Ofcom has today published research on consumer attitudes and trends in violence shown on UK TV programmes.
The research supports Ofcom in its role in protecting TV viewers, especially children. It looks at how violence on TV has changed since Ofcom issued guidelines to broadcasters in 2011 to avoid programmes being shown before 9pm that might be unsuitable for children.
The research comprises two separate reports. The first study focused on public attitudes towards violence on TV among people from a range of ages and socio-economic groups.
The second was an analysis of four popular UK soap operas, which looked at instances of violence, or threats of violence, and people’s views on them.
The first report, on the views of audiences, found that different demographic groups showed subtle differences in their views about violent content. However, all agreed that children should not be exposed to any sexual violence on TV before and straight after the watershed.
People considered the time of broadcast to be the single most important factor in determining the acceptability of violent content on TV. Viewers were prepared to tolerate moderately violent scenes before the watershed; however, all agreed that strong scenes with a vulnerable victim were unacceptable before 9pm.
The research also found that viewers have a sophisticated ability to analyse contextual factors when assessing whether violent scenes were acceptable. Many people said they watched violent content for a number of reasons. Some said it made genres, such as action or drama, seem realistic and provided tension, therefore contributing to their TV viewing experience.
The study of soap operas not only looked at violent scenes, but also measured those with menacing or threatening behaviour, and violence that was implied off-screen.
It found that violence in soaps was usually clearly indicated in advance, so viewers were unlikely to be surprised when it took place. The research showed 79% of violent scenes were judged ‘credible’ and ‘rarely surprised’ viewers. Broadcasters have also used violence in soap operas to help raise awareness and generate public debate around social issues such as domestic abuse.
Instances of strong scenes, portraying violence that might make the viewer uncomfortable, were very infrequent, at 6% overall. Depictions of terror during violent scenes, such as the imbalance of power in a fight, near fatal violence and post-traumatic stress flashbacks, varied between 3% and 5% in the soaps covered.
The report also found that the amount of violence, or threats of violence, has varied over the years. EastEnders has shown a decline from 6.1 violent scenes per hour in 2001/2002 to 2.1 in 2013.
The level of violence in Coronation Street has remained fairly steady, at around three scenes per hour over the same period. There was an increase in Emmerdale, from 2.5 to over 4 scenes per hour, while Hollyoaks has also shown a rise, from 2.1 scenes per hour between 2001 and 2002 to 11.5 scenes per hour in 2013.
Ofcom has a duty to protect viewers, especially children, from harmful and offensive content on TV, including violence. If broadcasters show programmes that break the rules, and if the breach is serious or repeated, Ofcom can impose sanctions on broadcasters, including fines.
Ofcom has previously taken action against Channel 4 after violence in Hollyoaks in 2013 was aired before the watershed. Following this, Ofcom notified all its licensees about the need to ensure pre-watershed material with violent scenes was limited.
Ofcom will use this research to update its guidance issued to broadcasters about how to deal with violence on TV. It will also be used to help inform Ofcom’s decisions when investigating TV programmes with violence shown before, or soon after, the watershed.
The research findings will also be shared with broadcasters to help them better understand audience expectations about violence on TV.
1. Recently, Ofcom fined Discovery Communications Europe Ltd £100,000. This was for broadcasting before the watershed episodes of a documentary on real life crimes called Deadly Women on the Investigation Discovery Channel. The programme contained graphic reconstructions of violent crimes.
2. In 2011, Ofcom issued guidance to TV broadcasters on the enforcement of the watershed, in line with its statutory duty to protect under-eighteens. The guidance followed a series of meetings with broadcasters to ensure they are clear about the standards Ofcom expects from them.
3. Today’s research was carried out for Ofcom by Jigsaw Research and CRG UK Ltd. Both reports were completed in June 2014.
4. The soap opera analysis examined the frequency and portrayal of violence in Coronation Street, EastEnders, Emmerdale and Hollyoaks between 2001/2002 and 2013. The analysis reviewed 282 episodes in total. Each violent scene contained within each episode was logged via a coding schedule that measured various details including frequency, type and severity of violence. The research among audiences was a qualitative research study. It was a multi-phased methodology involving online journals, depth interviews and focus groups. Participants viewed clips of violent content as part of this research process.