When TV isn't child's play

Can children be protected from unsuitable viewing? Parents say they want a 'safe environment' on the small screen, reports Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

It's the moment many parents look forward to: when the animated yellow bugs on the CBeebies channel fall asleep at 7pm and young viewers can be whisked off to bed. But in lots of family homes the day's viewing is far from over as the kids settle down to soak up what the evening schedule has to offer.

It's the moment many parents look forward to: when the animated yellow bugs on the CBeebies channel fall asleep at 7pm and young viewers can be whisked off to bed. But in lots of family homes the day's viewing is far from over as the kids settle down to soak up what the evening schedule has to offer.

As a nation, we are distinctly uneasy about this. Last week's exhaustive Ofcom review of public-service broadcasting found that only 28 per cent of viewers believe children are given adequate protection from unsuitable content.

Respondents to the Ofcom survey were adamant that broadcasters had a responsibility to do much better; 85 per cent of viewers said providing a "safe environment" for children should be a requirement of terrestrial channels.

The huge gap between expectation and perceived provision of this safe environment was so great that even the report's chief author, Ed Richards, admits that he was surprised by the finding. He has told Ofcom's content board to look into the matter "straight away" and to report back to him in the summer.

"This was not something we had anticipated," says Richards, a senior partner at Ofcom. "The surprise was the clarity with which people said they highly valued the safe environment for children, and the fact they felt that, at the moment, it was not being delivered."

Although this was one of the key findings, it was ignored in media reporting of the Ofcom review as commentators focused on other concerns relating to the standard of BBC programming and falling levels of interest in highbrow shows.

"The reason it has intrigued us is because we think it's quite a lot to do with the fact that a lot of children's viewing is not of children's programming. Much of it is actually of adult programming, and that includes the soaps," says Richards.

"We should think about this carefully, because elsewhere in the research people were also telling us that soaps were very important; that they played an important social role, introducing and addressing difficult and sometimes challenging and controversial social issues. There is a conundrum there."

The findings raise the possibility that the Government may at some stage want to re-configure broadcasting licences to allow greater provision for children during the evening. Richards says: "What else is available for children in the early evening? CBBC stops at 7pm. Children carry on viewing until nine at least, no doubt later."

Ofcom is also concerned at the apparent demise of family-based shows that dealt with social issues in a less racy way than some of the soaps. "At a seminar, someone was arguing that the problem here was an absence of programmes about family where issues were worked through and [the shows] were lighter, in contrast with the soaps, which are gripping and real-life," Richards says.

CBBC and its sister children's channel CBeebies are currently prevented by their licences from broadcasting beyond 7pm because they share their bandwidth with the adult BBC digital channels BBC3 and BBC4. Commercial rivals, such as the Disney Channel, stay on until later in the evening, but public concerns remain that children end up watching inappropriate material.

Richards believes this is partly because attitudes towards television are different from other media. "I suspect that people generally do have a different and, in fact, higher level of expectation about television," he says. "I don't think they have the same expectations of the internet. If you let your children wander unsupervised on the net, they will find stuff you don't want them to find. I think people are distinguishing between media."

Richards says the content board faces a "complex" task examining what the public expects from programmes that "they want on the one hand, but which make them nervous on the other". The issue may provoke debate around possible changes to the 9pm watershed.

"But there's a completely different way of looking at these programmes," he says. "Actually, they will help to equip children to deal with difficult issues in life much more successfully than when you and I were growing up. It's an intriguing issue."

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