Changing Values and Internet Versus TV Watershed

While the watershed does usefully remind us that there is offensive and harmful material on our screens after 9.00pm, with the challenge posed by the internet and on demand TV is the watershed past its sell by date?

According to new research published by Ofcom on 3rd July 2014 to mark 50 years of the television watershed, we are more relaxed than ever about offensive content.

'In the past five years, there have been falls in the number of viewers saying there is 'too much' violence (35% of adult viewers in 2013, down from 55% in 2008), sex (26% in 2013 versus 35% in 2008) and swearing (35% in 2013 versus 53% in 2008) on TV.

One reason for this is a change in attitude among older viewers. The number of viewers over 65 who believe there is too much swearing (78% in 2008 compared to 55% in 2013) and violence (75% in 2008 compared to 52% in 2013) has fallen over the past five years.'

Who are the older people who have been asked? Not those I speak to, in fact many despair at the content on TV after 9pm, "The times that we have watched a series on ITV only to switch off because of these things that we have not been warned about. I am no angel having worked in a steel mill for 38 years however I cling to taste and decency as a base line."

An interesting question to ponder, If 78% of older viewers objected to the amount of swearing in 2008 why was nothing done to cut back offensive content then? This demonstrates an astonishing failure to regulate effectively or to take heed of people's legitimate concerns.

These figures show how obscene and offensive content have become normalised so that many viewers are now desensitised to it, especially younger generations, often the target audience. So if Ofcom draws on 'generally accepted standards' to underpin its Code, then things can only get worse as boundaries are pushed further in pursuit of ratings.

As Mary Whitehouse said in 1993 about OFCOM: "Instead of the government providing a vehicle for the voice of the viewer it has provided little more than a convenient means for the broadcasters to deflect criticism of their programmes."

Ofcom's research also found public awareness of the TV watershed, originally designed to protect children from inappropriate discussion before 9pm, was still high. But is it doing the job? For several years so-called 'adult' content has consistently found its way onto pre-watershed programmes such as The X Factor, Soaps and teen Soap Hollyoaks which last year overtook Eastenders for violence.

Recently the teaching union, The National Association of Head Teachers, undertook a survey which found that nine in ten parents nationally want more regulation of programmes shown before 9pm, 96 per cent saying they believed bad language and images of sexual and violent behaviour are on TV pre- watershed. There are calls for pre-watershed warnings.

Ofcom's Code, along with those of other regulators, is couched in permissive and ambiguous language. For example, it states, 'Frequent use of offensive language must be avoided before the watershed and must always be justified by context.' (my underlining). In other words, some offensive language can be included before 9pm.

So, while the watershed does usefully remind us that there is offensive and harmful material on our screens after 9.00pm, with the challenge posed by the internet and on demand TV is the watershed past its sell by date?

Ofcom's 'Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report, October 2013' clearly shows: children's access to smart tv in the home is increasing; 52% have TV in their bedrooms; at least 30% use on demand TV services; more children aged 12-15 have a smartphone than any other type of phone; there is fairly low parental concern about television content and other forms of media with only 45% of parents setting up parental controls on home computers and even fewer on other devices.

Claudio Pollack, director of Ofcom's consumer and content group said, "We're working on ways to help ensure that the protections viewers expect from the watershed apply beyond broadcast TV." However, it is a major concern that steps are not being taken to ensure that under 18s cannot access post watershed programmes online. Currently children can simply click on a button confirming that they are over 18. There are no checks to verify age and given the propensity of many parents to neglect these controls, a lack of effective parental controls shows an extraordinary disregard for children and young people.

It is no good the broadcasters, regulators and government passing the buck and saying it is the parents' responsibility to police what their children can see. In today's busy hi-tech world, parents are not keeping up and need help. We know a large number of children are accessing harmful and offensive material; meaningful action must be taken to protect them.

Ofcom must ensure effective safeguards with age verification are in place; all regulatory bodies should have to use clear and precise language to strengthen their codes and guidelines; all smart devices in the home should have filters, and public information should be prominent across all platforms, particularly television, to raise awareness not only about content and parental controls but also about the ill effects of hours of screen time on developing young minds.

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