Why do TV regulators put their concerns in our mouths? asks Andrew Calcutt
They say we say there is too much sex on TV. No, that was not a misprint: they (regulators and producers) are concerned that we (the viewers) are increasingly concerned about the amount of sex on television.
Foremost among those expressing concern (about our concern) is the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC). In January its chair, Lady Elspeth Howe (now retired), initiated a debate with Channel 5 chief executive David Elstein about public attitudes and the broadcasting of sexually explicit films late at night. Except that it was not much of a debate: while rejecting 'regulation by prejudice', Elstein readily admitted that 'we share some of the BSC's concerns about the prevalence of sex for sex's sake on Channel 5'.
The seasoned broadcaster agreed with the senior censor that sex for its own sake flies in the face of public concern. Other concerned professionals include Countdown's Carol Vorderman, who began a clean-up campaign of her own in July, and President Bill Clinton, the slickest broadcaster of the lot, who recently inaugurated a Congressional investigation into sex and violence in the media.
But how concerned are we, the audience? In 1998-9 the BSC received a grand total of 693 complaints - fewer than two a day - about sex on radio and TV (terrestrial and satellite); hardly an expression of overwhelming public demand. Last year, when a BSC monitoring exercise asked 'do you think there is too much/too little/the right amount of sex on television?', researchers recorded a six-point rise in the percentage of those answering 'too much', from 32 percent to 38 percent. That left more than 60 percent for whom there is either 'the right amount' or even 'too little' sex on TV.
Published in July, the BSC's annual report noted that between October 1998 and February 1999, 'the proportion of complaints in those months concerned with the portrayal of sex rose from one fifth to one third', at a time when in autumn 1998 broadcasting schedules 'seem to have brought more sex to our television screens than ever before'. The operative word here is 'seem': content analysis of TV programmes, commissioned by the BSC and carried out in November 1998, showed that 'there was no actual evidence to support this perception of increased sexual activity'. Growing concern about steamy TV turns out to be hot air.
So what explains the rising concern among media people (about our concern)? Perhaps it is really a mirror of how they see their own role now.
Regulators, while exercising a great deal of influence over broadcasting decisions, no longer see themselves as censors. The BSC 'is not in the censorship business', declared Lady Howe. Instead she regarded herself as a tribune of the people, hence the headline of her riposte to Elstein: 'Don't forget the public.' After 'the People's princess' and 'the People's poet', we have the People's media monitor, reflecting the presumed will of the public.
Perhaps the BSC's new self-image reflects genuine uncertainty among the regulators themselves. Their remit is to uphold standards of taste and decency. But whose standards, and which definition of decency? The moral 'vision thing', which used to frame the prejudices of the great and the good, is noticeable by its absence nowadays. Claiming to act on behalf of the public ('it's not what we think, it's what you want') is one way of sidestepping this awkward omission.
Broadcasters, on the other hand, are always preaching to the audience. In issue-led soaps (Brookside) and 'shockumentaries' (Vice: the sex trade), from cheap talk shows (The Vanessa Show) to 'quality drama' (Jimmy McGovern's The Lakes), they spread the new gospel of bad faith. Life's a mess and then you die; you cannot trust other people, or even yourself. In all the various parables of degradation, there is one constant theme: sex fucks you up. On British TV, no sexual adventurer gets off scot-free (not even in Queer as Folk). The only shows in which sex is fun are either bought in from the USA (Sex and the City: it's okay because it's from a woman's point of view) or looking towards the Continent (Eurotrash, in which the programme's British producers feel obliged to turn sex into a freak show).
On British TV there is probably about as much 'sexual activity' as before, but - like the erect penis of an older man - its angle has changed markedly. A generation ago, programme makers were joyful about shocking Auntie Beeb by breaking sexual taboos. Now the roles are almost reversed: the regulators do not know what line to hold, and programme makers can hardly wait to tell us another cautionary tale of sex and violence. In the old days it was the War Ministry that regaled national servicemen with the perils of unprotected porking; now the nation is lectured by Channel 4.
Yet there has been a recorded rise in complaints about sex on TV. Am I suggesting that the complaints were planted? No. Am I suggesting that people are absolutely satisfied with what's on TV? No. I am not going to presume to speak for the people. But I would like to comment on some insights in recent BSC literature which tally with my own unsatisfactory experience of TV viewing.
A wider range of programmes now attracts complaints about sex, notes BSC director Stephen Whittle; not just film and drama, but also 'documentaries, talk shows and news programmes'. Meanwhile, the commission's monitoring report observes that, at the time when the poll was carried out, 'television schedules contained a number of programmes involving depictions of sex or sex-related topics, additionally highlighted by the print media. Further, knowledge of the relationship between President Clinton and Ms Lewinsky was well-known. These may have affected public perception'.
Could it be that you, like me, cannot swallow any more of those chat shows about infidelity, documentaries about prostitution or programmes about sex and the private lives of politicians? Have you had enough of all those news features which make out that real life is like a dark James Ellroy novel (surely no more realistic than an Enid Blyton)? How I wish the broadcasters and regulators would lighten up on the mission to educate and bring us some light entertainment.
Andrew Calcutt's guide to British culture will be published by Prion in spring 2000
Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999