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Regulation is dead: long live the independent TV viewer?

Polls suggest the public is ready to take a more active role in TV regulation to ensure it does its

Source: Getty Images

In my living room, I can turn on my web-enabled TV, watch an ITV drama and last week's episode on ITV Player. Then, I might watch a political podcast from a newspaper's website, and if I fancy it, round things off with a prank video from YouTube of someone pretending to drop an electric cable into a swimming pool.

If my husband wanders in with a cup of tea, all four of these pieces of content look like TV programming as I switch between them with my remote. But in reality they are regulated (or not) under three different regimes (Ofcom, ATVOD, and no content regulation for the internet). An hour of sofa surfing can produce a whole range of things that walk like TV programmes and talk like TV programmes, but are not in fact TV programmes. While some of them are subject to stringent regulations on harm, offence, protection of minors, privacy, fairness and impartiality, others are not.

And here in lies the future challenge for Ofcom and others concerned with protecting viewers. How should audiences be protected, when more and more regulated and unregulated content appears next to each other on converged TVs, looking, to the untutored eye, exactly the same?

Ipsos MORI's latest audience research for Ofcom shows that protecting minors and other vulnerable audiences from inappropriate or harmful content clearly remains the main concern for most people. Protecting other vulnerable groups from financial or emotional harm is the second most important principle. Whatever we are watching, whether delivered through the internet, on new converged TV's, or on mobile devices, people wanted the same, or more, regulation in future on these issues.

But findings also show there is a degree of pragmatism about what can be achieved in this world of ever-increasing channels and platforms. Importantly, viewers recognised that regulating content is not the same as censoring it.

The participants in our study broadly formed two somewhat contradictory attitudinal groups. A 'Protect me' group wanted regulators to take more of a traditional authoritarian role, stopping broadcasters putting out anything potentially harmful.

On the other hand an 'Inform me' group felt that empowering individuals might be the most effective way forward. They wanted viewers to understand that a YouTube and newspaper video will not been regulated in the same way as Channel 4 news or a BBC drama; and then allow the viewer to use her common sense while watching.

We are entering a new era, where our viewing is not policed by authority figures censoring at source or guiding us with a timeframe of what we can watch when. Everyone will, though, need help to make choices, in the form of more information, and technical tools to signpost the difference between regulated and unregulated content.

The youngest participants in our study, a group of very media-literate 16 year-olds, seemed the most enthusiastic and the readiest for this. This may be a natural evolution for regulation for the young but are their adult counterparts happy to see them use the information and technology at their disposal to make their own choices when it comes to some content?

However the 'Protect Me' group - older, more conservative overall - may need more help. If regulation shifts its focus, it is crucial that all kinds of vulnerable groups, who are likely to be the least digitally literate, are not left behind.

New regulation has to cover the views both type of audiences so that everyone sitting on their sofas understands what they are watching, where it comes from, and how far it has been regulated - and then we can all enjoy an evening's viewing.

Technical note: Ipsos MORI conducted seven pairs of reconvened workshops with about 20 participants in each in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, York, Birmingham and Manchester. Quotas were set to ensure that Ipsos MORI achieved a range of ages (from 18 to late 70s), gender, ethnicity, socio-economic group, and high and low users of new technology.

Sarah Castell is head of qualitative research at Ipsos MORI

Tags:media