Viewers call to clean up soaps

by TARA CONLAN, Daily Mail

Last updated at 13:42 22 April 2004

Television soaps faced pressure to cut down on sex and violence last night after one of the biggest ever viewers' surveys declared them to be unsuitable for families.

A poll of 6,000 people found an "overwhelming majority" were concerned about children watching TV before the 9pm watershed.

Soaps, in particular, came under fire. The damning 90-page study, by the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom, criticised channels for failing in their remit to show high-quality "public service" TV.

It also accused them of dumbing down, chasing ratings and relying too much on "copycat and celebrity programming" such as Big Brother.

"(Parents) think pre-watershed content, particularly in soaps, is unsuitable for children,' said the report.

"They feel it would help if there were more programmes specifically targeted at children, particularly older children aged ten and upwards, at the equivalent point in the schedules."

The Ofcom survey was ordered to try to find a way of making pre-bedtime viewing safe for youngsters.

The regulator found "a comparatively low number" of viewers thought terrestrial TV was succeeding in this area.

The report, called Is Television Special - A Review of Public Service Broadcasting, found that shows on the arts, current affairs and religion have all suffered at the expense of soaps and reality TV.

Soaps now account for 55 per cent of drama, compared with 47 per cent in 1998. Reality shows have increased by 20 per cent.

But the number of prime time arts shows has fallen by 17 per cent in five years.

All five terrestrial channels are censured, but the report is most worrying for the BBC as it will form part of the Government's forthcoming review of the Royal Charter that allows it to operate and collect the licence fee.

Ofcom said: "The BBC needs to reaffirm its position as the standard- setter for delivering the highest- quality public service broadcasting."

It said BBC1 has increased "soaps and long-running series such as Holby City".

On BBC2, there have been "significant increases in light entertainment and factual" - especially leisure - shows. But arts has fallen by 22 per cent and drama 18 per cent.

Ofcom also suggested that some of the BBC's digital channels, such as arts station BBC4, should be funded by subscription, instead of the licence fee.

Ofcom has the power to punish broadcasters which break regulations.

It can fine the BBC up to £250,000 and other channels up to five per cent of their revenue.

BBC sources accused Ofcom of "politicking" last night.

They claimed the regulator wants to increase its powers over the corporation and convince the Government it should replace the BBC's board of governors-when the charter is renewed.

A BBC spokesman said: "The BBC will respond to Ofcom's long-term propositions once we have had time to fully explore the evidence put forward."

ITV Broadcasting chief executive Mick Desmond said: "For viewers, soaps and sport have as much of a role to play as the more traditional public service genres like arts and religion."

Ofcom will now give TV companies and viewers the chance to comment on its findings.

In the autumn, it will make recommendations to the Government on how TV can be improved.

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