This article appears in the Graduate Times online, October 2 2011.
New guidance on the TV watershed, published by regulator Ofcom on Friday September 30th, warned broadcasters that they must maintain their duty to protect under-18s from exposure to unsuitable material. However, with more children staying up later and ever-increasing ease of access to a growing range of material, does the watershed need to be extended, or is it an outdated medium that should just be scrapped?
In the modern age there is near unlimited access to programming. Catch up features such as BBC iPlayer and 4oD mean that programmes can be viewed at any time after they have been broadcast. Similarly, programmes are endlessly re-run on satellite and cable television regardless of the time of day (or in fact era) in which they originally aired. Anyone can upload broadcasts to sites such as YouTube, and while items containing inappropriate or offensive content may be forcibly removed, they can remain available online for some time before being discovered by site administrators or reported by members of the public. Furthermore, in areas of media over which Ofcom has little authority, such as advertising and the games industry, sexual and violent images and offensive language pervade.
Through all of these channels poorly regulated content can be located and viewed by minors. However, music channels are perhaps the worst culprits regarding ease of access to inappropriate content. These broadcast barely radio-edited videos featuring sexually explicit images and lyrics – as well as frequent allusions to violence – at all hours of the day and night, often giving viewers the opportunity to interactively ‘control’ what they air with little or no regard for the suitability of the content for their target audience – primarily teenagers.
It is for these reasons that the TV watershed may be redundant. This argument appears to have been confirmed by research published alongside Ofcom’s new guidance, which claims that the majority of parents are not concerned by what their children watch before the watershed mark of 9pm. In fact, only 9% of parents surveyed said that they were “very concerned”.
Yes, Ofcom is out of its depth. It is attempting to control access to age-inappropriate content through regulating the one medium that is arguably not growing at an unsustainable pace – television – while the internet and social media are expanding, and so is their content. But at least Ofcom is trying.
Pop princesses frequently have chart success with songs including references to drunkenness and thinly-veiled sexual invitations (one notable recent example even refers to bondage), without consideration for the fact that a large proportion of their fan base is underage. Similarly producers often attempt to obtain the lowest certificate possible for their movies in order to reach a potentially larger audience. Ofcom are attempting to deal with ever spiralling means of publishing and accessing content apparently single-handedly, while advertisers, filmmakers and singers shamelessly produce media and make it available in the public domain with only the minimum amount of required editing and no apparent concern for the potential youth of their consumer. This is the real challenge to content regulation in the modern age.