‘Volt’: The maudit anglophone fan page

Volt complaint

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Volt: The maudit anglophone fan page > Complaint to Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Updated 2001.03.07

See also: First response


  1. 2001.01.07: Guess what? TFO isn’t a member of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. So this one’s going to the CRTC.
  2. 2001.03.07: First response posted.

Despite maintaining the only fan page for Volt, my fandom is not without limits.

As documented in the show reviews, on three occasions in December 2000 Volt broadcast horrific images of animal cruelty. Those images violate broadcast standards.

The following complaint was filed with the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council on 2000.12.22. Complaints are public.

Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, Box 3265, Station D, Ottawa K1P 6H8

This is a complaint alleging violation of the Code’s restrictions on depictions of violence against animals, §§9.0–9.2; §1.7, relevance of depiction of violence; §1.6, relevance to the development of character or to the advancement of theme or plot; §6.3, advance warning of scenes of extraordinary violence; and §1.1, gratuitous violence. The source of the complaint is three episodes of Volt on TFO, airing December 4, 12, and 18, 2000 between 1830 and 1900 hours Eastern. (The episodes were repeated at midnight those same nights and on the subsequent Saturday or Sunday.)

The series

Volt, an infotainment program ostensibly for teenagers, fits in the category of news and public affairs. TFO press information describes the show as le magazine pour les jeunes de TFO. The program runs music videos; weekly reviews of video games, music, and the Internet; a weekly humourous newscast, which very often features a discussion of a current event; and vaguely educational or journalistic segments. Volt also regularly features fausses pubs, or fake ads – parody television commercials that are usually quite smart and funny. Indeed, most of the time the entire show could be described as such.

I maintain the only online Volt fan page. I am not an uncritical fan. Volt is known for pushing the limits of propriety, something that is usually quite appropriate for the intended audience. TFO press information further states that Volt ose et provoque, stimule et fait rire. Two fake ads are worthy of note, and, though neither is the subject of this complaint, I’m mentioning them to establish the tone and standards of the series. One fausse pub, for Détect-o-Mo Volt, advertised a device that gives you instant gaydar, letting you tell at a glance who is and is not gay. (Guys only.) The segment was allegedly contentious because an on-air personality and a producer (both male) spent a lot of time kissing and hugging. The segment was hilarious and obviously reflected forethought and understanding (as it should have been – the creator and one of the guys doing the kissing are both gay).

Another fausse pub gave us a behind-the-scenes look at a pig slaughterhouse. Airing on September 5, 2000 and on other dates, the segment advertised something or other. My notes don’t say what, and I don’t recall. The true-to-life documentary footage of an actual slaughterhouse was shocking and had nothing to do with whatever the fausse pub was about. The visuals were incongruous and deployed solely for shock value. Keep that precedent in mind.

Starting this past season, two Fridays a month Volt hosts a general-interest phone-in show. The first, airing October 6, 2000, dealt with broadcast standards and explained that, according to the complaints registered by the show’s toll-free phoneline and via E-mail, the Détect-o-Mo and slaughterhouse segments were the most troubling and "controversial.” Indeed, an on-air host admitted that the slaughterhouse parody commercial caused widespread shock among viewers, was the most contentious, and elicited the greatest number of complaints.

The segments in question

Volt pursued the theme of animal slaughter in humourous parody TV commercials telecast on the three dates in question. This fausse pub opens with pastoral, majestic slow-motion photography of Canada geese accompanied by an orchestral rendition of “O Canada.” Subsequently:

  • A bird, presumably a goose, is pulled out of a box hind foot first. It may be dead or may not.
  • Near a large black pot, three hands encircle the bird’s neck. A fat adult male in a polyester shirt is seen at left (he’s the one who pulled the bird out, and he holds the neck below the bird’s head), while a young boy in a T-shirt is another of the people grasping the neck. Whoever belongs to the third hand is unclear.
  • Someone, possibly that third person, holds the now-clearly-dead bird by the neck, pumps it up and down once, and swings its head around as if it were a dog tag on a chain.
  • Two sets of hands pluck feathers.
  • Steaming water in the black pot is checked.
  • More plucking. A boy in a green-and-white cap brushes feathers out of his eyes and nose.
  • The fat man in the polyester shirt picks up the now-plucked bird from a counter. Another dead, plucked bird lies alongside.
  • He sharpens a knife and slices off the bird’s head, tossing it somewhere else on the counter, which also shows a tray of red meat.
  • Female hands disembowel the bird.
  • A male hand manipulates the carcass.
  • The bird is roasted on a spit over a fire.
  • A family dines at a long table.
  • Back in the wilderness, a goose swims across a lake. A superimposed graphic flashes $1 and a slogan (Parce que jouer dans l’sang, c’est ben gommant!), and we hear a voice-over.
  • Now back at the counter, the man plays with the sliced-off neck and head as a woman watches and talks to him. He wipes his hands and moves a tray full of other meat elsewhere.

