Viewers welcome ‘more enlightened portrayals’ of sex on TV, says Ofcom report

Normal People. Image: BBC
  • Audiences welcome ‘more enlightened’ TV portrayals of sex, including focus on consent and female empowerment
  • Viewers consider graphic, realistic TV violence ups dramatic value
  • Warnings and the watershed still considered important measures to protect children
  • People expect ‘edgier’ content to be shown on subscription streaming services

Viewers feel that the portrayal of sex and sexual relationships in programmes has improved and modernised, according to Ofcom’s latest study into audience attitudes towards sex and violence on television.

Participants in the research generally consider that the level of sexual content on TV has remained high but steady in recent years. But many viewers also said they’ve observed changes in how sexual relationships are portrayed, with TV programmes now considered less likely to include gender stereotyping, objectification of women or uncritical depictions of exploitative relationships.

Viewers also consider that intimate scenes are less likely to be portrayed from an exclusively male perspective by default. They also recognise that broadcasters place greater focus on the issue of consent in sexual relationships and on female sexual empowerment. Parents in particular felt that TV has an important role today in providing positive role models in this respect, with the character Connell in BBC drama, Normal People, mentioned as an example.

Capturing modern audiences’ tastes and tolerances

Ofcom periodically conducts research among viewers and listeners to understand how attitudes, tastes and tolerances can change over time. These studies can help broadcasters to better understand audience expectations and what steps they may need to take to protect them. They also help Ofcom’s Broadcasting Standards experts to understand and take account of current audiences’ views when making decisions about content, while having full regard to freedom of expression.

When it comes to portrayals of nudity or sexual content on TV, viewers consider that programmes are now more likely to reflect body positive and inclusive attitudes. When discussing non-sexual nudity, participants praise the positive role TV can play, raising awareness of medical issues and making people feel more comfortable going to the doctor with potentially embarrassing or sensitive health concerns.

Graphic, realistic violence now considered the ‘norm’ post-watershed

There is a general feeling among viewers that levels of violence on TV have increased and intensified.  Graphic, realistic violent content is considered the ‘norm’ post-watershed, while some viewers observe that previously taboo topics such as sadistic behaviour and sexual violence are now more common.

Participants felt this was reflective of changes in society and audiences’ tastes, while others suspected this was driven by a need to increase ratings and compete with the more graphic and adult-focused content of streaming services.

Citing programmes like Game of Thrones and Peaky Blinders, viewers also said more realistic scenes of violence – as opposed to ‘staged’ depictions of the past – make dramatic content more immersive, exciting and powerful. They also felt that modern portrayals are more likely to show the negative consequences of violent action.

Warnings and the watershed

Overall, concerns about violence and sexual content on TV focused on the need to protect children.

Most of the people in Ofcom’s study were familiar with the 9pm watershed, or are at least aware that more challenging broadcast TV content is scheduled later in the evening. They liked the notion of TV as a ‘safe space’ for children, feeling reassured that children would be unlikely to stumble across unsuitable content during the daytime or if the TV is on in the background.

People also said they relied on warnings to help them make decisions about what to watch. Some parents described watching family viewing content in advance. They acknowledged, however, that on-demand viewing has diminished the effectiveness of the watershed as a parental control.

According to the Ofcom survey, viewers make the distinction between live broadcast TV and subscription on-demand services, such as Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, but do not separate broadcaster on-demand services, such as ITVX and iPlayer, from live broadcast TV in the same way.

Many feel that subscription streaming services offer ‘edgier’ content, such as Amazon Prime Video’s The Boys, Disney+’s The Punisher and Netflix’s Jimmy Carr: His Dark Material. But this was generally deemed acceptable due to audiences selecting what to watch rather than stumbling across it.

Chris Price
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