ARCHIVED - Broadcasting Decision CRTC 2002-83

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Broadcasting Decision CRTC 2002-83

Ottawa, 8 April 2002

Astral Broadcasting Group Inc./Le Groupe de Radiodiffusion Astral Inc.
(The Movie Network)

Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Provinces (Eastern Canada)

Commission finds The Movie Network in breach of the watershed hour rule by airing The Sopranos at 8:00 p.m.


In this decision, the Commission finds that The Movie Network, a pay television licensee offering movies and other programming by monthly subscription, has breached a condition of licence that requires it to adhere to the Pay Television and Pay-Per-View Programming Code Regarding Violence. The breach occurred when it broadcast an episode of The Sopranos, an R (Restricted) rated program intended for mature audiences, at 8:00 p.m., thereby violating the "watershed hour" provision of the code.



In May 2001, the Commission received a complaint from an Ontario resident about an episode of the drama series The Sopranos entitled "University," which The Movie Network (TMN) broadcast on 8 April 2001 at 8:00 p.m. in Ontario. The complainant submitted that the episode was "inappropriate for viewers under the age of 14" due to what he described as inappropriate portrayals of women as "out of control drug addicts," gratuitous nudity, and "particularly violent and de-humanising" scenes. The complainant alleged that, by airing the episode, TMN violated a condition of its licence that stipulates that it must abide by an industry code relating to violence in programming.


The complainant considered that the following sections of the Canadian Association of Broadcaster's Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming, (the CAB Violence Code) approved by the Commission in Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming, Public Notice CRTC 1993-149, 28 October 1993 were relevant to the complaint: Section 3.0 - Scheduling, Section 5.0 -Viewer Advisories, Section 7.0 - Violence Against Women and Section 8.0 - Violence Against Specific Groups.


TMN replied to the complainant's concerns in a letter dated 19 June 2001. In its reply, TMN relied, in some instances, on a decision by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) entitled CTV re The Sopranos, CBSC Decision 00/01-0130+, 8 March 2001 (the CBSC decision). The CBSC decision resulted from ten complaints about a variety of episodes of The Sopranos broadcast by CTV, a conventional television network, at 10 p.m. The Commission notes that it has been asked to review aspects of the CBSC decision that relate to portrayal of Italians in The Sopranos. The portrayal of Italians was not raised in the current complaint, and is not at issue in this decision.


The Commission has examined the episode in question in light of the concerns raised by the complainant, the licensee's reply and its own review of the program. Its findings are based on applicable industry codes. The Commission notes that the CAB Violence Code cited by the complainant does not apply to pay television licensees. As a pay television licensee, TMN is obligated, by condition of licence, to adhere to the provisions of The Pay Television and Pay-Per-View Programming Code Regarding Violence, Public Notice CRTC 1994-155, 21 December 1994 (the Pay Violence Code) and The Canadian Association of Broadcasters' Sex-role Portrayal Code for Television and Radio Programming (the Sex-role Portrayal Code),approved by the Commission in Industry Guidelines for Sex-role Portrayal, Public Notice CRTC 1990-99, 26 October 1990.

Description of the program


The Sopranos is a television crime/drama series about mob life. The episode in question depicts the relationship between a young, vulnerable stripper who works at the Bada Bing! Club, a regular hang-out for the mobsters that forms the background of scenes in various Sopranos' episodes. One of the main characters of the show, known as Ralphie, is verbally abusive toward the stripper throughout the show. When she confronts him with her discovery that she is pregnant, he manipulates her for his own amusement by promising to take care of her and then mocking her naivete when she mistakenly thinks he is being sincere. She slaps him and, in return, he murders her by beating her to death, which is graphically depicted on screen. The murder, which happens near the end of the show, is foreshadowed earlier in the episode in a separate incident when Ralphie aggressively attacks a bodyguard at the club for no apparent reason, establishing his propensity for irrational and violent outbursts.

The Commission's investigation and determination

Inappropriate portrayals of women


The complainant objected to the applicant's portrayal of women as "out of control drug addicts."


In reply, TMN indicated that it considered that the portrayal of women in the episode was not inappropriate since such portrayal was "fully part of the story line" and that The Sopranos portrayed women in varied and balanced roles.


The Commission examined the issue of inappropriate portrayals of women in relation to the principle set out in the Sex-role Portrayal Code which indicates that the portrayal of women and men should reflect "their actual social and professional achievements, contributions, interests and activities." The Commission notes that the episode in question depicted women in a variety of roles, not only as strippers, but also as mothers, daughters and as Tony Soprano's psychiatrist. The Commission considers that the depiction of each of those roles was not inappropriate, nor was the presence of any of those roles inappropriate to the story line. Consequently, the Commission finds that TMN did not breach the Sex-role Portrayal Code.

Gratuitous nudity


The complainant was concerned that the episode showed "gratuitous nudity not at all relevant to the episode's plot or character development."


TMN noted that the CBSC decision found that the nudity in The Sopranos, which usually consisted of topless dancers and waitresses at the Bada Bing! Club, did not violate any applicable codes because it was not presented in concert with sexual activities and was in context as a setting of mob life.


The Commission notes that none of the Codes relevant to this complaint specifically address nudity. The Pay Violence Code does, however, define the term "gratuitous" as "material that does not play an integral role in developing the plot, character or theme of the material as a whole." The Commission notes that the only depiction of any nudity in the episode was confined to the strippers working at the strip club. The strippers were shown as topless, but no full frontal nudity was shown on-screen. While some viewers may find such images offensive, the Commission does not consider that it was gratuitous to portray strippers at work since such portrayal was integral to the development of the character and the theme of the story. The Commission concludes that such portrayal was not inappropriate in an adult-oriented program such as the episode in question.

