Soap ratings war 'exposes children to TV violence'

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The Independent Online

Children are being exposed to scenes of increasingly explicit sex and violence in television soap operas amid an intense ratings war, according to a study published yesterday.

Of almost 1,000 parents interviewed about their attitudes to the 9pm watershed, 47 per cent said they were concerned that soap operas contained material that was not suitable for children. They expressed particular concern about the "moral" effect on their children of a ratings war between Coronation Street on ITV and EastEnders on BBC.

Around one third were also worried about content in crime series such as The Bill on ITV and police and hospital dramas, according to the joint study by the BBC, the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Independent Television Commission. A total of 4,000 adults and 1,500 children were questioned about pre-watershed viewing, either in focus groups or surveys. The research forms part of a series of studies by broadcast watchdogs into children's reaction to television. Last month a study into television violence accusedHollyoaks and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which are aimed at teenagers, of "overstepping the mark".

Yesterday's report found that 95 per cent of adults and 72 per cent of children support the watershed, which is policed by the ITC and the Broadcasting Standards Commission, both of which will be replaced by Ofcom in December. Under watershed rules programmes deemed unsuitable for children watching alone cannot be shown before 9pm. After that scenes equivalent to a 15-certificate film are permissible, and 18-certificate content can only be shown after 10pm.

Publication of the report, The watershed: Providing a safe viewing zone, coincides with a series of soap storylines testing viewers' tastes. Parents were concerned at a plot in Coronation Street in which a serial killer drives into a canal in his car containing his estranged wife and her children. A significant minority of parents, particularly those with younger children, believed the underwater shots showing the family struggling to escape should not have been shown until later in the evening.

An extended gay kiss in Casualty also drew complaints. Parents felt the scenes "could influence their children when they were at a vulnerable age" and nearly all believed it was unacceptable pre-watershed viewing. They also criticised scenes from Brookside on Channel 4 shown at 8pm, in which two teenage girls were taken hostage by an armed member of a drugs gang, with the threat of sexual violence.

The report's author, Gillian Ramsay, said: "Soap operas were the main cause of concern across all of the groups in the study. Participants were very conscious of the 'battle for ratings' and thought that the portrayal of sex and violence in soap operas was becoming more explicit and more hard-hitting all the time. There was recognition that the serial nature of the genre made them particularly 'addictive' to their children, which increased their exposure to them." Many parents were concerned that watching scenes of drug-taking, drinking, fighting and gang membership might inspire imitation by their children.

The ITC said a successful soap opera needed to incorporate important social issues without corrupting parents. It said a recent storyline in Coronation Street depicting the rape of a young woman was sensitive, although the programme could have helped victims more by broadcasting a helpline after the credits.