Britain's Ofcom Flexes Its Regulatory Muscles

03 June 2004

UK communications regulator Ofcom has unveiled two new proposals: to introduce a cinema-style ratings system for all TV output, and another to combat violent or sexually explicit content on the web.

The suggested measures, currently circulated as a consultation paper, would require all television broadcasters to adopt a 'labelling system' according to the content of their programmes -- a system already adopted by some.

The so-called 'watershed' is the common content label already adopted by the industry, and prohibits the transmission before 9pm of any material deemed unsuitable for children.

However the near universal use of video recorders now allows programmes to be viewed at different times to the original transmission, making the 9pm guideline redundant.

Ofcom seeks an open dialogue with industry insiders, including internet service providers and the British Board of Film Classification -- which already operates an effective content labelling system -- to establish whether a similar regime would work across different media.

Possible problems stem from two broad issues: the content of specific episodes within the same series may differ greatly; and who is to decide and then enforce the classification?

Further confusion may arise as any new scheme would need to be melded with a broadcaster's existing self-regulatory labelling. For example: the nationwide film classifications run contrary to UK television channel Five's present system. It is up to Ofcom to see whether a "common framework" can be adopted.

"It made sense for us to see whether this is one of the sorts of places where we could add value", says the partner for content and standards at Ofcom, Tim Suter, "We will need to see whether it is desirable, and if it's desirable, whether it's feasible."

The regulatory body is also seeking a way to police explicit internet content.

In a move akin to the proposed new TV system, Ofcom has invited a cross-section of mobile phone operators, internet service providers and broadcasters to propose a labelling scheme that includes all television, film and radio transmissions.

Increased "media literacy" among TV viewers is the eventual goal, building on their 92% awareness of the 'watershed'. It is hoped this would prevent what the government's culture, media and sport secretaryTessa Jowell has called an "underclass … shut off from the realities of how the modern media operates".

But given that Ofcom has no legal control over web content, some commentators have voiced concern over what they see as an overly ambitious regulator overstepping its remit.

Countered an Ofcom spokeswoman: "Far from meaning that Ofcom has aspirations to regulate the internet, we wish to work within the framework of labelling that ISPs and other content providers are already using."

Data sourced from: and Times Online (UK); additional content by WARC staff