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Recent complaints about violence and sexual material on free to air television

25 August 2016 (updated 29 August 2016)

For the past few months, the Classification Office has been providing a service on our public website for people to check whether the free to air television shows that they wish to watch have previously been given an official rating or classification. Two recent surveys told us that New Zealanders would find this information useful — particularly Kiwis with families and children.

In the process of compiling this information, the Classification Office became concerned about a couple of instances of potentially harmful, violent and/or sexual material displayed on free to air television at times and in ways that appeared to contravene broadcasting standards.

Broadcasting regulation and film and video regulation are two different systems with different purposes. Broadcasting regulation is concerned with a broad range of matters including fairness and balance in news broadcasts and the degree to which broadcasts may offend listeners and viewers. Broadcasting regulation also seeks to ensure that children's interests are considered and that law and order is upheld.

Learn more about New Zealand broadcasting codes and standards on the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) website.

In comparison, film and video regulation seeks to balance the right to freedom of expression with the injury to the public good caused by exposure to sex, horror, crime, cruelty and violence.

Find out more about how classification decisions are made

The following contains references and depictions of violence, drug use and sexual material. The material carries PGR and AO ratings on free to air television.

What was the Classification Office concerned about?

An episode of the long-running crime drama Criminal Minds, screened on 15 February 2016 at 8.30pm on TV One raised the following concerns.

Image of two dead men

Strong adult content (the depiction of bloody and burnt murder victims) was displayed promptly at 8.30pm. Broadcasting standards require free to air TV broadcasters to ensure that strong adult material is not shown soon after 8.30pm (the accepted time for the commencement of adult programming).

In this case, the following content was displayed at 8.30pm immediately following the conclusion of My First Home (a reality based home improvement programme for family viewing). A brief warning of violence and adult content was broadcast.

Image of dead woman

Click here to view this AO rated material. Type in the password: "criminal3".

Prior to 1 April 2016, broadcasting standards required that programmes containing stronger material, such as realistic violence, sexual violence, or horrific encounters, be scheduled after 9.30pm. Under recent revisions to broadcasting codes of practice, strong adult content can now be scheduled before 9.30pm.

Learn more about Learn more about the new broadcasting code covering free to air television.

Image of cowering man and boy

This particular episode of Criminal Minds featured significant violence and cruelty. It contained descriptions of sexual violence and frequent depictions of horrific injuries to victims. Victims were shown being terrorised and very young children are shown being held at gunpoint and kidnapped.

Image of man injecting drugs

See our recent blog post for more information about how repeated exposure to violent material can cause harm: Entertainment — what's the harm?

Click here to view this AO rated material. Type in the password: "criminal2".

The Classification Office was also concerned about the graphic depiction of intravenous drug abuse contained in the episode in terms of: its disturbing impact; the detailed depiction inviting emulation and the realistic portrayal of its pleasurable effect.

Click here to view this AO rated material. Type in the password: "criminal1".

Of potentially greater concern to the Classification Office were episodes of Family Guy that screened between at 7pm on TV Four between 6 April and 15 April 2016. These episodes had already been examined by the Classification Office on DVD and classified as R16 — with warnings for offensive language, sexual material and other content that may offend. However, these same episodes carried a rating of PGR (parental guidance recommended) when screened by MediaWorks at 7pm in the evening.

The following discussion deals frankly with the material presented in these PGR rated episodes.

Cartoon image from family Guy of Stewie dressed as a woman having a medical examination

Family Guy: Season 14 Episode 13 (Stewie is Enceinte) — broadcast Wednesday 6/4/16 at 7pm, is a fantastical plot about a young child, Stewie, being impregnated by the DNA of the family dog Brian.

The programme presents references to sex with children, forced sexual activity, and early pregnancy. These humorous references may be appropriate for adults (preceded by a warning) but are inappropriate and highly problematic for children.

Click here to view this PGR/R16 material. Type in the password: "familyguy1".

Cartoon image from family Guy of Peter holding his hands out to collect urine from a man in a shower

Family Guy: Season 14 Episode 18 (Fighting Irish) — broadcast Wednesday 13/4/16 at 7pm included a range of sexual references culminating with a brief depiction of urolagnia, a practise in which sexual excitement is associated with the sight or use of urine. In this clip Peter is ordered to "go to the gym, got to the shower and ask strange men to 'pee in your hands'".

A man wearing just a bath towel exposes himself to Peter who is on his knees. The camera view is of the man’s back.

Click here to view this PGR/R16 material. Type in the password: "shower".

Cartoon image from family Guy of Peter badly injured while fighting Liam Neeson

In this same episode of Family Guy Peter confronts action star Liam Neeson. In a long two minute sequence Peter is severely beaten by the actor. In the brutal fight Peter is repeatedly punched, elbowed and smashed. There is a close-up of his face as he coughs up blood. The actor breaks Peter's wrists, and then knees the bleeding Peter in the face, smashing him into a mirror (relayed in slow motion).

Click here to view this PGR/R16 material. Type in the password: "trailer".

The Classification Office is concerned that the cartoon format is particularly appealing to children who are more likely to accept, uncritically, what they see on screen. The stylised, entertaining presentation of violence may inure impressionable younger audiences to violence and desensitise them towards violence in general.

What did we do once we became concerned?

We referred our concerns to the relevant authorities using the established processes set out in the Broadcasting Standards Act 1989.

For Criminal Minds, the process was as follows:

Image of the complaints process for Criminal Minds

Read the Classification Office's full complaint to the BSA about the episode of Criminal Minds (PDF, 486KB)

For Family Guy, the process was as follows:

Image of the complaints process for Family Guy

Read the Classification Office's full complaint to MediaWorks regarding multiple episodes of Family Guy (PDF, 486KB)

What was the outcome?

In the case of Criminal Minds, the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) declined to uphold any aspect of the Classification Office's complaint.

In essence the BSA found that while the episode contained challenging content, it was classified AO and was preceded by an adequate warning. In addition, the established reputation as a crime drama enabled viewers to make an informed viewing decision.

The BSA also stated that, in their view, the programme did not contain visual acts of violence and that the drug use was not portrayed in an instructional or encouraging manager.

Read the BSA's full decision on the Classification Office's complaint about Criminal Minds (PDF, 1.6MB)

For Family Guy, the Classification Office concluded that there was little prospect of a successful complaint to the BSA regarding any of the harmful content shown in the episodes mentioned above. MediaWorks, in their response to the Classification Office's complaint quite correctly state that the BSA has established a clear precedent in support of these broadcasts.

A member of the public complained about violence and animal cruelty in an episode of Family Guy broadcast on FOUR at 7.30pm on 6 May 2011. The BSA did not uphold her complaint. You can read the full decision here.

A member of the public complained about frank sexual references and sex scenes in an episode of Family Guy broadcast by FOUR at 7.30pm on 20 October 2011. The BSA did not uphold her complaint. You can read the full decision here.

In a similar complaint relating to a different PGR rated programme, a member of the public complained about the sexual content of an episode of Two and a Half Men rated PGR and broadcast on TV2 at 7.30pm on 8 February 2012. The BSA did not uphold her complaint. You can read the full decision here.

Read MediaWorks response to the Classification Office's complaint about Family Guy (PDF, 648KB)

Image of a man watching television