Today's viewers and listeners are less tolerant than ever before of discriminatory or racist language, Ofcom research claims.
People also say they are more likely to tolerate swearing on TV and radio provided it reflects real world situations and is set in the 'right' context.
The findings are from new research on people's attitudes towards potentially offensive language and gestures in broadcasting, the biggest study of its kind carried out by Ofcom.
The research used a mixture of focus groups, in-depth interviews, online surveys and discussions involving people from around the UK. It looked at 144 words, exploring what people were likely to find unacceptable, and the reasons why certain words were
judged to be offensive.
For the first time the research also included six offensive physical gestures and included some newer and more obscure language than when Ofcom last examined this area in 2010.
The research found that viewers and listeners take into account context, such as the tone, delivery and time of broadcast, when assessing whether offensive language is acceptable. People says they are more likely to tolerate some swearing if it reflects
what they would expect to see in real world situations.
Clear racist and discriminatory language was the most unacceptable overall. Such words were viewed as derogatory, discriminatory and insulting. Many were concerned about them being used at any time, unless they were particularly justified by the context.
Many said that discriminatory and racist words were harder hitting, carrying more emotional impact than general swear words.
Sexual terms were seen in a similar way to the stronger general swear words. They were viewed as distasteful and often unnecessary, but people said they found them more acceptable if used after the watershed, when they would be more prepared.
Occasional, accidental strong language before 9pm was seen as more acceptable on live TV and radio than in pre-recorded material. People agreed it was sometimes hard for broadcasters to control live programmes, but they were less accepting if they felt
broadcasters had acted carelessly or deliberately.
Swearing substitutes, and the bleeping-out of offensive language, were viewed as less acceptable when used frequently. The research found that most people would often understand which word was being substituted, and so the effect was similar to using the
actual word being used, especially if it was repeated.
Tony Close, Ofcom's Director of Content Standards Licensing and Enforcement, said:
We set and enforce rules to protect viewers and listeners from potentially harmful and offensive content on TV and radio. To do this, it's essential that we keep up to date with what people find offensive, and what they expect of broadcasters.
These findings will help us strike a balance between protecting audiences from unjustified offence, especially before the watershed, and allowing broadcasters to reflect the real world.
...And lets not forget that oh so important sound bite from Mediawatch-UK. Sam Burnett, of the morality campaign group said:
Ofcom is remarkably out of touch with the viewing public. This is just the latest signal of the declining standards on our screens.
Love Island is an ITV2 reality programme in which a group of young single people look for romance while staying in a luxury villa.
Ofcom received seven complaints about the episode broadcast on 30 June 2016 at 21:00. Viewers objected to a scene in which housemates Emma and Terry had sex. This was broadcast shortly after the watershed.
The individual housemates got into bed with their partners. The lights in the communal bedroom were turned off and the following images were shown in the form of footage taken using night vision cameras:
Emma and Terry in bed together and kissing, with their upper bodies visible above the duvet (with Emma wearing a slip);
Emma and Terry looking at each other in medium close up;
a wide shot from behind of Emma as the duvet slipped from her shoulders down to her lower back, which indicated that under the duvet she was straddling Terry;
a series of three brief close-ups of Emma’s back and shoulders as the couple had sex; and
a shot from behind of Emma pulling the duvet back up over her shoulders afterwards.
These shots were interspersed with images of the shocked reactions of the other housemates in the villa's bedroom while Emma and Terry had sex, as well as interview footage of them afterwards recounting their view of what had
Ofcom considered rules:
Rule 1.6: The transmission to more adult material must not be unduly abrupt at the watershed…For television, the strongest material should appear later in the schedule.
Rule 2.3 In applying generally accepted standards broadcasters must ensure that material which may cause offence is justified by the context…Such material may include, but is not limited to…sex…Appropriate information should also be
broadcast where it would assist in avoiding or minimising offence.
Ofcom Decision: Not in Breach of Rules 1.6 and 2.3
We noted that Love Island is a relatively well-established reality show format and that this episode formed part of the programme's second series (which began on 30 May 2016). The series focuses on the romantic entanglements of a group of young single
people, and we recognised that sexual activity between housemates had occurred in this and the previous series, and is often a key element of the programme's ongoing narratives.
We took account of other specific contextual factors that we considered reduced the explicitness and overall sexual tone of the material. In particular, we observed that the images of the sexual activity were recorded using night vision cameras so that
they were in monochrome and relatively indistinct, and the shots of Emma straddling Terry while they were having sex were very brief (approximately six seconds in total duration). We also noted that none of this sexual activity was shown in any explicit
way: the couple were covered by a duvet below the waist and Emma was wearing a slip throughout, and there were no images of full nudity during these scenes. We considered that the use of music, and the intercutting of the shots of Emma and Terry with the
housemates’ reactions, lightened the tone and further reduced the potential impact on viewers of the sequence. We also took account of the clear warning before the programme that alerted viewers to “scenes of a sexual nature”.
Ofcom had regard to the fact that the programme was broadcast on ITV2, a channel that is aimed at a young adult audience. In light of this, much of this channel’s postwatershed schedule includes reality programmes as well as films and comedies targeted
at adults. We therefore considered it likely the audience would have a greater expectation for content potentially unsuitable for children to be shown shortly after the watershed on this channel, compared to the audience for the main ITV public service
We also noted that this episode of Love Island was immediately preceded by a double-bill of the sitcom Two and a Half Men. This programme typically includes some limited discussion of adult and sexual themes and does not aim to attract child viewers. We
considered these factors helped, in this case, to ensure that the transition to stronger material after the watershed was not unduly abrupt. In addition, given the brevity and relative inexplicitness of the content, we did not consider it amounted to the strongest material
. For all these reasons, our Decision was that Rule 1.6 was not breached.
We considered that the Licensee had ensured that this potentially offensive material was justified by the context. Therefore, our Decision was that it did not breach Rule 2.3. In the particular circumstances of this case, Ofcom has found this material
did not breach of the Code.
However, as noted above, we consider that content including real sex may carry a greater potential to raise issues under the Code than depictions of sex in a drama or film. Broadcasters should take particular care and exercise caution when scheduling
material of this type soon after the watershed.
Moralists fall out of love with the TV censors
Of course a few moralist campaigners were non pleased by Ofcom's decision and were happy to provide the Daily Mail with a few sound bites.
Chris McGovern, of the Campaign for Real Education, whinged:
Schools work hard to encourage children not to experiment with sex and these kinds of programmes
present sex as some kind of Victorian freak show, offered up for entertainment.
Sam Burnett, acting director of Mediawatch-UK, whinged:
Apparently it's now OK to show two people having sex nine minutes after the watershed as long as you play some jaunty
music over the top of it.
Ofcom's lip-service regulation is leading to a freefall in television standards, and it's the viewers who are losing out.
Conservative MP Sir William Cash whinged:
The bottom line is that this was inappropriate. I would agree with those who have said it's deplorable.
Offsite Comment: The Daily Mail has a rant about Ofcom