TV watchdog Ofcom has warned broadcasters about airing violence pre-watershed, and announced it will commission research into the issue as Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks was found to have breached programme rules.
The regulator will look at viewers’ attitudes towards violence on screen, asking if the amount and nature of violence in soaps has changed in the last decade. It will look specifically at shows scheduled before and just after the 9pm watershed.
The announcement came as Ofcom issued a statement to “remind TV broadcasters of the need to ensure that all material broadcast pre-watershed which features violent scenes is appropriately limited”.
Hollyoaks breached broadcasting rules in an episode, screened at 6:30pm in March. A scene involving ex-policeman Simon Walker and ex-drug dealer Brendan Brady ended with Walker screaming as he fell on to the track and into the path of a train before the camera cut away to show the train passing.
There were no images of Walker being hit by the train but the fight in the build-up included several blows to the face and stomach, Brendan’s head being pushed through railings, and Walker with bloody lips and blood running from his nose, while viewers heard the groans as they inflicted blows.
Channel 4 said the storyline had run for around a year and viewers were notified a dramatic episode would be broadcast. The fight scene lasted around a minute, was at the end of the episode and carefully edited.
Ofcom said it accepted violence was “a part of life and integral to many dramas, including those broadcast pre-watershed”.
But it said pre-programme information was too vague and would “not have prepared the significant number of younger viewers in the audience, or their parents, adequately for the violent, intense and shocking scenes which followed”.
It said: “This scene was both violent and shocking and had the potential to distress younger viewers as well as raise concerns about the level of violence amongst parents watching with their children, regardless of the editorial context presented or the signposting provided. For all these reasons, Ofcom considered it unsuitable for children.”
Channel 4 argued that Hollyoaks, which regularly deals with storylines about sexual abuse, domestic violence and drugs, was aimed at a teenage audience.
But Ofcom said figures showed 15 per cent of the episode’s audience were children aged four to 15, and 10 per cent were aged four to nine.
Ofcom said that there was no reliable research into the attitudes of UK viewers on the issue of violence before and just after the watershed. It intends to publish its findings next year.
Tony Close, its director of content standards, said: “Broadcasters have a duty to protect children from violent material. The rules in this area are very clear, making it unacceptable for any broadcaster to include scenes of violence that are unsuitable for children before the watershed.
“The protection of under-18s from potentially harmful content is a key area of concern for Ofcom. As such we have commissioned research into viewers’ attitudes to violence on TV. This will further inform us about the level of concern about violence on TV and will contribute to our ongoing work on the enforcement of the 9pm watershed.”