. The episode was screened on TV2 at 7.00 pm on 29 April. In the following episode, the child was depicted suffering severe bleeding from the nose and mouth. The bleeding was said to result from a fall in the child’s platelets, and a consequent failure of his blood to clot properly.

L D Percy complained to TVNZ that the programme was viewed by families and children throughout the country, particularly many children who had returned to normal, healthy lives after receiving treatment for leukaemia. With such children, who had been through so much, the effect of the depictions upon their state of mind was enormous, L D Percy suggested. She wrote:

…can any person with a vestige of conscience wish that [a child who had been through the experience] … should ask the question "Will that happen to me?" Can the producers … comprehend the impact of a friend asking [the child] … at school "Did you see Shortland Street and will what is happening to Maddy happen to you?"

Stressing that the state of mind of a patient had a great deal to do with the treatment and its eventual outcome and success, the complainant said that if the broadcaster needed to screen the exploitation of a human situation affecting young children and their families, then it should be in adult viewing time.

The complainant submitted that, in view of the huge power that television possessed, particularly for young people, a totally positive message must be seen to come out of any dealings by this programme with the young leukaemia patient.

TVNZ considered the complaints in the context of standards G2 and G12 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. These require broadcasters:

G2  To take into consideration currently accepted norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour, bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs.

G12  To be mindful of the effect any programme may have on children during their normally accepted viewing times.

The broadcaster noted that circumstances depicted in fictional settings sometimes caused uncomfortable memories for some individuals and family viewers, because their own real life experiences mirrored the fictional situation. The medical stories shown on Shortland Street, set in a medical clinic, were thoroughly researched by the programme’s medical advisors, TVNZ wrote. Its producers took seriously the responsibility to depict medical matters accurately within the guidelines for material broadcast at 7.00 pm.

Shortland Street, TVNZ continued, had been acclaimed within the medical community for its responsible handling of topical medical issues. In addressing the issue of child cancer, the programme highlighted the stresses and concerns facing families in a positive and informative way, it contended.

Dealing with standard G2, TVNZ suggested the complainant had taken two scenes out of context in a long-running story line. In fact, it wrote, the ultimate outcome for "Maddy" would be that the bone marrow transplant was successful and that "Maddy" recovered, but the story ran over some eight months to enable it to be medically accurate, and to give the subject the weight it deserved. It declined to uphold the standard G2 complaint.

Turning to standard G12, it noted the programme was rated PGR. The definition of PGR, TVNZ pointed out, suggested the need for parental guidance for child viewers. It argued that parents were well placed to lead discussions which might arise from the storylines. The child cancer story line was informative and would provide an understanding of the issues facing families dealing with the disease, it wrote. The programme’s classification demonstrated that the broadcaster was mindful of the programme’s effect on children, TVNZ concluded, in declining to uphold the standard G12 complaint.

In referring the complaints to the Authority, L D Percy wrote that the well-being of their daughter, and many other children being treated for leukaemia, was of paramount importance to the issue. TVNZ’s justifications for the acceptability of the episodes were irrelevant to an eleven-year-old, the complainant said. Again emphasising her concern for the effect of the programme upon children with leukaemia, the complainant asked whether the programme’s advisors included young children with the disease and their families. The portrayal of the issue was so far removed from being presented positively as to be contemptible, L D Percy wrote. The complainant also challenged TVNZ’s view that the story-line allowed parents to lead discussion about the matters which had been portrayed.

In reply, TVNZ apologised for the distress the story-line had caused to the complainant and wrote that it had little to add, except that any series in which medical events were portrayed would be of concern to viewers who had experienced the illnesses described.

In a final comment, L D Percy wrote that the complaints were based on their daughter’s reaction to the programme. The story-lines were damaging and explicit in a programme rated PGR, the complainant wrote. Medical stories on other programmes had also caused their family concern, the complainant wrote, but they had been classified AO.

