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Sex scenes and vulgarity increase on British television
Mark Rice-Oxley | Special to the Christian Science Monitor

LONDON (2003-09-05) When British police flew to Greece last week to help investigate a brawl that left one young British vacationer dead, they had an idea who one of the culprits might be: British television.

A documentary called Club Reps that aired last year had focused on the alcoholic and sexual excesses of a Mediterranean vacation. Police Superintendent Andy Rhodes says it was a magnet for teenagers to head south and behave badly.

"I would apportion quite a lot of blame to Club Reps," Mr. Rhodes told reporters from the Greek resort of Faliraki. "People like watching it, but there's a lot of young people here who have been influenced by it."

Club Reps is hardly unique on Britain's airwaves.

Sex, nudity, violence, and vulgar language have become regular ingredients of the dramas, documentaries, and reality TV staples that make up the British TV diet. Scenes that would have provoked a furor 15 years ago now rarely cause a fuss.

According to a report released last month, 1 in 5 programs broadcast on one of the five terrestrial channels last year depicted some form of sexual activity, most of them mild. Scenes depicting sexual intercourse more than doubled - rising to 14 percent from 6 percent in 1997.

"People are more accepting nowadays of nudity on television," says Robin Hull of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, a watchdog that monitors British television and radio to ensure that taste and decency guidelines are observed.

"People want to be told if something is coming up that they may not be comfortable with," he adds, "but clearly this report shows there is more sex and nudity on TV."

A quick flick through the TV program guides of recent months shows that viewers with more salacious tastes could take their pick from an array of titles - ranging from the documentary (Real Sex, Sex on TV, G String Divas) to dramas like Tipping the Velvet, Babyfather, and Bodily Harm. America's Sex and the City is a late-night regular. Shows like Eurotrash and Temptation Island speak for themselves.

Live reality TV shows are under pressure to titillate. The first series of Survivor in Britain was dominated by suggestions of an illicit beach tryst between two scantily clad contestants, while the latest Big Brother installment was crudely hyped to generate maximum frisson.

"The industry is in turmoil at the moment because of the economic downturn, and so the pressure to come up with the next Big Brother or Survivor is always on," notes Andrew Sparke, managing director of Iskra TV, an independent television distribution company. "If that means you have to go one step further down the trashy road, then more and more will do so, even though there are plenty of producers who can't stand what is going on at the moment."

More viewers mean better ratings, the key to success.

For the government-funded BBC, more viewers means a stronger justification for charging viewers the $190 annual license fee which helps fund it; for independent television (ITV), better ratings mean the ability to charge advertisers more for slots.

"ITV has to make a lot of money to compete with the BBC," notes John Milton Whatmore, chairman of MediawatchUK, a body campaigning for better standards of decency in the British media.

"So ITV makes programs that are either sensational or the wrong side of the line to get the short-term viewers that make the advertisers come in," says Mr. Whatmore.

There are still standards of decency that cannot be breached. And the BSC closely polices a taste "watershed" which stipulates that content of an "adult" nature must be shown after 9 p.m. Particularly shocking television should also carry a rider, warning viewers of what is about to be screened.

"The refreshing thing is that the watershed is being respected," says Hull. "There was a time when it almost became a waterfall, but our research shows the broadcasters are tending not to transgress the rules."

Yet complaints still pour in about British TV. So far this year there have been more than 1,000 objections to indecency on independent television alone.

Supporters of cleaner programming argue that the regulatory framework is weak, and say it is unfair to charge people to watch TVand then tell them to turn off if they object to what is being shown.

"We are concerned that the media industry seems to be self-regulatory," says Whatmore. "It's like the police doing investigations into their own misdemeanors."

He says that the standards set on television affect the communal psyche of a country, and that this is the basis for MediawatchUK's insistence on better standards.

"If you show images that are questionable on television many times over, some of that is bound to rub off on society," he argues. "If you show sex on television as being just jumping into bed and being self-indulgent, then the norms of what is acceptable slowly starts to change."

Copyright 2003, Christian Science Monitor