Private Viewing: Has the time now come to say goodnight to the watershed?

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC drama Wolf Hall. TV dramas like this gain a signifcant r

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC drama Wolf Hall. TV dramas like this gain a signifcant ratings boost from catch-up TV. Photographer: Giles Keyte - Credit: BBC/Company Productions Ltd

BBC boss Tony Hall has suggested that the TV watershed may soon disappear. Arts editor Andrew Clarke argues it should stay

BBC Director General Tony Hall who has said that the TV watershed will disappear in the next 10-20 y

BBC Director General Tony Hall who has said that the TV watershed will disappear in the next 10-20 years. Photo credit should read: Lewis Whyld/PA Wire - Credit: PA

It will come as no surprise to anyone that we are living in a world of change. But nowhere is change happening faster than in the world of television. Last week BBC director general Tony Hall, in an interview with the Radio Times, suggested that the much maligned 9pm watershed may have had its day.

As a confirmed liberal “live and let live” arty type, you would have thought I would have welcomed this move with open arms but even I hesitate at the thought of consigning this useful programming yardstick to the waste bins of TV history.

Mr Hall, the former chief executive of The Royal Opera House, isn’t suggesting that we abolish this informal barrier between family viewing and grown-up programming tomorrow but, what he did say was that he felt that in 20 years time it would be nothing more than a fond memory.

The reason for this hasn’t been spawned by a desire from programme-makers to flood our TV screens with promiscuous filth but is a result of the way that TV is now consumed.

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In his state of the nation interview, he points out that while the five mainstream channels still religiously stick to the 9pm watershed and are kept in check by Ofcom, there are a multitude of digital channels that programme all sorts of youth-orientated, “edgy” reality shows which sail very close to the wind and are available at all times of the day.

Notionally they are also subject to Ofcom’s scrutiny but infringements are not reported as diligently because the people that are likely to be offended are not watching those sorts of channels.

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But, the multiplicity of niche television is not the real reason we are likely to lose the watershed. It is the rise of iPlayer and catch-up TV. It seems that increasingly the youth of today are eschewing large, flatscreen tellies and are downloading their TV onto mobiles, iPads and laptops.

Even us oldies who still adore that widescreen telly experience are increasingly not watching television live. We are recording programmes and watching them when it suits us – regardless of the time of day. Recent ratings data has revealed that 2 to 4 million viewers can be added to a programme’s viewing figures within seven days of the original broadcast.

Dramas like Wolf Hall, Silent Witness or Downton Abbey or cult favourites like Dr Who, Sherlock or Game of Thrones have a huge time-shift following.

It is only live “water-cooler” TV like Strictly Come Dancing, X Factor or The Great British Bake-Off that still demands that we watch the live transmission for fear of being left behind.

Although I don’t have a problem with some sex and violence being broadcast – as long as there is a valid story or character reason for the nudity and gore – I do still think that the 9pm watershed is a useful ready-reckoning device when trying to gauge what is and what is not suitable for younger viewers. Clearly, everyone is different. Some 14 to 15-year-olds are ready for Game of Thrones while others are not. It all comes down to responsible parenting.

EastEnders and Coronation Street have a long history of tackling challenging issues and throwing up problematic storylines like domestic abuse or alcoholism but the way these real-life crises are handled means that they can offer help to audiences in similar situations and therefore should be seen by as many people as possible.

My problem with the demise of the watershed is the rise of voyeuristic or exploitative freak-show programme which tries to masquerade as a documentary. I see no value in delving into the lives of people with extreme cosmetic surgery problems, sex addictions or giving the oxygen of publicity to people who have a compulsion to reveal every (not-so) private moment of their lives to the rest of the world.

I think it is great that television has grown up. I think television drama both on the mainstream channels and on digital is probably at an all-time high. I think HBO has to take a lot of the credit for raising the game to where it is now impossible to distinguish between a movie or a TV drama.

I don’t have a problem that there are a lot of 18-rated dramas. I don’t have a problem that many of us watch them from our hard-disc recorders before 9pm but I do think that they should continue to be originally broadcast after the watershed so we have a good idea that perhaps some scenes may be unsuitable for the very young.

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