A beautiful broadcasting anachronism

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
5 April, 2019

For those of us of a certain age, part of the thrill of staying up late as a kid was getting to see and hear things on television that did not air during afternoon cartoons. Before 9pm, one set of rules applied. After 9pm was the so-called ‘watershed’, well, things were different – especially on the French version of Canada’s public broadcaster.

None of the words you’d hear on late-night television were new, but there was still a thrill to hearing them on television.

In Canada and America, you were never quite sure who decided what counted as offensive, or why. That’s why I simply loved New Zealand’s system when I first learned about it a decade ago.

New Zealand’s broadcasters belong to the Broadcast Standards Authority. The BSA decides which words are too spicy in which contexts. Where America might turn to an expert panel of prudes to decide what constitutes ‘community standards’, New Zealand is more sensible.

The BSA runs a survey.

BSA pollsters phoned up hapless respondents and read them a series of words and phrases to suss out just how offensive each term might be in different contexts. Would you find this term offensive if used during a breakfast radio programme? How about during a sports broadcast?

Perhaps there’s a bit too much of South Park’s Eric Cartman in me, but reading a list of really offensive words to potentially prudish people and asking them to rate how offended they are – I would pay to have that job. Oliver never lets me use the fun words in print.

The hardest part would be avoiding inventing new and more offensive combinations to add to the survey list, trying to get a high score. Perhaps that’s why the BSA shifted to an online survey a few years ago.

The 2018 edition of the BSA’s “Language that may offend in broadcasting” survey finds continued declines in offence-taking. The most offensive word, since 1999, has not changed. Where 79% of respondents in 1999 found it totally or fairly unacceptable, only 63% did in 2018.

It’s all a bit anachronistic now. What does a ‘watershed’ even mean when everyone has switched to streaming? But we can still enjoy a frisson of the forbidden from reading about it in the Broadcast Standards Authority’s survey.

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