Violence against women and against specific groups


The complainant noted that, during the episode, the stripper was "repeatedly abused by her gangster boyfriend throughout the hour-long show." He also considered that "the scene in which the stripper is physically abused in front of her gangster boyfriend's house was particularly violent and de-humanising." Near the end of the program, the pregnant stripper was murdered. The complainant also cited an instance where Tony Soprano, another of the program's characters, told a boy who liked his daughter that "he did not want his daughter going out with a black man" as an example of violence against specific groups.


In its reply, TMN once again relied on the CBSC decision.TMN noted that, in its decision, the CBSC found that scenes of violence are typically not "significant" in The Sopranos as there were not more than two scenes of violence in any episode that the CBSC reviewed. The CBSC further found that the violence was "realistic, but not excessive and always contextual."


The licensee concluded that the CBSC's conclusions applied to the episode that is the subject of the current complaint "as the murder of the stripper fits the plot of the episode and was neither glamourized, gratuitous nor retributory." Finally, TMN noted that people are "always killed" on The Sopranos and that this episode marked the first time that the murder victim was a woman.


Upon reviewing the episode, the Commission considered that the scenes depicting the attack on the bodyguard and the murder of the stripper could raise concerns with respect to violence in general and violence against women. It therefore examined the scenes in relation to the Pay Violence Code. With respect to the issue of violence against specific groups, the Commission notes that no violence was involved in the scene with the black man, and it therefore finds that it is not necessary to rule on that part of the complaint.


Section 1.1 of the Pay Violence Code deals with violence in general and states:

Pay and pay-per-view licensees shall not air programming which:

. contains gratuitous violence in any form; or

. sanctions, promotes or glamorizes violence.

"Gratuitous" means material which does not play an integral role in developing the plot, character or theme of the material as a whole.


The Commission considers that while the violent scenes could be characterized as disturbing and graphic, they played an integral role in the program's plot and character development. The character committing the two violent acts was depicted as an unstable and highly agitated individual, prone to irrational, violent outbursts. Further, the violence was not sanctioned by the other characters, who chastised the character for his actions.


The Commission considers that the violence in these scenes was integral to character and plot development in the story and was therefore not "gratuitous." As well, it considers that the scenes did not sanction, promote or glamorize violence. The Commission therefore finds that the licensee did not violate the Pay Violence Code by broadcasting the scenes.

Viewer advisories


The complainant considered that the provision of viewer advisories was relevant in this case.


In reply, the TMN noted that it applied an "R" rating to The Sopranos, which is used to designate programming intended for adults 18 years and older, and provided the following written and oral advisory when it broadcasts the program:

The following contains scenes with violence, coarse language and nudity.


Section 4.6 of the Pay Violence Code states:

Viewer advisories and ratings will appear "on-air", in both written and spoken forms, in all programming not suitable for children.


The Commission considers the licensee's use of viewer advisories combined with the R rating to be an appropriate means of informing viewers of the mature nature of the program. It therefore finds that TMN did not violate the section of the Pay Violence Code dealing with the broadcast of advisories.



The complainant considered that the episode in question was "very inappropriate for viewers under the age of 14."


TMN did not address the scheduling of the program in its reply.


Section 3.0 of the Pay Violence Code includes a watershed hour provision which states:

Subscription pay television services will not air scenes of violence intended for adult audiences prior to 9:00 p.m. or after 6:00 a.m. in the home province of the service in question.


The Code later identifies Ontario as TMN's "home province," and the Commission notes that the program in question was broadcast at 8:00 p.m. in Ontario.


All conventional, specialty and pay services are required by condition of licence to respect the watershed hour of 9:00 p.m., regardless of the genre or target audience of each service. The industry created this provision as a means of providing parents with some ability to determine appropriate viewing choices for their families, while still providing flexibility for programmers and freedom for viewers to watch a range of programming in the evening. The watershed provision contributes to the establishment of a safe haven for young viewers.


It is clear that The Sopranos is intended for adult audiences. The licensee itself applied an R rating and an on-screen advisory alerting viewers to the adult nature of the program, which is an acknowledgement of the mature nature of the content. This, combined with the particularly disturbing story and graphic content, especially the murder scene, as foreshadowed by the attack on the bodyguard, indicates that this episode should have been broadcast after the 9:00 p.m. watershed hour.


The Commission notes with concern that the licensee did not address the complainant's concerns with respect to scheduling in its reply.


By using a viewer advisory that explicitly referenced the mature content of the program in question, the licensee acknowledged that the program was intended for adults. TMN should therefore have respected the watershed hour provision of the Pay Violence Code. The Commission finds that, by not doing so, the licensee has committed a breach of a condition of licence.


The Commission requires the licensee to confirm in writing, that it will comply with the watershed hour provision of the Pay Violence Code. This letter, which TMN must submit within two weeks of the date of this decision, will be placed on the public file of TMN.


The Commission will monitor closely TMN's performance and places the licensee on notice that, if the Commission determines that TMN has again failed to comply with any condition of licence, the Commission may take any enforcement measures available to it under the Broadcasting Act.

Secretary General

This decision is to be appended to the licence. It is available in alternative format upon request, and may also be examined at the following Internet site:

Date Modified: 2002-04-08

Date modified: