Tapu Misa on current affairs
Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Parents will switch off if sex rules on TV

Free-to-air needs to preserve some sense of family time and safe viewing for children. Photo / Thinkstock
Free-to-air needs to preserve some sense of family time and safe viewing for children. Photo / Thinkstock

Who cares if a little harmless sex is shown before the adults-only watershed? Apparently only prudes like me.

When my children were younger, one (or perhaps both) of the television networks had a helpful little "adults only" alert at 8.30pm, the equivalent of a good night kiwi telling us that we were entering adult territory and it was time the children were in bed. My kids, if they were still up, never argued with the authoritative voice.

Such nannying is rejected as quaint now; a bit like the concept of "family viewing" time, as the Labour MP Lianne Dalziel discovered when she caught an episode of Coronation Street recently.

Dalziel, the chairwoman of the commerce select committee, told the Broadcasting Standards Authority last week that she had been shocked by the raunchiness of the long-running British soap, which screens at 7.30 here. It now deals with "incredibly complex issues, serious issues, that challenge some of the values parents would want to instil in their children". Including, in the words of one TV critic, "teen minx Rosie Webster cavorting in corsets as she attempted to seduce men old enough to be her father".

Our homegrown Shortland Street is just as bad, says Dalziel. "Anything children are watching from after the news is not safe, necessarily. Nor is the news itself, sometimes."

Dalziel is right. But her suggestion of changing the watershed to the earlier 7.30pm to more accurately reflect early evening content would kill off once and for all what we fondly imagine to be "safe" family viewing time.

In fact, most parents I know want the watershed later (it's 9pm in the UK).

Who should care about sexual content on TV? Well, the BSA obviously, but some recent sex-related decisions have drawn criticism, and accusations of a more prudish authority.

Two in fact were appealed in the High Court, one showing a sex scene between two flatmates in the Australian soap Home and Away (screened here on TV3 at 5.30pm, G-time, and in Australia at 7pm, PG time), and the other a protracted oral sex scene in Hung, a series about a well endowed man who decides to capitalise on his biggest asset to make ends meet. Like Californication, it screens on a subscription cable channel in the US.

I should mention here that I was a member of both the old apparently more liberal BSA, and the new so-called conservative BSA.

In fact the "old" BSA upheld very similar good taste and decency complaints in its time, including an implied gay oral sex scene in PGR time (Shortland St, 7pm), and a particularly graphic scene after 10pm involving a threesome, oral sex and female ejaculation, in Californication.

(Yes, it was after the watershed, and yes, it could be argued that it was integral to the storyline, which just happened to involve a threesome, oral sex and female ejaculation. But should it have been shown on free-to-air television? An all-female majority of the BSA thought not.)

Not that I mind being labelled a conservative on TV sex, but the narrative ignores the reality of the current climate.

There's little doubt that boundaries are being pushed - but if there's a backlash, it's from viewers complaining in increasing numbers.

Does it matter if sex on TV becomes more hardcore as programme makers try to capture our attention, while insisting that the sex is only for laughs, or that it's relevant to whatever storyline a ratings-driven writer concocts?

Does it matter if we see school-uniformed teenagers having sex at 5.30pm? What about an interview with a "feminist porn star" at 7pm on Close Up that includes footage of her at work? Or a series of clips of sex scenes from Outrageous Fortune, used to illustrate a story in the 6pm news about how much sex the writers managed to get into the popular series?

Research published in 2004 by the US think tank Rand came to three conclusions about the influence of TV sex on teenagers' sexual beliefs and behaviour: that watching TV shows with sexual content apparently hastens the initiation of teen sexual activity; that sexual talk on TV has the same effect on teens as depictions of sexual activity; and that shows portraying the risks of sex can be educational. A more recent Rand study showed the chances of teen pregnancy increased with more exposure to TV sex.

Broadcasters argue that there's an off-switch for adults of delicate sensibilities, that most children are able to access far worse material through the internet, and that parents, not broadcasters, are responsible for what the nation's children watch.

All true. But free-to-air television is in a different category from pay TV. And as the late evening content becomes more explicit, can we really say that isn't shifting the line in the hours before the watershed?

The case for restraint, whether it is sexual content, violence or offensive language, is the protection of children.

But that fits into a bigger argument, which holds that television is a communal medium, a public space that most of us are still happy to inhabit. If we can't trust it, more of us will be turning off.

Tapu Misa was a member of the BSA from December 2002 to December 2010.

- NZ Herald

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