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The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media spacer The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media
Protect Them From What They Want
by Maggie Bench
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Reading the regulations dealing with what a television broadcaster can and can't show on and between their programmes leaves you with a warm feeling. It really gives you the idea that someone is looking out for you, sifting through your evening's entertainment for anything that might startle, affront or bewilder you, moving things about in the schedule so that your children aren't frightened or corrupted, and making sure you'll all go to bed contented and sleep like babies (including the babies). All of which is how it should be: television is an exceptionally powerful medium and, left unscrutinised at its controls, broadcasters and their paymasters would have us dancing like marionettes to their greedy, degenerate (and probably not very good) tune. A customary warning on this subject is made with a finger pointing to the American television experience, which is often more akin to meandering through a Cairo bazaar in bright and expensive tourist clothing with your wallet hanging out a back pocket than to sitting safely in your living room with a cat on your lap and the electric blanket warming up nicely upstairs.
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But of course it's not just because we don't believe in the absolute sanctity of the selling opportunity, that our TV remains both watchable and relatively harmless to even the most gullible in our society. There are many and varied regulations, sitting like a host of guardian angels on our rooftop aerials (or satellite dishes or wherever it is that the cable comes into our gardens), that make sure this is the case.
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But while we all doubtless list this as yet another reason to be grateful beyond words at being born into this marvellous country of ours, we might nonetheless also wonder if this will always be the case. Is an 'American experience', as seems to be the case in many other aspects of modern life, not the carefully avoided alternative but the inescapable future? As the tide of regulation rolls back, drawn away by the continuing attraction of the full moon of free markets (after which successive UK governments have howled) will it drag with it the lilo of regulation upon which our remainingquality television sunbathes unawares? To put things into perspective, most of the regulation determining what can appear on our screens is contained in a few coherent sets of rules, founded on a set of well-explained principles. Their most recent incarnation is in the form of Independent Television Commission (ITC) codes, adopted by Ofcom on its coming into power, a basic network of dos and don'ts, protecting sensibilities, children, the gullible, voters. A glance through the chapter titles gives a good idea of the areas covered:
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The ITC Programme Code (January 2002) Family Viewing Policy, Offence to Good Taste and Decency, Portrayal of Violence and Respect for Human Dignity; Privacy, fairness and gathering of information; Impartiality; Party Political and Parliamentary Broadcasting; Terrorism, Crime, Anti-Social Behaviour, etc.; Charitable Appeals and Publicity for Charities; Religion; Commercial References in Programmes.
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Most of this is what one might expect to find watersheds, when bad language is acceptable, the representation of people's opinions, incitement to racial or religious hatred, that sort of thing. Importantly, it's also all written in terms of clear principles, rather than exact definitions of what is and isn't allowed, leaving the determination in any particular case up to the regulator, who will decide on the basis of the circumstances. The extent to which these codes have developed over time can be seen, for example, in the amount of rules concerning the protection of children. Whereas one could imagine there always being regulations covering what can be shown when children are likely to be watching, interventions over creating imitative behaviour amongst children, and certainly over the portrayal of the children themselves, in terms of their innocence, corruptibility etc., are certainly indications of more recent concerns. An example of the resulting cumulative comprehensiveness of these rules is section 1.2(ii) of the Programme Code, covering prizes in children's competitions, which states that:
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'Prize values in children's competitions should normally be considerably lower than those on offer to adults, should be appropriate to the age of the target audience and should be designed to appeal to audience interests and not to greed. Cash sums are not acceptable.'
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Whilst obviously the rule is intended to prevent the engendering of avarice among children through gameshows, the inclusion of 'appropriate to the age of the target audience' in connection with prizes could also be useful in a variety of situations that couldn't be listed comprehensively, for example the inclusion of an overtly 'adult' makeover as a girl's prize. Such catch-all phrases are, in fact, the main tool of programme, and other, regulation and they are generally intelligently and usefully applied.
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The ITC Advertising Standards Code, The ITC Rules On The Amount And Scheduling Of Advertising and The ITC Code of Programme Sponsorship.
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The codes governing advertising are no exception, being concerned with three principles: the separation of programme content from advertising, the preservation of editorial integrity and, of course, that people don't advertise things that don't work. All very sensible, and television is doubtless the better for it. And the growth of these rules to deal with developments in commercial markets is perhaps clearer.
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The ITC sponsorship code shows this development especially well, since the regulator published regular updates dealing with particularly prevalent enquiries and trends in sponsorship. The first of these, from February 2001, dealt with straightforward matters such as the possibility of mentioning a sponsor's contact details in a programme's credits (you can't) and the donation of prizes for viewer competitions. By the fourth update, in September, the question of when interactive icons, linking viewers to commercial environments, could be used had arisen (they can, but there can be no 'call to action'). The eighth update discussed programmes being shown that are based on characters for which merchandise is already available (there can be no direct funding of programmes by merchandisers and there cannot be such similarity between a programme and an advertised product that the former appears to be for promotional purposes). Both the advent of new technologies and the development of 'ways around' the existing rules can be seen in the progression of these updates. In the latter category, a good example was the recent inclusion of a 'win the adverts' competition in Ant & Dec's recent Saturday evening show. The idea was that contestants could win all of the products advertised in the preceding break. While the idea is a neat one, it was seen as an attempt to drive up prices for the advertising slots concerned, with advertisers obviously taking the chance to get their products mentioned in programme time. It was eventually allowed to go ahead, but only with completely generic mentions of the products concerned (i.e. 'car' as opposed to 'Mercedes').
