Imitatable Behaviour – Violence!
BOXING REF: Okay, boys. Let’s have a fair and square fight, and in no way should this ensuing fight contain the image of a potentially harmful, hurtful or psychologically-disturbing physical act that could be found imitatable by an impressionable child viewer! (From Phineas And Ferb, “Raging Bully”)
Try to find the word “imitatable” in a dictionary. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Ha! It’s not there, right? But real word or not, it’s definitely in our vocabulary. So is the phrase “imitatable behaviour, ” a concept invented just for us by the Broadcast Standards and Practices departments of TV networks, to let us know what our characters can or can’t say or do.
My first animation gig brought about my first brush with S&P. Weird-Ohs was a kids’ series produced by Mainframe Entertainment (Reboot, Beast Wars) that blended CGI with squash and stretch animation. Based on Big Daddy Roth designs from the 1960’s, it featured weird characters in a car-crazy world. (Don’t worry, S&P…they all wore seatbelts!) Now let’s play Spot The IB (Imitatable Behaviour). In an early draft of my episode, “Not Without My Gator”, said gator crosses paths with a rich kid who is playing polo from his sports car. The alligator gets struck by a stray polo ball. Elsewhere in the script, the same gator is blown sky-high by a drop of volatile home-brewed gasoline. The polo beat got this note back from S&P. “Ensure ball hits gator’s foot, not head.” The blown sky-high bit? It cleared. I guess they figured kids could easily get their hands on a ball and wing it at the head of a pet, friend or loved one which could lead to serious cranial injury. So aim for the feet instead! But less likely to be lying around the house is a jug of magic fuel that can, with a single drop, launch a reptile fifty feet into the air.
And that’s why the networks let us get away with unrealistic, comedic portrayals of violence – stuff that’s so over-the-top/absurd/surreal/against the laws of physics that it can’t be reproduced in real life. If you’re not sure if your violent act is sufficiently unrealistic and comedic enough, don’t worry. S&P will let you know. Note: I’d recommend not wasting time fighting an S&P note unless a typo is involved. Eg: “He pulls out a gun.” Whoops! Did I type “gun?” I totally meant “bun,” like with cinnamon and raisins? Only it’s really stale? So it goes THUD when it hits someone’s foot?
Of course, the older the target audience, the more relaxed S&P will be about certain kinds of violence. Still, on Studio B’s Class of the Titans, a series where modern teenaged heroes were constantly fighting classical mythological creatures, we had to be careful about how we “destroyed” (the kid TV-friendly word for “killed”) villains and monsters. In “Mazed and Confused,” a clone of the Minotaur escapes the city’s labyrinth of underground tunnels and winds up in a subway station.
In the first draft, I had one of the heroes fall off the platform onto the tracks, then goad the beast into attacking her so it could be slammed by an oncoming train. (I also queried if it could get electrocuted by the third rail.) But a sober in-house second look prevailed. You don’t want tween viewers (or anyone really) jumping off subway platforms and/or getting anywhere near that third rail, so we ultimately went with the Minotaur falling off a crumbling staircase to a watery doom in a storm sewer. It was just as dead, only now we weren’t encouraging the dangerous misuse of public transit.
Note: with preschool shows, any “violence” must be so mild it would barely register on your average well-calibrated Violence-ometer ™©®. Pretty much the only true enemy a preschool show character can encounter is gravity. Yup, it’s okay for our furry friends to fall down and go boom as long as the boom is not the result of an incendiary device going off.
You may have noticed that violent and scary imagery can be more extreme in theatrically-released animated features from the big studios. More weapons and physical aggression, characters in more dire peril. (Disney, for example, just loves to knock off one or more of the parents of their lead character – which constitutes emotional violence, if you ask me.) The difference there is that parents have presumably read the “may frighten young children” warnings and are there in the cinema seats alongside their offspring making sure they don’t get any funny ideas about, say, hanging off a cliff. (Disney just loves to get rid of villains by throwing them off high places.) BTW, I saw Fantastic Mr. Fox (rated PG) recently and was green with envy over its use of gunplay, switchblade fighting, poultrycide, electrocution, cigarette smoking, alcoholic apple cider consumption…
At home, parents are more likely NOT to be monitoring their kids’ cartoon-viewing or watching out for “teachable moments.” They trust the networks to make sure their shows are safe for impressionable young minds. So one way to predict whether S&P is going to nix your brilliant blow-up-real-good moment is to think like a parent – a parent who can make angry phone calls to TV networks or send emails to broadcasting regulators, or organize a boycott of advertisers’ products if they think their kids are picking up bad ideas from TV shows.
BTW, I wondered if Pixar’s lawyers were sweating bullets during the “Balloon Boy” incident of 2009. That summer, their movie Up featured an old guy and a kid floating to South America in a house borne aloft by helium balloons. Did some kid jump into his Dad’s UFO-shaped balloon, inspired by an animated movie? Was this a case of imitatable behaviour? Well, it turned out to be a hoax. The kid was hiding in a box in his garage and Mom and Dad knew it. But in 2008, a Catholic priest disappeared off the coast of Brazil after strapping himself to a bunch of balloons as a fund-raising stunt. So it begs the question, which demographic really needs to be protected from IB?
Lots of toons I saw when I was a kid were pretty violent. My brothers and I watched tons of Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner and Tom and Jerry. But they were created as shorts that ran before movies in theatres for grown-up audiences. They weren’t intended to warp the minds of pajama-clad kids eating Captain Crunch on their sofas while playing with their BB guns. Still, they never inspired me to hunt down wascally wabbits or order TNT from Acme. On the other hand, I did become an animation writer and thus the cycle of (non-imitatable) violence continues…
What favourite weird notes have you gotten from S&P?
FYI: From the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB): Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming
2.3 Animated programming for children, while accepted as a stylized form of storytelling which can contain non-realistic violence, shall not have violence as its central theme, and shall not invite dangerous imitation.
2.5 Programming for children shall deal carefully with themes which could invite children to imitate acts which they see on screen, such as the use of plastic bags as toys, use of matches, the use of dangerous household products as playthings, or dangerous physical acts such as climbing apartment balconies or rooftops.