The segment portrays the gruesome, gory beheading and disembowelment of a bird in vulgar, graphic, shocking, close-up detail. Decapitation and disembowelment are indisputably examples of violence toward an animal. An animal or a person does not have to be alive to be subjected to violence. The segment also depicts “ordinary folk” having “good clean fun” by swinging around a dead bird’s head.

The segment does nothing but contrast the idyllic, vaguely nationalistic imagery of Canada geese in formation and our anthem with the deliberately bathetic and shocking graphic depiction of slaughter and disembowelment. The Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming states:

Violence against animals

§9.1 – Broadcasters shall not telecast programming which sanctions, promotes or glamorizes violence against animals.

§9.2 – Broadcasters shall not be restricted in the telecast of legally sanctioned activities associated with animals. In such telecasts, judgment shall be used in the selection of video and associated audio, particularly if the telecast is broadcast outside of late evening hours.

The segment in question promoted and glamourized violence against animals in contravention of §9.1.

  • The segment ran in the same format as Volt’s other parody commercials, which attempt to promote fantasy products and services. (Cf. “§1.8 – In all genres of programming, the depiction of violence shall be evaluated in relation to the individual program, its intended audience and the time of broadcast.” In the practice of this individual program, the intended audience would interpret the segment as a fausse pub, because that’s what it is, with its closing graphics and voice-over.) In an unrelated Volt parody commercial, you were invited to buy a gaydar device. In this “parody,” you are invited to wring the neck of, pluck, and disembowel a bird.
  • Similarly, the fausse pub format attempts to make the subject of the parody advertisement attractive, glamourizing it.

The counterargument that all fausses pubs on Volt are meant in jest is not a valid reason to promote or glamourize animal cruelty. The Code itself provides no exemption based on comedy, humour, or satire.

Volt is nominally an educational program and regularly covers public-affairs issues (e.g., through its weekly humourous newscast). The Code holds that:

§1.7 – Within news and public affairs programming, the depiction of violence shall be relevant to the nature of the event or story being reported.

The segment in question did not pertain to slaughtering animals. It did not report anything. If we attempt to categorize the segment as something other than news or public affairs, the Code leaves us only one other category, drama:

§1.6 – The portrayal of violence within drama programming shall be relevant to the development of character, or to the advancement of the theme or plot.

There were no characters being developed, nor any theme or plot. Nor can TFO argue that the depiction is fictitious, hence imaginary, as other fausses pubs are (like Détect-o-Mo). This segment’s footage is real.

TFO cannot argue that, since the slaughter of birds for human consumption is legal, the Volt segment depicted “legally sanctioned activities associated with animals.” In fact, the source of the footage is not stated. We do not know that the footage depicts licensed, legal slaughter. The slaughter of birds for human consumption may be legal under certain conditions, but this segment does not in fact or presumptively document that it depicts such legal conditions. It is especially uncertain that the depicted slaughter is legal given that it appears to have taken place in a private home. (What do you do with the blood? After all, playing in it gets you all sticky.) The onus is on the broadcaster to demonstrate “legal sanction” within the program itself.

Moreover, the segment contravenes the second half of §9.2. “In such telecasts, judgment shall be used in the selection of video and associated audio, particularly if the telecast is broadcast outside of late-evening hours.” The Code provision, as written, is ambiguous. It merely requires “judgement,” not “good” or “proper” judgement. Still, that is clearly the intent of the Code’s provisions. TFO displayed manifest ill judgement in:

  • Depicting animal slaughter in gruesome, graphic, unsettling, near-surgical detail.
  • Depicting people playing around with the lifeless head and neck of a bird.
  • Airing the footage at 1830 hours (i.e., dinnertime, and well before the cutoff of 2100 hours for broadcasts containing adult-oriented violence). §9.2 intensifies the requirement to exercise good judgement when airing questionable footage “outside of late-evening hours.” Accordingly, violating this criterion is especially serious.
  • Linking the deliberately shocking depiction to idyllic introductory footage and to a sombre, seemingly sincere rendition of “O Canada.” The juxtaposition was clearly intentional and obviously intended to deepen the shock value. (Indeed, we have actual proof of that, as I’ll get to later.)

The Code also specifies:

§6.3 – Broadcasters shall advise viewers in advance of showing scenes of extraordinary violence... particularly during afternoon or early evening newscasts and updates when children could be viewing.