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The ITC Advertising Standards Code 3.1 Unacceptable categories
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Advertisements for products or services coming within the recognised character of, or specially concerned with, the following are not acceptable: (a) breath-testing devices and products that purport to mask the effects of alcohol (e) private investigation agencies (i) the occult etc. (see note 10.3) [this note pretty much rules anything out] (j) commercial services offering individual advice on personal or consumer problems
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Each of these rules shows the regulator dealing with a new problem arising out of the link between commercial television and the markets that fund it. They also give a good indication of the difference between the UK and other, less interventionist, regimes (such as the US), in that they are mostly in place to stop television being used to take money off gullible people in what would be entirely legal ways. It's as if the regulator is telling us we could do better than this which could be seen as admirably taking a stand or overly nannying in its approach. And this may well be where the new 'light touch' approach constantly trumpeted by the new regulator could take effect on the codes governing what reaches our screens: the already long-established political credo that the state must back out of individual consumers' lives must at some point turn its hungry gaze on a set of regulations which has been allowed to develop unchallenged in attempting to 'protect the viewing experience', an idea that can be portrayed as woolly and unjustified when there are so many fantastic goods and services that viewers are being denied sight of, as well as programmes themselves that people would just love to see.
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Once again, to keep things in perspective, while it is almost certain that the codes will be reviewed by the new regulator in the near future, these principles will probably remain intact in the regulations, even through the most probing tests of validity forced upon it by a new broom seeking out market-hindering fluff. It does not depend on whether this involves those who were responsible for their enforcement and maintenance previously.
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One area, however, that may become a source of anxiety for those interested in the preservation of standards might be the interest shown by the new regulator in the idea of 'self-regulation'. The idea behind this is essentially that broadcasters with public service obligations, such as ITV, set their own targets for various programme types traditionally held as worthy (documentaries, current affairs, drama, that sort of thing) and give an annual account of their success in meeting these. In this way, those best placed to understand audience reaction (i.e. the broadcasters themselves), are to decide on a day to day basis the best way keeping all the tensions, highlighted by the existing rules, properly balanced. I am reminded here of a spoof interview I read in Private Eye, concerning some new ridiculous piece of deregulation of the railways (in the days before trains started falling off rails like drunks off pavements and such things went beyond a joke). The minister responsible was asked how the new measures would work. 'They won't', he replied.
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One only has to look at the vertiginous slide in journalistic standards that has come about in recent years, Tonight With Trevor McDonald being a horrible example, to see how well self-regulation is likely to protect the standard of the viewing experience on UK television. This is even more concerning when we consider the BBC's own inexcusable belle du jour forays into needless populism which have already resulted in much of its own current affairs output being either booted into garret slots or slung out altogether. With increasing competition for advertising revenue at one end and a complete lack of anyone pulling standards up from the other, it's not hard to imagine self-regulating channels passing off their own ridiculous pandering to the public's obsession with celebrity as worthwhile current affairs coverage. Complex and subjective rules get put back onto the broadcasters to comply with and it becomes more difficult for the regulator to take Issue without seeming heavy-handed why would they put the responsibility onto the broadcasters if they aren't willing to let them handle things?
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Another area constantly under pressure is the amount of advertising minutage that can be shown on UK television. The results of the recent needless increase in these limits by the ITC during the fiasco that surrounded the re-scheduling (and then un-re-scheduling) of the News at Ten on ITV haven't seemed to serve as a warning. Special pleading, not just from public service broadcasters facing the crumbling of their money-printing setups, but also from pretty much any UK channel claiming to be a stronghold of Britishness in the face of an American inundation (in which these channels themselves play a large part), will become the norm. And as such clamouring persists and grows, what is any 'commercially aware' regulator going to do but eventually find a reason to give in to it?
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So, the extent to which UK television will survive the huge increase in commercialism that is inevitable with the advent proper of multichannel television (i.e. with digital broadcasting technology becoming the norm in UK households) depends crucially on the extent to which the new regulator will be prepared to defend the standards previously upheld by its predecessors. Early signals as to Ofcom's predilections do not offer much comfort. Phrases such as 'light touch', 'commercially aware' and 'competition where appropriate' cannot fill with hope the mind of anyone seriously concerned with the fragile state of quality television in this country. There would seem to be a failure to recognise that quality arising through competition and market forces is not a terribly likely scenario in television because it is essentially a creative process: no-one has ever suggested that, for example, art galleries should be encouraged to compete with each other (although I would be surprised if the idea had not been considered by some or other government in the past 20 years), and nobody would seriously contend that the renaissance would have come about without massive interventions on the part of art patrons not concerned with making a profit out of it. The regulator must realise that quality, innovation and originality in television cannot be ensured by encouraging broadcasters to compete for viewers. Personally, I'd love to be disappointed, but I don't hold out much hope. Now, if you'll excuse me, I think there's a Liquid News special on Victoria Beckham's favourite baseball hats over on BBC 3.
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