Some say that you only find out where the line is when you cross it. Mmm. Yet it’s likely that Sam Newman, a regular on the AFL version of The Footy Show, had no clue that his infamous 2008 skit directed at Fairfax Media sports columnist Caroline Wilson was insulting and objectifying to women until critics pointed it out. Graham Kennedy mischievously stumbled across the line last century with his “Faaark!” crow-call on In Melbourne Tonight and then found that his live-to-air show subsequently had to be pre-recorded.
The line of acceptability can be crossed in many ways and for all sorts of reasons: accidentally, playfully, intentionally, mistakenly, cynically, or just plain stupidly.
Of course, time moves on and, as it does, the standards that determine the line change. The marker between inspiration and offensiveness, between a cheeky incursion into fresh terrain and an unforgivable breach of what’s regarded as acceptable, can be as much a question of timing as of taste.
Back in 1952, for example, the word “pregnant” was seen as problematic. When Lucille Ball, the star of the hit comedy I Love Lucy, was expecting her first child, CBS forbade her to use it on camera, deeming it too vulgar. Deliciously, the episode in which she tells husband Desi Arnaz that she’s up the duff ended up with the title Lucy Is Enceinte (the French word for “pregnant”). Today, far from having trouble with the word, TV is now free to depict the act that might lead a woman to that condition, fairly explicitly, in prime-time. “Faaark!”, indeed.
A scene from What Really Happens in Bali, the 'ob doc' in which Seven follows holidaymakers and records their misadventures.
But are there some standards that withstand the test of time? Are there some lines that shouldn’t move? Are there some that shouldn’t be crossed? It’s not enough to argue that, if somebody somewhere in TV-watching land is likely to be offended, even outraged, by a Chaser satire or Chris Lilley’s depiction of Jonah Takalua, modern civilisation is in jeopardy. In the realm of comedy, and especially satire, context and tone are critical. There are also worse things in the world than the use of “unacceptable” language when the camera’s within earshot.
One is when TV seeks to hurt or humiliate. And observational documentaries (“ob-docs”) leave themselves open to this charge when they allow their often-naïve subjects to expose themselves to indignity, distress or injury. By way of example, consider one of the stories that features in the first episode of Channel Seven’s new 10-part “ob-doc” series, What Really Happens in Bali.
A group of young Australians has been partying and drinking all night before they travel to a remote location to try cliff jumping. Some nervously approach the edge – which is as high as a four-storey building – and leap into the water. For one of them, Emma Kerville, what happens next isn’t pretty, as her naïve dream of holiday adventure turns into a nightmare.
Who’s responsible here? Should the production crew have stepped in and warned her of the risks? Did the presence of the camera encourage her to take them? Were the producers simply being predatory in their recording of the events, or were they legitimately trying to provide viewers with a cautionary, warts’n’all account of the dangers tourists on the loose can encounter?
According to Dan Meenan, the head of factual programming at the Seven Network, “The worst thing that you can do with anything on television is to bore people.” Actually, there are worse things and, as a result of the robust competition for eyeballs, increasingly dubious decisions are being made. Broadcasters are becoming more outrageous in their bids to attract our attention, which is now being sought not only by five primary free-to-air channels but also by a host of digital channels, pay-TV, the internet and social media.
Meenan is firm in his defence of the producers of What Really Happens in Bali, insisting that “the intention was never to produce an ugly postcard”. He explains that, given that the Indonesian island is a popular destination for many Australians, Seven wanted a series that would reveal “the diverse things that happen there and not what people would normally see in Bali”. In fact, he says, the brief was clear: “We didn’t want drunken kids running up and down the streets.” And he regards the results as illuminating: “Some of the stuff is inspirational, some of it is horrific. The idea here is intrigue, aspirational, a mysterious, what’s-in-the-box kind of thing.”
He’s also adamant that “it’s not meant to shock, it’s meant to entertain. Especially at Seven, we don’t like to shock people. We’re constantly aware that we have an issue of care with the audience. So shocking people: no. Because I don’t think that they’d continue watching. It’s more like ‘expect the unexpected’, because that’s entertaining.”
Meenan also reckons that the line of acceptable taste, of what a program can and can’t show, is not blurry: “You know what’s pushing it too far. We’re not going to show anyone dying. It would turn-off some viewers to a point where they would never watch the show again. And that’s one thing that you have to always be aware of: do you want to offend people? Because if that’s what you want to do, fine, but you’re not going to be on air long.”
Another show, also on Seven, is keen to push the buttons of anyone concerned about comedy crossing the line. The Bogan Hunters premiered recently, although, notably, not on the “family friendly” primary channel, but on its blokier, ruder and cruder little brother, 7Mate. It attracted 589,000 viewers nationally, making it the highest-rating entertainment program to screen on the three-year-old digital channel.
In the introduction to the series, creator, host and “boganologist” Paul Fenech declared good taste to be the nation’s number one enemy. “Political correctness,” he accused, “is trying to smash the backbone of Australian culture.” His show is presumably his salvo against what he sees as the insidious creeping force of middle-class values. Casting himself as an antidote, he celebrates boganism in all its tattooed, toothless, alcohol-guzzling, petrol-headed glory.
Fenech previously plied his particular brand of love-it or loathe-it comedy on SBS with the scripted narrative comedies, Pizza, Swift and Shift Couriers and Housos. Bogan Hunters, however, inclines more to the factual realm as it scours the country for its champion. Its sideshow approach to its subject is evident in its display of Andrew, a Tasmanian father of eight who proudly announces that he’s so smashed so often that he’s had the names and birthdates of all his children tattooed on to his arms so that he can remember their birthdays.
However, far from losing sleep worrying about whether or not Bogan Hunters breaches any boundaries of ethics or taste, or crosses any lines by turning its subjects into freak-show fodder, it’s likely that Seven’s executives will be congratulating themselves on backing a winner.
What Really Happens in Bali, Seven, Tuesday, 8.40pm; Bogan Hunters, 7Mate, Tuesday, 9.30pm.