Audience expectations of regulation are changing but they continue to show broad support for broadcasting rules to ensure the protection of viewers, while maintaining freedom of expression. A study shows that people expect regulation to focus on material that incites crime and causes harm. They are worried about a lack of regulation on video-sharing platforms.

A study of Audience expectations in the digital world for the communications regulator Ofcom showed that television and radio viewers and listeners feel that the priorities for broadcast standards should be programmes that are unsuitable for children, or which contain hateful or discriminatory content.

Audience complaints made to Ofcom over the past five years also reflect these shifting priorities. Concerns around swearing fell 45% between 2015 and 2019, while complaints about gender and racial discrimination increased by 148% and 224% respectively.

Having been introduced to the Broadcasting Code including definitions of harmful content, offensive content and freedom of expression, participants thought all the rules were important and there was little appetite for changing them.

Participants in the study overwhelmingly agreed it was essential to protect children from inappropriate content and wanted rules to cover this. However, parents were seen as having primary responsibility for the content accessed by children.

Participants felt there were challenges around applying the rules for offensive content given its subjective nature. They focused on people knowing what to expect so they can make informed choices, for example, by having access to clear information about the content in programmes.

Despite this, there was widespread agreement across participants that societal norms around offence have shifted in recent years and this should be reflected in the way Ofcom regulates offensive content. Participants prioritised addressing discrimination aimed at specific groups over other types of offensive content.

Harmful content was considered more serious than offensive content, with strong concerns about the impact of harmful content on attitudes and behaviours. As discussions progressed, participants increasingly felt that adults, specifically vulnerable adults, and society overall could be affected by audio-visual content. This challenged their initial view that adults should decide for themselves what to consume.

The potential for harm was often discussed when considering the different rules in the Broadcasting Code. In particular, rules around crime, disorder, hatred and abuse were very important to participants and strongly linked to potential harm. They emphasised how content which incited hatred or crime should be prioritised by Ofcom, even if this was on smaller channels or stations.

There was a strong desire to maintain the current rules for television and radio because participants felt audiences were more likely to come across content by accident on these platforms.

Many participants were more comfortable with catch-up and subscription services having fewer rules than broadcast TV and radio. This was because they felt they had an active choice in selecting content and were therefore more in control on these platforms. However, they assumed that if a programme had previously been broadcast on TV or radio, it would follow the same rules when accessed online.

There were concerns about a perceived lack of rules on video-sharing sites, where participants were worried about accidentally coming across inappropriate or upsetting content. Rolling playlists, pop-ups, and unchecked user-generated content were common worries. However, there was concern about the feasibility of increasing regulation online.

The research was conducted for Ofcom by Ipsos MORI and included workshops, focus groups and interviews, in September, October and November 2019. The report, Audience expectations in a digital world, is available from the Ofcom web site.