Media: Soap cleans up children's viewing: Sex, violence, riots . . . TV stands accused of corrupting the young. William Phillips looks at what they actually watch

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The Independent Online
When rioters set fire to Holby City Hospital, BBC 1 shifted the disturbing finale of Casualty from its usual Saturday time of 7.50pm to 9.30pm. Yet 2 million children - 22 per cent of British under- 16s - watched; almost as many as the 25 to 30 per cent who normally watch Casualty.

Not for the first time, television is being charged by politicians and commentators with giving young barbarians ideas and 'desensitising' children with sex, swearing and mayhem. But what do children actually watch?

Above all, they watch grown-ups' programmes; but they consume less television than adults. Under the longstanding BBC/ITV Family Viewing Policy, very little upsetting material is screened before the 9pm watershed, except on news bulletins, which few children care to watch.

Their own television must accommodate programmes that appeal to three age groups: pre-school, primary school pupils and pre-teens. It is rarely accused of tastelessness except in the stylised violence of US cartoons, although since the Sixties these have been laced with 'pro-social' messages.

Grange Hill's realistic portrait of a suburban comprehensive alarmed some when it began on BBC 1 in 1978. But it was 15 years before it depicted its first schoolgirl pregnancy, and its creator, Phil Redmond, still vetoes swearing and solvent abuse. But since 1986 Grange Hill's audience has dwindled to fewer than 2 million child viewers, and no programme designed for children regularly attracts more than one in four of them.

On the other hand, children as young as five watch EastEnders and Coronation Street before bedtime at 7.30pm. Children love the victimless mayhem dished up by Jeremy Beadle's You've Been Framed], Noel's House Party, the cod warfare of Gladiators and the slapstick of Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean. In 1992, all these shows were seen, sometimes or often, by 30 per cent or more of British children.

Apart from one episode of Casualty and one of Coronation Street, no adult drama rated as highly as these light entertainment shows among children. Nor did any episode of a situation comedy, except a Christmas Day special of Only Fools and Horses. Television in peak hours is overwhelmingly middle-aged in flavour and content.

Indifference to adult concerns and current affairs automatically deters children from a good deal of unsuitable viewing, such as the current epidemic of documentaries on sexual topics. But what about television's chief structural barrier, the 9pm watershed?

This did not prevent the s-word issuing from Bill Murray's lips well before 9pm during ITV's premiere of Ghostbusters II last Wednesday; but in its Sunday season of family movies, so many glottal stops were dubbed over the effing and blinding in Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile that the actors seemed to have hiccups. ITV's toughest pre-watershed drama, The Bill at 8pm, is craftily bowdlerised like Z Cars 30 years ago.

During the winter months more than one-fifth of children are watching television at 9pm on weekdays and Sundays, though they disappear when News at Ten comes on. On Saturday, more than one-third are watching at 9pm, hence the Casualty uproar. Around 5 per cent of children, mainly 12- to 15-year-olds, are still viewing at midnight on Friday and Saturday.

There is less violent action-adventure on terrestrial television now than in the Seventies and Eighties. Thoughtful cops have supplanted The Professionals or Dempsey and Makepeace. Imports such as The Equalizer and Miami Vice have disappeared from mid-evening schedules. However, satellite movie channels seem to schedule blood feasts from Hollywood in patterns designed to lure younger viewers. Sky Movies played Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator 2: Judgement Day on 27 February at 10pm, immediately after the same star's much softer Kindergarten Cop at 8pm. The previous night, Sky One ran an appetite-whetting feature about Terminator 2 at 8pm. It pulled the same stunt twice last year, placing Look Who's Talking and its sequel as curtain-raisers for Robocop and Silence of the Lambs.

All these movies were videotaped by more people than usual, as was the original Terminator on BBC 2 in August 1991 and ITV's Schwarzenegger shootouts, Predator and Commando, last September. This suggests an underground network of children watching and swapping tapes. Unless British TV imposes a 'spoiler' signal on transmissions to foil recording, it is hard to see how this can be stopped.

Yet the figures do not suggest that violent TV films are replayed in vast numbers. In a typical week, only 3 per cent of the viewer's time is spent playing back tapes. It is possible that 18-certificate pre-recorded cassettes, rented from stores, are bootlegged and circulated among children, but we cannot be certain; Barb, the ratings system, cannot log usage of pre-recorded tapes. Memory-jogging surveys asking children what they have seen are prone to severe exaggeration because of peer pressure and poor memories. In any case, tapes are censored more heavily in Britain than anywhere else in Europe.

If you fear that youth is going to hell with the box's help, take heart: by far the most popular programme among children is Neighbours, that exemplar of sunny, suburban sermonising where every sin is found out and nobody is bad all through. Last year, 197 programmes were watched by 30 per cent or more of children, and 156 of them were Neighbours episodes. In most playgrounds you are a 'dork' not to know what happened to Bouncer and Todd because you were drooling over Friday the Thirteenth. For all the alarms, most children are being nourished by the righteousness of Erinsborough five nights a week. Why do we leave the task to Australians?

----------------------------------------------------------------- TOP OF THE TABOOS 1993 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Title Channel Objection Child audience* Casualty BBC1 Arson - 700 protest calls 2.0 French and Saunders BBC2 Violent spoof of 'Misery' 1.0 The Good Guys ITV Old lady beaten up 0.9 News & Weather (5.15pm) BBC1 Murdered children in Natal 0.5 Lipstick on Your Collar Ch 4 Husband beats up wife 0.4 Love Weekend Ch 4 Naked chat show 0.3 Dead Romantic (Screen 2) BBC2 Serial killer murdered 0.2 Good Sex Guide (premiere) ITV Penis size comparisons 0.2 Last Tango in Paris Ch 4 Explicit sex scenes 0.2 Viewpoint '93 ITV Serial killer interviewed 0.2 ----------------------------------------------------------------- * Figures in millions. Source: BARB -----------------------------------------------------------------

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