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Andrew Morton
the problems of drug abuse and prostitution,
all served with the side orders of abortion, rape and murder.

A typical British winter evening, around 7pm, and across the country nearly 14 million people are experiencing the horror of domestic violence. If that terror wasn’t enough, over the next hour and a half a similar amount tackle the problems of drug abuse and prostitution, all served with the side orders of abortion, rape and murder.
Luckily, this not everyday life in an increasingly violent world - the occurrences are actually the unsavoury ingredients often used in episodes of daily television soap opera.
This diet of sex and violence appears regularly on 13 to 15 million television sets per programme, easily permeating all the usual standards of taste and decency that most people would usually protect themselves with. However, soap operas hold a unique place in British popular culture, creating national - ‘must- watch’ - events on six evenings a week. This huge audience tunes in to participate in the viewing of their fictional town or street, their characters and their storylines. Only national sporting events so easily match the addiction of Emmerdale, Coronation Street, Eastenders, Brookside and Hollyoaks. But, according to the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC), sport lacks the violence of soaps, a component that the fans of the fictional programmes so appear to crave.

The report released last week by the BSC entitled ‘Soap Box or Soft Soap’, criticised the major domestic soaps for their increasingly aggressive and sexual themes, amid fears from viewers and parents about the effects of this content on children.

As the main statutory body for both standards and fairness in broadcasting, the BSC’s findings have reignited the ever-present debate about the precarious balance between realism and the amount of violence depicted on television - particularly in fictional programmes.

As a busy 23-year-old account manager in London, Sarah Jenkins finds the comfort of her flat’s sofa and hour’s worth of soap viewing an ideal way of unwinding after a long day at work: “In the evenings it is so good to be able to switch on the television, sit back and enjoy the decent plots in the soaps - few other programmes seem to have as much in the way of drama and excitement,” she said.

Of course Sarah isn’t alone in her love of ‘Corrie’ Eastenders and co. A poll conducted last year by the Commission revealed 37 per cent of female viewers said they couldn’t live without them, adding that they get “absolute enjoyment” from the programmes. Even the five per cent of women who said they thought soaps were “rubbish” still admitted to watching them anyway. Only 18 per cent dismissed the genre altogether. Such overwhelming figures demonstrate the soap operas’ popularity, but is it the increase in violence and sex- orientated themes which drive ratings up?
“Oh without a doubt, if I know there’s something big going to be happen, such as a murder, car crash, or fight between two characters, then I definitely watch the soap with extra interest,” explained Sarah. “You just have to, everyone particularly remembers the big action scenes and plots, they’re almost part of our history I guess.”

Recently the viewers of Eastenders have been ‘treated’ to the major story line of Little Mo Slater beaten up by her husband Trevor, followed by her retaliatory strike with an iron creating a New Year’s Eve ratings winner. For the first time since surveys began, more sex and violence is now shown on television before the traditional 9pm watershed than ever before.

All of the major soaps are broadcast well before the cut-off period, with the two market leaders averaging 3.4 violent scenes an hour last year, almost double than that in 1998. Coronation Street actually broke the Independent Television Commission’s (ITC) code of conduct on violence in 2000 when the soap’s makers, Granada, produced a scene which was considered too extreme for a family programme, namely the attempted smothering of character Steve McDonald with a pillow.
It is this position of soap operas in television schedules that cause so many problems and issues surrounding the amount of sex and violence illustrated. As more channels start broadcasting the battle for ratings intensifies. Viewers like Sarah Jenkins respond to the programmer’s salvo of hard-hitting story lines that would normally be shown after 9pm. However, soaps are meant to be family viewing, with children subjected to scenes that would otherwise not be within their usual television habits.

In this month’s report by the BSC, one in five of the 2,000 people questioned stated that they felt uncomfortable watching soap operas with their children. A similar number said they believed the programmes tackled unsuitable issues for younger viewers, and one in eight said that they were inappropriate for children completely. Mother of two Ruth Dickson is an Eastenders viewer who now feels the programme needs a radical overhaul of its content, before she is totally satisfied that watching it with her two young children is an activity for the early evening.
“I really believe programmes like Eastenders no longer cater for the whole family, I had to turn over the channel last week to avoid my kids asking their mummy about abortion.
They’re both under 10 and that’s not the sort of subject which I should feel compromised into discussing with them until a few years time,” said Ruth.

Asked whether a simple viewing decision, responsibility for one’s own television output (in its most basic and ultimate form, the on/off switch) was surely more than enough to safeguard against swamping children with unsuitable information, Ruth was adamant it shouldn’t be necessary:
“Why should I limit the choice of my television viewing just because channels show the wrong type of programme at the wrong time? I’ve only got five channels, switching over all the time would leave me with only four for much of the weekday evenings. We need to re- think the way we present soaps to our children.”

Some may argue that the programmes responsibly tackle issues and actually help children learn about problems, aiding parents to raise important areas of discussion with their offspring without sounding like lecturers. Indeed, it may well be better that today’s increasingly street-wise youngsters learn important lessons early, in the living room watching soaps with their parents, rather than for real.

Paul Bolt, Director of the BSC, summed up the difficulty of sex and violence in soap operas: “People want their soaps to be realistic, but not too real, true to life but not too close to home.” Whereas each group, whether they are avid viewers, parents or children, want good entertainment, opinions will always differ about the severity and quantity of realism in soaps.
This will only change when programme schedules alter, to the expense of younger viewers, or - crucially - television bosses no longer pursue ratings figures and are prepared to make soap content softer. My money is definitely not on the latter.

© Andrew Morton May 2002

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