‘Volt’: The maudit anglophone fan page

Volt complaint

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

Updated 2001.03.07

On 2001.02.07, Ingrid McKhool, senior advisor, regulatory affairs and policy, TVOntario, mailed me a response to my complaint. Her response is quoted below, with my reply comments.

Volt, now in its sixth season, is TFO’s daily magazine-style program for Franco-Ontarian youth. Well known for its provocative fast-paced programming, Volt bills itself as a program that challenges and engages young people through irreverent reporting, parodic skits, satire of current events and biting humour. Volt reports on issues that are important to teenagers, and provides them with an opportunity to think, learn and interact through skits, news reports, phone-in shows and debates about sex, relationships, music, peer pressure, school, politics, technology and more.

To reach its target audience, Volt unabashedly pushes the envelope. As you state in your letter, “Volt is known for pushing the limits of propriety, something that is usually quite appropriate for the intended audience.”

Volt has been nominated for Gémeaux awards five years in a row in the category of Best Youth Series, aged 13–17, and in 2000, it was also nominated for Best Comedy Special for its soap-opera parody, Hospital Passion.

It is inappropriate to engage in marketing and public relations in addressing a complaint about violation of broadcast standards. It borders on the smug and dismissive to promote the recognition of Volt in response to a formal complaint. Such promotional bluster is particularly ill-advised given that I run a fan Web site devoted to the series. The general quality of Volt is not in dispute, and neither is the program’s mandate of risk-taking and exploring boundaries.

The issue, which Ms McKhool sidesteps, is the limits placed on TFO by broadcast standards. Throughout her response, a persistent theme emerges: “Volt pushes buttons, so we should be allowed to push any button we want.” After all, the show is so good it gets nominated for awards! (But never quite good enough to win.)

At TVOntario, we take care to present programs in a responsible way. For example, Volt provides regular opportunities for contextualization and viewer participation or feedback during its programs. And, because of its provocative nature, Volt always begins with a viewer discretion advisory to warn audience members of potentially offensive content. The advisory – itself a humorous skit in the spirit of the program – contains a visual of 1950s footage of a car running over a tricycle, and a voice-over screaming «Attention, attention, attention! Vous pourrez pas dire qu’on vous a pas averti!»

My complaint specifically addressed the issue of a Too Much for Volt–style phone-in show discussing the merits of the offensive segments that prompted my complaint. No such discussions were broadcast. Indeed, as my complaint documented (with a full transcription of an on-air explanatory segment), the offending passages were broadcast with the intent of goading the audience; the explanatory segment seemed to pretend that a full discussion of the piece had previously aired, or at least that the explanatory segment itself constituted meaningful viewer feedback. Such implicit claims are false.

Moreover, a generic viewer advisory is insufficient when dealing with violent imagery, as Canadian Broadcast Standards Council §6.3 requires (“advance warning of scenes of extraordinary violence”). A regular Volt viewer could not reasonably have expected to see gratuitous animal violence; the offending scenes were not within the typical range of provocations viewers would have come to expect. If anyone knows the range of offensiveness on Volt, it is me, since I have documented the contents of scores of episodes in the last year on my Web site.

The Volt segment in question was broadcast around the time of the last federal election. Several episodes in November and December included satiric segments on Canada’s political landscape which were intended to encourage young people to discuss the election, engage in national politics, and vote.

On the December 4 episode of Volt, the show’s host reported on a voice mail received by a viewer who said the shows about the election were funny but unpatriotic. Tongue in cheek, the host responded that the viewer was correct and that everyone should stand for Canada’s national anthem.

An instrumental version of the anthem began in the background while a flight of Canada geese was replaced by a section of a documentary depicting the preparation of a goose (which aired in December on Panorama, TFO’s daily current affairs program). While the segment included footage of the plucking, cleaning and roasting of a goose, it was by no means a glorification of animal abuse, but rather the true demonstration of how a goose is prepared for human consumption.

My complaint did not make the claim that the segment “glorified” animal abuse, but now that the topic has been raised, the knowing counterpoint of a national anthem (by definition the most glorious music in any country’s repertoire) with loving slow-motion scenes of disembowelment would strike any reasonable observer as glorification.

The “true demonstration of how a goose is prepared for human consumption” nonetheless did not document that the “preparation” was a legal activity (Cf. §9.2 of the Council’s guidelines), and in any event the shocking, graphic nature of the footage is not excused by a pretended documentarian intent expressed after the fact as a defense in a complaint process. As I have demonstrated (and as Ms McKhool herself submits), the segment was aired to make a point unrelated to a “true demonstration of how a goose is prepared for human consumption,” hunting, or anything else that might justify the reportage.

The segment served to highlight through satire Volt’s ongoing theme during the weeks surrounding the national election about society’s apathy towards the political process, patriotism and national affairs in general.

The segment served to highlight TFO’s willingness to employ absolutely any means to shock and disturb its audience through the depiction, without warning and at an early broadcast hour, of gruesomely detailed scenes of animal violence. What narrative link could any reasonable viewer draw between apathy or patriotism and disemboweling a goose (and playing around with its severed head)?

The fact that the segment requires this much post-facto explanation is proof of its gratuitousness and the intent of the program producers to shock and horrify their audience without even incidental regard to broadcast standards.

In presenting controversial programming, TVOntario recognizes that questions of good taste, convention and propriety vary considerably – among generations, among social groups, between gender groups and among individuals. This may especially be true of comedy programming geared to young people, and indeed, of Volt.

Comedy is no defense against complaints of improper airing of violent content. Neither is drama. The news and public-affairs segments on Volt are at best tenuously related to the offending segment, and in any event, even if we all agreed that the segment was of a public-affairs nature, its subject-matter nonetheless had nothing at all to do with “the true demonstration of how a goose is prepared for human consumption.”

We apologize if this particular segment caused you undue discomfort, and hope that we’ve responded to your concerns. Thank you once again for your comments.

The apology is delivered by rote and after a thorough evasion of the important policy issues at hand. Ms McKhool’s response to an exhaustively-documented complaint of serious violation of broadcast standards borders on the smug and dismissive and, moreover, ignores virtually all the facts of policy documented in the original complaint. Moreover, the complaint itself has subsequently become fodder for lampooning on Volt: On 2001.01.16, a “Nouvelles” segment on the program spent a few minutes parodying the style of the complaint against TFO, and the 2001.03.05 episode contained a little zinger about crushed Canada geese, delivered by host Mathieu Pichette with a “wry” glance at the camera.

It is manifestly apparent that TFO is unwilling to address substantive complaints about the impropriety of its broadcast of graphic animal violence, and moreover elects to respond to a formal complaint with public relations and the introduction of unrelated issues.

Regulatory intervention is clearly necessary.