The Authority’s Findings

The episodes of Shortland Street which gave rise to the complainant’s concerns under standard G2 depicted the mother of a child leukaemia patient being advised about his chances of survival after a bone marrow transplant and, subsequently, the child suffering a severe bleeding episode as a result of his illness and its treatment. The complainant was concerned about the effect of the depictions on otherwise unaffected family and child viewers, who might later, as a result of viewing the episodes, unwittingly ask hurtful questions of leukaemia sufferers. L D Percy also stressed the frightening impact the depictions were likely to have had on children who had received treatment for leukaemia, as well as on their families.

The Authority is divided in its decision on this aspect of the complaint. In examining the complaints under standard G2, the Authority looks first to the context within which the portrayals occurred, as required by that standard. While expressing sympathy for the complainant’s viewpoint, TVNZ stressed that the programme was fiction. In works of fiction, it said, stories often caused uncomfortable reactions in viewers when they found their life experiences mirrored in a portrayal. A majority of the Authority concurs with that view, and in this instance, believes that the issue was handled responsibly.

Shortland Street, the Authority understands, is a serial aimed at a regular viewer following. A viewer watching an episode out of context might be disturbed by its content, but it is necessary, in the majority’s view, to bear in mind the evolution of individual storylines over time.

Other contextual matters which the majority takes into account are the time at which the programme was broadcast and its PGR classification. Taking those contextual matters into account, the majority is unable to find that the contents of the particular episodes exceeded currently accepted norms in a manner which challenged the standard, and it declines to uphold the complaint under standard G2.

The minority of the Authority disagrees and for the reasons outlined in the later discussion under standard G12, it would uphold a breach of standard G2.

In assessing the complaint under the other standard cited, the Authority notes that standard G12 requires broadcasters to be mindful of the effect a programme might have on children during their normally accepted viewing times. The complainant, in emphasising concern about the effect of the episodes on leukaemia sufferers and their families, suggested that if TVNZ deemed it necessary to screen "such exploitation of a human situation", then it should only be at a time when young children and their families did not see it. These scenes should only be broadcast in Adults Only programming, L D Percy concluded.

The Authority is also divided in its decision on this aspect of the complaint. A majority of the Authority looks to the nature of the programme, a well-known series with a regular following, in which sometimes sensitive issues are explored in an ongoing manner, and in which feasible and acceptable outcomes are usually provided. The programme is screened at 7.00 pm with a PGR classification. That classification indicates that the programme’s material is "more suited to adult audiences but [is] not necessarily unsuitable for child viewers" when subject to the guidance of a caregiver. In the majority’s view, the episodes were rightly classified. It considers there was nothing in the material shown which would have been so upsetting to the child viewers contemplated by the programme’s classification as to result in a serious threat to the standard, and it declines to uphold the complaint under standard G12.

A minority of the Authority disagrees. It notes decisions of the Broadcasting Standards Commission (UK), indicating that programmes portraying alarming or sensational matters, allied with a focus on large amounts of blood, are deemed by most viewers to be unacceptable fare for children and young viewers at any time. In the episodes under consideration, the minority believes that the portrayal of the child’s distress allied with his copious bleeding, and the hysteria depicted by his "mother", combined to present material which could well have been alarming for younger children. The minority acknowledges the programme’s PGR rating, but it considers that at 7.00 pm parents do not expect such graphic footage, particularly in a series which is known to attract young viewers. The minority considers that primary school-aged children may well identify with child characters in the series, and it believes the story could have been told without repeated and graphic depictions of bleeding, and the "mother’s" hysterical reaction, which could be expected to compound the impact. The minority would uphold the complaint under standard G12 as going beyond what was acceptable for that time slot in its graphic detail of the child’s bleeding, and the "mother’s" reaction. The minority would also uphold a breach of standard G2, as it considers excessive depictions of blood breach standards of good taste in the context of a programme with significant child viewership.


For the reasons set forth above, a majority of the Authority declines to uphold the complaints that the broadcasts breached standards G2 and G12 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Sam Maling
12 August 1999


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

1. L D Percy’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Limited – 1 May 1999

2. TVNZ’s Response to L D Percy – 28 May 1999

3. L D Percy’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 31 May 1999

4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 10 June 1999

5. L D Percy’s Final Comment to the Authority – 17 June 1999