Audience expectations in a digital world – and what they mean for Ofcom

03 April 2020

Ofcom has today published our research into audiences’ expectations in a digital world, which provides an insight into how people feel about what they see and hear on TV and radio, and how they think it should be regulated by us.

Tony Close, Ofcom's Director of Content Standards

Tony Close, Ofcom's Director of Content Standards, comments on the findings and how they help to inform our work.

People in the UK are passionate about what they see and hear on TV, radio and on-demand. And thanks to social media, debates about programmes today are more animated and immediate than ever.

Word spreads quickly about ‘must-watch’ shows that engage and inspire people; those that typify British culture and bring the nation together; and those that move us to tears. But equally, viewers and listeners know when broadcasters get it wrong or fall short of the standards they expect.

A crucial part of our job at Ofcom is to listen to these views and act on them wherever necessary. Last year, that meant assessing around 28,000 complaints and reviewing almost 7,000 hours of programmes.

But complaints figures are only part of the picture. It’s important that, from time to time, we carry out extra research to really understand viewers’ and listeners’ concerns, needs and priorities. This helps us to ensure our broadcasting rules remain effective and up to date.

We know that audiences’ tastes, attitudes and preferences change over time. And we’ve seen significant shifts in social norms that have changed the kind of content they’re choosing to watch.

A dating show entirely premised on full frontal nudity, even post-watershed, was once unthinkable. Nasty Nick’s dastardly deeds in the first series of Big Brother, which offended many in 2000, would seem less remarkable now after two more decades of reality TV. And racial stereotypes that were a feature of some comedy shows in the 70s and 80s are unacceptable to modern audiences and society.

The people who took part in the research overwhelmingly agreed that rules protecting children from unsuitable content remain essential. And they also felt that tougher rules should be applied to online content. There was a clear call for action to be prioritised against content that incites crime or hatred, or discriminates against groups or individuals, over other offensive content such as nudity or swearing.

Our job is to listen to those concerns, and balance people’s right of protection against their right to receive a range of information and ideas, and of course broadcasters’ right to freedom of expression. We want to make sure that we’re doing the best job we can in upholding standards on TV, radio and on-demand services.

And the research offers an important window into the hearts and minds of modern-day audiences. This will help inform how we apply and enforce our broadcasting rules on their behalf.