Thursday, 5 February 2015

Watershed protection in the online space

Last week the Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall, featured in a wide-ranging interview in the Radio Times.  The discussion ranged from the representation of women in BBC output to whether The Archers has become too soapy.

One of the areas touched on was the watershed.  “What’s the point when kids can access unsuitable content on a variety of devices at any time?” asked the interviewer.  Lord Hall replied: “the watershed is still a useful way of judging the content and sensitivities, and taste and decency issues.  But has the watershed got a future in 20 or 30 years’ time?  I suspect not.”

Whilst it’s true that new technologies mean the watershed in 20 years’ time will look very different to what we understand it to be today, it is a concern to hear that the man in charge of the BBC thinks it has no future.

The watershed is now 50 years old and television viewers still support its existence.  Ofcom’s research shows high levels of regard with approximately 80% of parents saying they believe it is relevant and necessary.  Ofcom’s Director, Tony Close, has described it as “a vital means of protecting viewers.”  Whilst it can never be the complete answer to protecting children from potentially harmful material is a useful tool and, as such, is worth protecting.

Presently the vast majority of television is watched as it is broadcast although the number of ‘time-shifted’ hours consumed continues to rise steadily.  Before such viewing becomes the principle means of television consumption we need to consider how we extend the protection currently offered by the watershed into the online space.

This is not an impossible request; presently subscribers to cable and satellite services have to enter a PIN number to access post-watershed content which they have downloaded.  This is a workable solution which we would like to see extended to other on-demand platforms such as iPlayer.

There are feasible steps that can and should be taken by broadcasters to control access to post-watershed material by children.  Now is the time to consider how we can replicate the valuable tool which is the watershed online.

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