Friday, 25 March 2011

iPlaytime on line?

The way we are watching television is changing and many of us are now choosing to watch online; this is particularly popular with the under twenty-fives.   In this brave new world neither the watershed nor Ofcom’s broadcasting code apply.

This week the new regulator for on demand television, The Authority for Television On-Demand (ATVOD), cleared Channel 4's video on-demand service for offering a controversial episode of Frankie Boyle's Tramadol Nights.

The episode featured a range of derogatory ‘jokes’ about celebrities such as Jade Goody, Heather Mills, Michael Jackson, Katie Price and Susan Boyle.  Ofcom received around 50 complaints about the programme, including one from Katie Price, who accused Boyle of being a "bully" over comments made about her disabled son Harvey.

Statutory rules for VOD content are significantly less strict than those for TV broadcasts, and do not currently prohibit programming that is deemed offensive. In cases where content "might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of persons under the age of eighteen", providers must make efforts to prevent young people from accessing the material.

ATVOD ruled that Tramadol Nights would not seriously impair the development of under-18s and so decided not to take any further action.  ATVOD chair, Ruth Evans, said "Many viewers may regard the material as highly offensive, including to people with disabilities, and unsuitable for under-18s, but providing such content to under 18s is not a breach of the rules set by parliament if it does not fall foul of the 'might seriously impair' test."

Last year we asked for another piece of Channel 4 VOD content to be removed.  This featured violent footage – including a man having a nail hammered into the skin between his thumb and finger and then extracted – but we were told this content would not seriously impair a child either.

We have previously highlighted the fact that children are easily able to access post-watershed content online at any time of day unless their parents have set up parental controls (and Ofcom’s research shows us that most parents haven’t).  This means that little more is required to view post-watershed content than a tick in a box to confirm the user if over 18.

It is bizarre that broadcasters are, quite rightly, unable to broadcast certain material ‘on air’ until after the watershed but are quite free to broadcast the same material over the internet at any time without there being adequate protection mechanisms in place.

We submit that post-watershed material should only be available to viewers who have been subject to a more rigorous age-verification check than the current tick box system on offer.  We would like to see a PIN number which could be provided by the viewer’s internet service provider, telephone company or the TV licensing body each of which need to paid for, in the vast majority of cases, by an adult.  We believe that there are feasible steps that can and should be taken by broadcasters to control access to post-watershed material by children.

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