Changing attitudes of viewers and listeners revealed

03 April 2020

TV and radio viewers and listeners feel programmes that are unsuitable for children, or which contain hateful or discriminatory content, should be Ofcom’s priorities for broadcast standards.

This is according to a study of audiences’ expectations in the digital world, which highlighted broad support for the broadcasting rules that make sure audiences are protected while freedom of expression is upheld.

Audiences surveyed also agreed that society’s views around offence have shifted in recent years.

According to the survey, people expect regulation to focus on content that incites crime and causes harm, even if it airs on smaller channels or stations aimed at particular communities. Many also want a focus on discriminatory content targeted at specific groups, particularly if it risks harming vulnerable people.

Audience complaints made to Ofcom over the past five years also reflects these shifting priorities. Concerns around swearing, for example, have reduced – falling by 45% between 2015 and 2019, while complaints about racial and gender discrimination have increased by 224% and 148% respectively, during the same period.

What makes today's audiences tick?

Viewers and listeners generally think that people themselves are responsible for choosing what programmes they watch or listen to. They value the variety of content available, as well as their freedom to access it any time in any place.

But there is also support for regulation, and the role of broadcasters, in making sure content is appropriate and reflects audiences’ expectations. In particular, viewers and listeners shared the following views.

  • Rules to protect children from unsuitable content are essential. Although people also feel that parents and carers have a role to play in policing what their kids watch.
  • Rules around incitement of crime, disorder, hatred and abuse are very important. People feel that the consequences of inciting hate crime are the most serious, and want to see these cases prioritised – even if the content airs on smaller or non-mainstream channels and stations aimed at specific communities.
  • Discriminatory content against specific groups is more concerning than other offensive content, such as nudity and swearing. Many people told us how attitudes towards race and sexuality have changed, pointing out that TV programmes in previous decades included language, storylines and behaviours that are now perceived as discriminatory.
  • They recognise that offensive content is subjective, and the importance of freedom of expression. But audiences want clear information about content in programmes to help them make informed decisions. Pre-programme warnings are seen as important.
  • Mistakes during live broadcasts are acceptable if they are genuine and unavoidable. It was suggested that  Ofcom action might not be necessary in the event of accidental on-air swearing, for example, particularly if an apology was made, or the language was made by a member of the public in a way that was beyond broadcasters’ control, and the programme was unlikely to be seen or heard by children.
  • They are worried about a lack of regulation on video-sharing platforms. People told us they were more likely to come across inappropriate or upsetting content accidentally on these sites, with rolling playlists, pop-ups, and unchecked user-generated content being cited as common concerns.

Comments captured during the workshops and interviews with viewers and listeners

Various comments captured during our workshops and interviewers with viewers. Examples include "People find things more sensitive now" and "I'd rather 6 million people heard an accidental swear word than 10,000 people hearing a sermon preaching hatred".
Our complaints data from 2015 to 2019 shows a marked increase in the number of complaints pertaining to racial and gender discrimination, while the number of complaints relating to offensive language have steadily declined