Friday, 7 January 2011

Soap Operas: Education or Entertainment?

The controversial EastEnders storyline in which a character is seen discovering her baby son dead in his crib and then swapping him for the newborn baby of another character has resulted in over 6,000 complaints to the BBC that the storyline is offensive and sensational.

To avoid accusations of sensationalism, EastEnders producers claim to have worked with the charity, the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths although the organisation’s website states: ‘Despite the continuing statement… by the BBC that "FSID were consulted on the storyline...", FSID had no involvement in the planning or adoption of the specific 'baby-swap' plotline.  The behaviour and actions of Ronnie Mitchell are in no way 'endorsed' by FSID as a typical, or even likely, reaction of a bereaved parent.’

Anne Diamond, who lost a son to cot death, said: ‘I was shocked to find cot death itself is no longer dramatic enough for today's screenwriter.  This… hasn't done one iota of good in educating a young audience about cot death.’  Website Mumsnet has also criticised the broadcast as ‘at best… ill-informed, and at worst ... a cynical ploy to make headlines by creating deliberate controversy’.

The BBC has sought to justify the episodes by pointing out that they broadcast an action line number for those affected by the programme.

Soap opera storylines are defended because they make people aware of issues, last year the Government was even reported to be working with soap opera producers on promoting health messages.  And yet for years broadcasters have been telling us that what they produce is entertainment and has no effect on those who consume it. 

They can’t have it both ways; are soap operas for entertainment or are they for education?

In the words of writer and broadcaster Bel Mooney ‘no one who writes scripts for mainstream TV can ever afford to forget that images have a greater power even than words, and that the combination can be deeply ­disturbing. They have to get it right.’