The growing obsession with sex and violence on soaps broadcast before the 9pm watershed, such as EastEnders and Coronation Street, was denounced by a television watchdog yesterday.
EastEnders in particular has a high number of children among its viewers, but in recent months has run a storyline about a girl's descent into prostitution and drug addiction.
The Broadcasting Standards Council, in a report published yesterday, said it believed the extra episodes programmed for the soaps in the ratings battle had led to channel controllers stringing out graphic plots. Storylines such as Janine's prostitution and drug addiction in EastEnders had provoked a string of complaints, the BSC added.
The Commission was prompted to carry out a survey on the public's attitude towards soaps after an upsurge in complaints about their content since the beginning of the year. Besides concerns about the Janine storyline in EastEnders, the BSC has received complaints about schoolgirl Candice's sexual relationship with Jason Grimshaw in Coronation Street.
More than 2,000 people were questioned in what was the biggest soap survey for 20 years. It found that one in five people felt uncomfortable watching soaps with their children and believed they tackled unsuitable issues for younger viewers, while one in eight said they were unsuitable for children altogether.
The BSC's chairman, Lord Dubs, said: "Some felt violence could sometimes be used almost gratuitously to push up ratings and they weren't comfortable with that.If people know they're going to watch a crime show with shootings and so on, they know what to expect. But if violent scenes are in a soap it can be very disturbing because that is not what people's expectations are."
Coronation Street and EastEnders now have four episodes each per week, while Emmerdale has five.
The BSC's director, Paul Bolt, said: "There is more time for them to fill now and, in a sense, some of the storylines are probably more protracted than a few years ago, which adds to the impact. The length of storylines like Little Mo and Trevor's domestic violence [in EastEnders] that came over several episodes may be linked to there being ever more time to fill."
Pre-transmission warnings that the programmes contain scenes of sex and violence should not be necessary, Lord Dubs said. "Before the watershed there should not be a need for that. Parents should feel comfortable about their children watching," he said.
Viewers were also concerned that the real-life victims of crimes portrayed in soaps could be traumatised by what they saw on screen. They applauded the inclusion of telephone helpline numbers after episodes with harrowing storylines, such as Toyah Battersby's rape in Coronation Street and the domestic violence scenes in EastEnders.
EastEnders proved the most popular soap, with 68 per cent saying they watched it, compared with 67 per cent for Coronation Street. Emmerdale was watched by 52 per cent of those surveyed and Brookside by 31 per cent.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies