Fifty years on, TV viewers still want watershed

Material said to have caused offence included scenes from Hollyoaks, Sherlock, Wolverine, and the X-FactorMaterial said to have caused offence included scenes from Hollyoaks, Sherlock, Wolverine, and the X-Factor
Material said to have caused offence included scenes from Hollyoaks, Sherlock, Wolverine, and the X-Factor
TV VIEWERS still support the existence of the 9pm watershed – 50 years after it came into force – a poll has found.

The “curfew”, which prohibits the showing of “unsuitable content” after the 9pm cut-off time, is aimed at protecting young children from viewing disturbing material.

Communications regulator Ofcom found that the majority of adults still believe the watershed is relevant and necessary in today’s society, decades after such action was championed by campaigner Mary Whitehouse.

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In a poll, the watchdog revealed similar proportions of adults who watch TV believe it should be the responsibility of “both broadcasters and parents equally” and “mainly parents” to ensure children do not see unsuitable material.

Tony Close, director of Standards at Ofcom, said: “Fifty years on, the TV watershed remains a vital means of protecting viewers.”

With over a third of children aged 5-15 having access to the internet at home and now watching “on-demand” content, Ofcom is working with government and industry to examine how TV protections will continue to apply in a digital world.

The number of viewers upset by too much sex, violence and swearing on television has fallen sharply, according to the research by the broadcasting regulator. Ofcom figures reveal more than half of viewers, 55 per cent, believed there was excessive violence five years ago but that figure has now dropped to 35 per cent.

Those who thought there was too much sex on television has fallen from 35 per cent to 26 per cent over the same timescale. Swearing is also less offensive to people, with the number thinking it is a concern dropping from 53 per cent to 35 per cent.

Ofcom said a change of attitude among older viewers was the reason for the marked change in figures.

The study also found awareness of the 9pm watershed continues to be high. It found 94 per cent of viewers knew of the watershed – up three per cent in the last five years.

An example of a breach of the watershed was Channel 4’s broadcasting of the X-Men film, Wolverine, starring Hugh Jackman. Ofcom ruled scenes, including a surgical procedure in which Wolverine’s head and body were drilled with holes, and two violent fights during which stab wounds were shown, displayed instances of violence unsuitable for children.

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However, the regulator acknowledged that on-demand and catch-up viewing will prove a “new challenge” in terms of protecting children using the watershed concept, although it pointed out that such services account for only 2.5 per cent of current viewing. Claudio Pollack, director of Ofcom’s consumer and content group, said the new forms of viewing and the problems they posed were being addressed by regulators.

“We’re working on ways to help ensure protections viewers expect from the watershed apply beyond broadcast TV.”

Stewart Purvis, professor of television journalism at City University, London, said that while the watershed provided guidance about content, ultimately, enforcing viewing behaviour was “down to parents”.

Andrew Jones, a former BBC senior manager and head of journalism at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, said the liberal attitudes of the “baby boomer” generation accounted for the changes in opinions but also said technology had had a huge impact on the watershed.

Nudity and raunchy routines among ‘offensive’ material

A number of dramas, music videos and soap operas have contained material which viewers have complained broke the 9pm watershed ruling.

These include:

• An episode of the Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks in which undercover policeman Simon Walker (played by Neil Newbon) was killed after being pushed in front of a speeding train by drug dealer Brendan Brady (played by Emmett J Scanlan). It was described by Ofcom as “shocking” and “violent”.

The episode was broadcast in March last year shortly before 7pm.

• The BBC detective drama Sherlock episode A Scandal in Belgravia included scenes of a sexual nature when a nude dominatrix (actress Laura Pulver) wearing only a diamond earring, lipstick and heels perched on a chair and stroked the detective’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) cheek with a riding crop. It was shown in January 2012 approximately 25 minutes before the watershed. However, despite around 100 complaints to the BBC and 19 to Ofcom, the regulator ruled that after “careful assessment” it had decided the scenes did not raise issues warranting investigation.

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• The X Factor final in December 2010 attracted 4,500 complaints to Ofcom following raunchy performances by Rihanna and Christina Aguilera. But Ofcom ruled that while the controversial dance routines were “at the limit” of acceptability for pre-9pm broadcast, they did not breach broadcasting rules.

• A Rowan Atkinson sketch in which he gave a monologue as a fictional Archbishop of Canterbury for BBC One’s Comic Relief in December last year, shown pre-watershed, resulted in almost 500 complaints to Ofcom. During the sketch the comedian compared the band One Direction to Jesus’s disciples and said “prayer doesn’t work”. Ofcom ruled the BBC had not breached broadcasting rules and Atkinson had intended to entertain rather than offend viewers.

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