Monday, December 08, 2008

TV shock?

For the first time, a viewer complaint against the TVNZ soap opera Shortland Street has been upheld by the Broadcast Standards Authority. Actually, that kind of surprised me, because over the years the programme has dealt with many “controversial” subjects and storylines.

A Balclutha man complained about an episode in which two young gay men undress and get into bed. One of the men disappeared under the blankets, with the implication it was for oral sex. This is what the man objected to, saying he'd "have had enough of a problem explaining to younger kids what might just be happening under the bed clothes if that had been a heterosexual couple".

That led TVNZ to suggest that the objection was purely based on the gay nature of the relationship, arguing that “the same scene with a heterosexual couple would not have breached broadcasting standard.” They also pointed out that there was no actual sex (simulated, obviously), and the scene ended up in comic disaster when the character under the blankets is accidentally kneed in the face, giving him a bloody nose.

The complainant countered the sexuality of the couple wasn't the point, that any such pairing was inappropriate given the show's timeslot (7pm),and that neither the show's PGR rating nor its warning of sexual content were sufficient. The BSA agreed with the complainant, adding that the sexual orientation of the characters was irrelevant.

I actually saw the scene in question—which is weird, because I never ordinarily watch the show. I was, it's fair to say, surprised by it, but when it delivered its punchline (knee line? Kick line?) I thought it was funny. I can understand how parents might find such scenes difficult to explain and might not want to, but here's my gripe: Whatever happened to personal responsibility of parents?

The programme is rated PGR and has warnings about it's content. Clearly it's not suitable for young children, but why should grown-ups and teenagers have to endure "child-safe" TV mush when parents can use the "off" button? Where is it written that people with children get a total veto over what those without children are allowed to watch just because its broadcast at a time a child might, theoretically, be watching?

And there's the issue of the content itself. I take the complainant at his word that he'd oppose any sexual pairing at that time, but with all due respect, it's a little dishonest to say it's irrelevant. History has shown that anything related to gay content draws more complaints.

Actually, TVNZ has a track record of overzealously censoring gay content. It's few attempts at a GLBT programme have always been aired late at night, even though heterosexual programmes with more overt sexual content have aired much earlier. There was also an infamous incident when TVNZ censored the video for Christina Aguilera's song "Beautiful" by cutting a scene in which two young men kiss while seated on a park bench, attracting disapproving stares from passersby. Ironically, the song was about helping people's feelings of low self-esteem and insecurity brought on by the hateful attitudes of others (the song reached number one in New Zealand, and was the number three song in NZ for the year 2003).

So while I understand parents' desire to shield their children from inappropriate content on TV, I think they should take some personal responsibility and they shouldn't have an absolute veto power over what's broadcast. I also think that all too often people have a double standard when it comes to gay content, regardless of what time it's broadcast. A little fair-mindedness is all I'm asking for, but I don't expect to see it—not on TV, anyway.

This post has been edited to fix some formatting and spelling errors that slipped through when I used a different program to write it.


d said...

I thought it was pretty cool that TVNZ struck down the complaint. It was the Balclutha man who pursued it further to to the BSA, who then upheld the complaint.

In the US, networks are all too ready to censor nudity (but not violence, of course!) and gay sexual situations (i.e. nixing a story-line on Grey's Anatomy, the demotion of a transgendered character on Ugly Betty) if anyone complains - esp if a sponsor pulls out.

It's a shame that the BSA upheld the complaint and took the responsibility away from parents. One of the arguments being "how do we explain this situation to our children?" - when the question should be "why are your children watching this program?"

Reed said...

I got to say, Shortland St isn't the most sexed up tv show here but there is plenty of it. I didn't catch that particular scene but singling it out seems a little off.

I don't mind saying I'm still slightly traumatized by them showing Hunter's nekid butt that time.

So, yeah, no way I'd want to explain to some child all of what goes down on Shortland street: the drug dealings, gang violence, serial killers, heavy drinking, unauthorized cadaver tissue sales, Tourette's, cradle robbing, lawyers, pharm co sanctioned killings, kidnappings, fraud, etc..

But yeah, sex is totally not cool.

I have to say that is one of my fav tv shows. That's how I've been getting up to date on my Kiwi culture.

Reed said...

well, kids should know about Tourette's -- but I stand by the rest of that

Arthur Schenck said...

D: Yeah, US free-to-air TV is definitely much more conservative than New Zealand TV. In the US, a few loud voices can drive the networks to do their bidding, while here they just go to the BSA. And I should say that while I disagree with the BSA on this—and think they're being dishonest in suggesting they, too, don't have a double-standard for gay content—I nevertheless think they generally do an adequate job. I guess it figures they'll get some wrong from time to time.

But at least we do sometimes get real gay content on free-to-air TV in New Zealand (often on Canadian-owned TV3 or C4, though), while in the US it's all on pay TV. That, too, should be acknowledged.

Reed: As a general rule, I htink it's best to remember that Shortland Street is a soap opera, which pretty much means that by definition that it'll seal with subjects that aren't appropriate for small children—or even us grown-ups sometimes. That's kind of the whole point of the genre.

When I came to New Zealand, I watched Shorty religiously (ahem!) for precisely the reason you said—that and to learn Kiwi slang and to get practice understanding the Kiwi accent. In fact, it used to be recommend to new migrants for exactly that, though I don't know if they still do.