Monday 22 April 2019

You can't show that before the watershed!

The British TV watchdog this week said it's cracking down on family programmes like 'The X Factor' that go too far, reports Ed Power

It was the bum waggle that promoted a thousand complaints and nearly gave the moral majority a collective coronary. Now Christina Aguilera's highly steamy turn on The X Factor has earned ITV a formal rap on the knuckles from the UK's broadcasting watchdog.

Whilst the singer's striptease-inspired turn was found not to have breached regulations by going out before the 9pm watershed, the regulator, Ofcom, said the performance was at the very limits of what was permissible. As a result, the commission is to issue new pre-watershed decency guidelines.

The next time you see Christina Aguilera on The X Factor, she will likely be dressed as a nun (and not the perved-up Lady Gaga variety).

'Christina-gate' is big news in Britain, where Right-wing commentators are of the view that an entire generation risks being corrupted by the sight of Aguilera slow-grinding up against a chair. Which raises the question: has anyone in the UK ever heard of the internet?

The notion that the most scandalous image a young person is likely to see today is a semi-clad pop singer is beyond ludicrous. Five minutes trawling the web will reveal images that make Christina look like a Saturday morning TV presenter from 1979.

"The reality is that children are looking at stuff that is inappropriate on the web," says Margie Roe manager of "Whether they are doing so out of curiosity or stumble upon things by accident, it happens."

"The internet means they can watch anything," says Sheila O'Malley of "It doesn't have to be rated 12 or PG. If you look up the search history of kids, in the top 20 items there is going to be sex and porn. That was from data in the UK. You would like to think we would be behind in this respect, but we're probably not as far behind as we'd like to think.

"The controversy over what is or isn't suitable for 'pre-watershed' viewing has raged for decades. Ever since Pan's People pirouetted across the Top of the Pops set to the raunched-up sounds of 'Simon Says' by the 1910 Fruitgum Company, in fact.

This was in 1968 when Britain's answer to Father Ted's Lovely Girls first steamed up the screen with their formation dancing, full-length skirts and blinding white smiles. Teenage boys couldn't get enough of their innovative choreography and glossy hair. Others were less impressed. Their inaugural appearance prompted an outcry. But the public soon got used to the idea of leggy models dancing as if they were trapped in a giant tub of treacle.

In the intervening years, the issue of what is or isn't appropriate watershed viewing has resurfaced up every few years.

In the early '90s there was a huge to-do when the early-evening Channel 4 soap Brookside featured a same-sex kiss between 18-year-old Anna Friel and a neighbour.

For its troubles Channel 4 was flooded with complaints, though the attention didn't do Friel any harm -- the number of fan letters she received each week increased from 20 to 100, she was inundated with scripts and was even offered a record contract. While Friel has gone on to a respectable career in cinema and TV, it's the Brookside clinch she'll be remembered for.

Never to be outdone in the shocker-stakes, the BBC's grimmer-than-grim EastEnders raised the ante a decade later with a gay relationship involving a Muslim character.

A scene in which the two men kissed earned a rebuke from Britain's Muslim Affairs Committee, which said the show had "lost an opportunity to present a normal friendly Muslim character to the British public".

Such risqué storylines have long been a feature of the London-based soap. But same-sex, pre-watershed romance is a relatively recently innovation in Coronation Street, so much so that when it was announced in 2003 two male characters were to tangle tongues, television lobby group Mediawatch accused the programme of stooping to 'cynical exploitation'.

In the event, it proved a bit of an over-reaction as the actual kiss was little more than a chaste peck of the lips.

In Ireland, pre-watershed controversy has been rarer. That's partly due to the fact Irish people are less excitable but also because broadcasters haven't been so eager to test the limits of what they can get away with.

For instance, in its 18-year history, Glenroe featured only two sex scenes, one a relatively chaste roll in the hay between Miley (Mick Lally) and Fidelma (Eunice McMenamin). With the economy in the toilet at the time, most people were otherwise occupied and couldn't be bothered creating a stink.

As for Fair City, the only rumpus to rock dreary Carrigstown has centred on the pay-rates of cast members.

Some watershed breaches are unquestionably an attempt to generate publicity. But there are also cases when potentially offensive material swoops beneath the radar

In 2008, for instance, Channel 4 had to apologise for airing an episode of The Simpsons guest-starring U2 in which Adam Clayton refers to his band-mates as 'wankers'. It probably didn't help that Mr Burns popped up during the credits to repeat the accursed phrase.

When it comes to raising the temperature of moral guardians, you really have to leave it to the Americans.

Where the furthest we will go is showing Mick Lally frolicking in the hay and the British draw the line at a lesbian snog, US import Gossip Girl didn't so much break the watershed and strap it with explosives and blow it into the middle of next week.

A 2009 threesome between college room-mates was judged so scandalous US parents groups demanded the CW network censor the scenes. To the surprise of no one the network declined and broadcast the episode in full, garnering through-the-roof ratings.

In the the aftermath of The X Factor controversy, regulators in the UK have been widely accused of trying to impose a nanny state at a time when the internet renders such efforts comically redundant.

Some parenting experts, however, are hitting back.

Risqué pop performances, they argue, play a huge part in the sexualisation of pre-teens. When a glorified pole-dance from Christina Aguilera is what passes for family entertainment, surely it's time to hit the emergency brakes and yell stop.

"Somebody has to say enough is enough," says Practical Parenting's Sheila O'Malley. "We're letting all this stuff happen, whether it's magazines or TV or whatever. We need to say we are not happy with it. We need to become more activist. We should be outside waving placards."

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