Wednesday 23 July 2014

The watershed in the on-line space

Earlier this year the BBC’s Director General, Tony Hall, announced plans to introduce encryption technology to the iPlayer, so that the estimated 500,000 UK homes where viewers do not have a TV set but watch the corporation’s programmes on-demand would have to start paying the licence fee.

This week Mr Hall appeared before a Select Committee of MPs and told them this change was necessary “to reflect the way people are consuming BBC programmes.”  When and how this is enacted would require legislation and so is, in the words of Mr Hall, “a matter for the government”.

What is particularly interesting about this is that, in the all discussion of new technologies to potentially limit access to the iPlayer, no mention was made of limitations to protect children.  If technology exists to limit non-licence fee payers’ access to content the similar measures should be imposed to protect children.

At present all that stands between a child and access to post-watershed material is a tick in a box to confirm that the user is over 18; as the mother of a seven year old I can confirm that this is not beyond the wit of a determined child and offers very little real protection.  The iPlayer does offer a parental control option but this is not turned on as a default and, as I have yet to see an advertisement for it, I think we can assume that few parents are aware of its existence.

The importance of robust age verification has figured strongly in the debate about protecting children from online pornography and it is time to extend the discussion to other categories of on-demand content.

We took this issue up with Ofcom a few years ago and were told that they considered the restriction of certain types of content to be a purely voluntary measure for video-on-demand providers because they don’t consider that anything broadcast on UK television would ‘seriously impair the physical, mental or moral health of persons under the age of eighteen’.

However, times are changing.  The number of hours of television viewed via the iPlayer continues to grow and now this is an issue which really has to be addressed.  Claudio Pollack, Director of Ofcom's Consumer and Content Group, said: "Ofcom recognises that the growth of on-demand TV is posing new challenges for parents and regulators.  We're working on ways to help ensure that the protections viewers expect from the watershed apply beyond broadcast TV."   We have written to Mr Pollack to ask for details of the possible solutions under discussion and for some idea of the time frame for action.

Ofcom’s Director of Standards, Tony Close, recently described the watershed as “a vital means of protecting viewers”; we agree wholeheartedly and it is important that a similar level of protection is developed in the online space.

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.  Presently subscribers to cable and satellite services have to enter a PIN number to access post watershed content which they have download and we would like to see a similar system on broadcaster’s websites.  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.

Next year is an election year and we have prepared a policy paper on this issue for MPs and prospective MPs.  We will be asking them to consider the inconsistency of the present arrangements and pressing for a commitment to further action to protect children. 

Friday 18 July 2014

Happy Birthday TV Watershed

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).

We should not have to accept content which is potentially harmful and it is important that, when broadcasters get it wrong, we tell them.  Mediawatch continues to lobby broadcasters, regulators and politicians on your behalf.  I appreciate how frustrating the process can be but complaints can now be made quickly and with no cost by using Parentport.  Your work in alerting Ofcom and broadcasters when standards are breached is essential and much appreciated.