Sex and violence on British TV screens may have become more graphic but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to new Ofcom research.
The regulator’s Audience Attitudes to Violence and Sexual Content on Television report conducted dozens of in-depth interviews about the prominence of this post-watershed content and broadly found that both sexual and violent content has “improved and modernised” in recent years.
When it comes to sexual activity on British screens, the review found that “portrayals were seen as less likely to include gender stereotyping, objectification of women or uncritical depictions of exploitative relationships” than past TV dramas.
“Both men and women welcomed what they saw as more enlightened portrayals of sex and sexual relationships, with these changes being considered generally as a positive trend in societal attitudes,” it added. “Viewers also consider that intimate scenes are less likely to be portrayed from an exclusively male perspective by default.”
The likes of Paul Mescal’s character Connell in BBC Three and Hulu’s Normal People was flagged by respondents as an example of a positive role model, focusing on the issue of content in sexual relationships and on female sexual empowerment in his relationship with Daisy Edgar-Jones’ Marianne.
These Normal People episodes come with a “contains strong language and sexual content” on-screen warning, which was contrasted with an episode of Friends in which the characters discover they’re getting a free pornography channel on their TV, which comes with no warning.
Participants in the study said the rise in sexual content had happened a little while ago, coinciding with the growth of streaming services, which don’t have to abide by watersheds.
“Immersive and intense violence”
In terms of violence, interviewees said “graphic, intense and realistic violent content” is now considered the norm but again can play a positive role.
“When presented well, violence was seen to make dramatic content more immersive and intense,” said the report. “Modern portrayals were also felt to be more ‘honest’ than the more staged portrayals in the past, with the negative consequences of violence more likely to be depicted.”
Ofcom flagged the likes of Game of Thrones and Peaky Blinders, which “make dramatic content more immersive, exciting and powerful.”
Viewers main fears around sexual and violent content centered on the need to protect children, added the report, “rather than any impact it could have on individual adults.”
Ofcom said “there was a perceived need to protect children from content they may not be ready to process, as well as fears about glamorising and normalising violent behaviour for both children and susceptible adults.” In December, Ofcom censured Sky after it accidentally aired a Game of Thrones repeat during the day without a child safety code that “contained multiple use of offensive language including ‘c**t’, ‘f**ck’ and ‘s**t.’”
But parents contrasted linear TV with the wild west of the internet, gaming sites and social media, finding that traditional television is a “relatively safe space” in comparison.
The study was the first of its kind for three years. Ofcom said it will use findings to examine the effectiveness of the current rules and hopes they will help broadcasters “better understand audience expectations.”