CLEAN UP THE SOAPS?
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
typical British winter evening, around 7pm, and across the country
nearly 14 million people are experiencing the horror of domestic
violence. If that terror wasnt 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
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 BSCs 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 flats sofa and hours 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 isnt 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 couldnt 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 theres 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, theyre 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 Years
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 Commissions (ITC) code of conduct on violence
in 2000 when the soaps 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 programmers
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 months 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.
Theyre both under 10 and thats 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 ones
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 shouldnt 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? Ive
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 todays 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
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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