Like Mediawatch-UK, the television watershed in the UK is also 50 years old this year.
As television grew in popularity during the 1950s there was much discussion about what its influence on children might be. In 1958 new research, Television and the Child, was published. It drew on observations by parents and teachers, but principally on the examination of more than 4,000 children. The report accepted that post-9pm very few children remained in the TV audience, but stated that before that time parents alone could not be wholly responsible for children’s viewing and suggested that television producers take action to share this responsibility.
Further reports followed and, finally, in July 1964 The Television Act came into force which required the exclusion of all material which might be injurious to children from transmission before 9pm.
According to a new poll by Ofcom, 50 years later, television viewers still support the existence of the 9pm watershed, with the majority of adults believing that it is relevant and necessary in today’s society. Tony Close, Ofcom’s director of Standards described the watershed as “a vital means of protecting viewers.”
The watershed can never be the complete answer to protecting children from potentially harmful material but it is a useful tool for parents and, as such, is worth protecting.
However, the watershed can no longer be the only answer now that we can consume content at any time. Over a third of children aged 5-15 now watch ‘on-demand’ material and, whilst this is estimated to account for less than 5% of TV viewing, it poses new challenges.
Ofcom says it is ‘working on ways to help ensure that the protections viewers expect from the watershed apply beyond broadcast TV’ and we shall continue with our work to ensure solutions to this problem remain a priority for the regulator and the industry.
But is the watershed on television working?
Nearly half the parents surveyed for the Bailey Review in 2011 were unhappy with pre-watershed television and, earlier this year, when The National Association of Head Teachers polled parents on the watershed 96% of them said they thought the rules are being broken.
Ofcom also canvassed viewers on their experience of watching television and it found that the number of viewers upset by too much sex, violence and swearing on television has fallen sharply; five years ago 55% of viewers thought there was excessive violence but this has now fallen to 35%. Five years ago 35% though there was too much sex on television but this has now fallen to 26% and whilst 53% were concerned about the amount of swearing broadcast five years ago, now only 35% are worried.
Has television changed substantially over the past five years?
Could the fall in levels of dissatisfaction be because, with so much more choice of what to watch, we are simply avoiding things which might upset us; or could Ofcom’s regulatory decisions have left viewers feeling that they are out of step with the general mood of society with the result that they become desensitised to questionable broadcasts?
Among those adults who had been offended by something on TV in the last 12 months, nearly four times more people are likely to continue watching the programme than in 2008 (5% in 2008 versus 19% in 2013) and less likely to turn off the TV altogether (32% in 2008 compared to 19% in 2013).