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Ofcom's bulletin broadcast report on 'Balls of Steel'
Balls of Steel. Channel 4, 19 August 2005, 22:30, 2 September 2005, 23:05; 16 September 2005, 22:30; 23 September 2005, 22:30.
Introduction Balls of Steel was a new late-night comedy series on Channel 4, featuring a number of regular acts performing stunts, either before a studio audience or in pre-recorded items. At the end of each show, the studio audience voted for the most daring and amusing act. The first programme in the series drew 71 complaints, regarding one or more of the following three regular features: "The Pain Men", "The Annoying Devil" and "Neg's Urban Sports". We also received complaints about these features in subsequent editions in the series.
Neg's Urban Sports: This feature involved a young man, Neg, inventing and demonstrating new 'sports', involving interaction with members of the public.
40 viewers complained about the Urban Sports item in the 19 August 2005 edition, called 'Big Stranger Rodeo', in which Neg jumped on the back of a passer by and stayed on as long as he could before being thrown off. Complainants were concerned about copycat behaviour, making reference to 'happy slapping', and the possibility of assault and injury. Two other "Urban Sports" items later on in the series attracted one complaint each.
Response Channel 4 said that it had a tradition of showing challenging late night comedy aimed at a young adult audience and therefore did not believe that the target audience for Balls of Steel would be unduly shocked or upset by the programme or find it offensive. The programme was deliberately scheduled in a late Friday night timeslot, which had historically been the place for alternative comedy and entertainment, eg Ali G, Graham Norton and Bo' Selecta. Warnings were broadcast to flag the show's content, both immediately before the start of the programme and at relevant points within it, so that viewers could make an informed choice about whether or not to watch the programme.
Channel 4's specific comments are summarised below:
Neg's Urban Sports Channel 4 explained that the people featured in the 'Big Stranger Rodeo' item were set up by their friends. The production team researched them prior to filming and were careful to select people who would take the prank in the spirit that it was intended in and who did not suffer from a condition which might make the stunt harmful for them. All participants were happy to be included in the programme. The presenter warned viewers not to attempt to copy Neg's actions, and the angry reaction of the 'victims' would have underlined the obvious stupidity of repeating this stunt.
However, Channel 4 accepted that, with the benefit of hindsight, viewers would have been less likely to have been offended if they had known that the 'victims' had been set up by friends. It had therefore decided that it would provide viewers with appropriate information about similar stunts in future shows to make them aware of the pre-researched and set up element to Neg's sketches.
Decision In considering complaints under Section Two (Harm and Offence) of its Broadcasting Code, Ofcom must also have regard to the broadcaster's right to freedom of expression. Moreover, Channel 4 has a specific remit to ensure that its programmes are innovative, experimental and challenging and that its service has a distinctive character. Its programmes are not intended to appeal to all viewers.
We welcome the fact that Channel 4 took on board viewers' concerns regarding both the "Annoying Devil" and Neg's "Urban Sports". While the broadcaster had scheduled the show responsibly, that is, well after the watershed, we could understand why some viewers were worried about emulation, in particular "Big Stranger Rodeo", where jumping on the back of a stranger could have unforeseen consequences. Appropriate information explaining that these stunts were to some extent 'set up' would help allay concerns in this regard as well as minimising offence arising as a result of health and safety concerns. In view of the actions taken by Channel 4 in response to Ofcom's inquiries, we consider the complaints regarding the "Annoying Devil" and Neg's "Urban Sports" resolved.
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