The night TV failed the taste test

Picture the scene: it is 1992 and, in a programming meeting at the ratings-topping, seemingly invulnerable Nine Network, a question is asked. How can we build one of our biggest hits, Australia's Funniest Home Videos, into something bigger?

The answer was Australia's Naughtiest Home Videos, a pastiche of crude videos deemed too rude for the regular edition of the show, and the kind of animal-sex videos that might have even startled the usually cool-as-a-cucumber demeanour of David Attenborough.

Among its gems: a man with his head wedged between a dancer's breasts, close-up shots of animal genitalia and animal sex, a man lifting a barbell with his penis and footage of a couple having sex in the middle of a park.

The one-off special was barely at its midpoint before the network's owner Kerry Packer, who was sitting at home watching, did the very thing every television critic fantasises about: telephoned the network and ordered they "get that shit off the air".

And they did, hastily wedging in a repeat episode of Cheers to pad out the hour, first blaming technical difficulties but ultimately conceding that the network's owner had in fact called in and ordered the show off the air mid-broadcast.

At the time, for those who lived through it, it was more a case of eye-rolling disdain than proper offence, though there was the dutiful hand-wringing from right wing snowflakes about how social mores were on the verge of ruin. That script, decades later, at least, has not changed too much.

The following week the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal found the show did not actually breach program standards, merely good taste. "While aspects of the program may have struck some viewers as crude, tasteless and offensive, the content did not breach criteria for AO [the adults only classification] viewing," the tribunal ruled.

But now, 25 years later, Australia's Naughtiest Home Videos serves as a talisman of a sort, a fixed point in the changing moral landscape where we see a show which caused great offence at the time, but aired some 16 years later in full. Decades later we tolerate more from some programs and far less from others.

Where the boundary sits on television - as with society - is a constantly shifting line; interpreting it is like being sent onto a field blindfolded and playing a game which rotates between rugby, rugby league, Australian Rules and soccer.

There is the business of comedic offence, where offence isn't so much taken, as written into the show bible; they range from the cheap sexual and sometimes racial exploitative comedy of shows like Two Broke Girls and Married with Children, to those engineered to use offence as social commentary, such as South Park and Family Guy.

An episode of Married with Children was banned in 1989 for its offensive sexual content - the plot involved a motel filming its guests and then recycling the footage via an amateur porn channel - though the episode later aired in 2002 and made it onto DVD a year later.

South Park, meanwhile, drew its darkest headlines for a pair of 2010 episodes whose plot involved offended celebrities, which managed to ignite a tornado of real-world political and religious rage by depiction of the prophet Muhammad, which is forbidden in Islamic culture.

The network aired the episodes, with a black censor bar over the offending images, and has never repeated them. In the kind of scandalous footnote only Hollywood could add, the episodes were nominated for an Emmy award.

The same year another animated series Family Guy encountered a similar problem, with an episode about abortion, which was criticised for its glib treatment of the issue and banned from US television; it aired in the UK and was later released on DVD.

Even The Simpsons, which does not have a track record of overt offence, still bears the bruises of Blame it on Lisa, the episode in which the Simpson family travel to Brazil and encounter every cultural stereotype imaginable, provoking threats of legal action from the country's tourism industry and even the ire of its government.

Then there are the really bad reality TV specials, such as the O.J. Simpson-themed true crime special If I Did It - even Rupert Murdoch later said it was an "ill-considered project" - and Who's Your Daddy? in which a young woman's search for her biological father was turned into a kind of reverse-Bachelor with 25 potential "dads" and a $100,000 prize.

Dishonourable mentions: Welcome to the Neighbourhood, an abandoned 2005 reality series in which non-white families competed to win a dream home in a white neighbourhood, and the self-explanatory Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?

And then there are scripted programs - typically comedies - which seem impossibly conceived in offence.

Heil Honey I'm Home was a sitcom which cast Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun as a suburban couple with difficult Jewish neighbours, while The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, set in the household of Abraham Lincoln, was sunk in a storm of criticism over its trivialising of slavery.

Flash forward to the present day and two television programs stand head and shoulders above others in terms of popularity, critical applause and explicit violence: The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, the former noted for bloody bashings and gore, the latter for bloody murders and, in its Red Wedding episode, a massacre which made Dynasty's royal wedding massacre in Moldavia look like Here's Humphrey.

So where does the line sit?

Is it timing? In 1997, the US network ABC aired an episode of Ellen in which Ellen Degeneres' character came out as a lesbian. The episode triggered a media storm, advertisers withdrew and the show was cancelled within a year. Two decades later the same network aired the groundbreaking gay rights miniseries When We Rise.

Back in 1976 a US comedy, Snip, was cancelled because one of its characters was openly gay. The same series - at least, the five episodes which were made before the axe fell - was aired in Australia without headlines, perhaps because just a few years earlier in Australia the taboo-exploding cultural masterpiece Number 96 had been aired.

And in 1992 - the same year that Australia's Naughtiest Home Videos aired - the then-communications minster Richard Alston called the "edutainment" series Sex an "electronic Sodom and Gomorrah".

Or is it context? Heil Honey I'm Home may have died in an inferno of disapproval - and rightly so, even on the basis of simply being an ordinary show - but another comedy, Allo Allo, successfully exploited wartime punchlines, featured Nazi characters and somehow became a much-loved cultural classic.

And in 2005, Big Brother's infamous "turkey slap" incident was never actually aired on television, just via a web stream to a tiny audience, though it was later replayed ad nauseam on current affairs programs to serve up a dose of national outrage to a salivating audience.

The answer may lay with Australia's Naughtiest Home Videos itself which was, in 2008, unearthed and transformed from a piece of grubby, mostly unremarkable archived tape into a primetime special and marketer's triumph: repackaged for broadcast as "the show Kerry Packer didn't want you to see".

As they say, one man's trash is another man's prime-time TV special.

This story The night TV failed the taste test first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.