Volt is not a newscast, but its original airing each weeknight coincides with other newscasts (and is actually earlier than TFO’s own newscast, Panorama, which follows Volt). While offending children is not, in my opinion, per se worse than offending adults or teenagers, on that topic it is clear that children of all ages are awake and watching TV at 1830 hours. French-speaking kids in Ontario do not have a lot of options for programming in their own language at that time slot (Radio-Canada, RDI, TVA, TV5, and TFO are about all a reasonable cable package would offer), thus increasing the chance that children would watch the program. Indeed, a program aimed at teenagers will be attractive to children. Animal slaughter exemplifies “delicate subject-matter.” There was no advance warning that scenes of animal violence were upcoming.

§1.1 of the Code holds that “Canadian broadcasters shall not air programming which contains gratuitous violence in any form.... ’Gratuitous’ means material which does not play an integral role in developing the plot, character or theme of the material as a whole.” In this, the most significant contravention of the Code, TFO’s entire approach demonstrates unequivocally that the bird segment does nothing but depict gratuitous violence. It is used as a joke, as a punchline. For this contravention alone, not to mention all the others, TFO requires censure.

The alleged “clarification”

Although this complaint includes the December 18, 2000 telecast, that episode was different. Host Mathieu Pichette stood next to a monitor on which the bird segment was shown. Audio from the segment was lowered after a few seconds and Pichette delivered this commentary, broadly transcribed:

Je ne sais pas si vous vous rappelez de ça. C’est la chanson d’«Ô Canada» avec du piétage d’oies qui sont estropiées (ça, ça va venir plus tard). Bon, on a reçu une plainte de quelqu’un la semaine passée. Je vous la lis: «C’est horrible. Il y a une énorme manque de respect que vous ayez montré une oie qu’on égorge pendant l’hymne nationale du Canada. C’est vraiment une insulte que vous utilisez mon argent pour diffuser une telle calomnie. Vous prenez le pays pour la qui? Il lui manquait de respect. Je suis dégoûté(e),» et la personne a raccroché. Ce n’est pas un message écrit. C’est un message au téléphone, parce que ça a été laissé aux Relations avec l’auditoire, pas à notre répondeur.

Mais finalement! Finalement quelqu’un qui réagit, crime! Qu’est-ce que ça vous prenait? Félicitations! Félicitations à la personne qui a dit ce qu’elle a pensé (d’ailleurs, en passant, on sait très bien que c’est toi, Joe Clark). Mais félicitations quand-même! Puis, ben, c’est bien évident qu’on essayait de provoquer avec ça. Tu n’as pas compris que c’est [makes motions and sound effects of casting a line and hooking and reeling in a fish]...; Tu [es] une poisson. Une poisson. Alors félicitations. Est-ce qu’on va continuer à passer l’«Ô Canada» avec les oies estropiées? Bien, appelez-nous. Votez. 1-800-901-Volt. Dites-nous que vous en pensez.

In other words, TFO admits that the bird segment was created specifically to provoke. While this constitutes further proof of its gratuitousness, by implication TFO wants us to excuse the whole mess because now, suddenly, it’s become the topic of viewer feedback. Evidently TFO is attempting to turn this entire escapade into a kind of Too Much for Volt. But TFO’s actions fail every test of informed viewer interaction.

  • We were not advised up front that violent or disturbing imagery would be broadcast.
  • There was no explanation that the purpose of broadcasting this imagery is to discuss it.
  • There is no evidence that the offending segment would be pulled from the air if viewer reaction demanded it. Indeed, TFO aired the segment three times.

What Volt has done is to deliberately produce the most disturbing, shocking “parody” segment its creative staff could think up with intent to air it over and over again until it provoked a response. The only response one could anticipate is disgust or horror.

Volt creative staff and TFO knowingly set out to employ prohibited scenes of horrific animal violence as an instrument to disturb, unsettle, disgust, or offend its unsuspecting audience.

TFO received a complaint on its Audience Relations phoneline, which Volt then used as a pretext for “viewer feedback.” Volt also accused me of making that complaint, something I would never do (a) in French, (b) over the phone, or (c) without leaving my name. (I also strongly support the principle of public broadcasting and would never, under any circumstances, so much as hint that a public broadcaster should be punished for using “my money” to produce a segment I personally did not like. That is the function of state broadcasting, not public broadcasting.)

And in discussing the entire segment, the show rebroadcast it yet again!

This complaint does not allege incidental or technical violation of the Code. TFO’s actions amount to significant, premeditated violations of industry rules prohibiting, among other things, the gratuitous telecast of scenes of violence.

I was and am personally shocked and haunted by the offending segments, which have remained at the back of my mind for weeks. I have not quite actually lost sleep over the issue, but it’s so unsettling as to be the last thing I think of at night and the first thing the next morning. The segments caused actual harm. The beheading sequence was worst of all.

Volt must continue to explore the bounds of its artistic license (oser et provoquer). It must, however, cease its pattern of using gory animal violence as a tool or a pretext. I implore the Council to punish TFO for its repeated, wanton violations of broadcast standards.