Television viewers and radio listeners have become less tolerant of racist or discriminatory words, Ofcom research has found.
Such words were considered to be harder hitting and carry more emotional impact than “general” swear words.
The study of audience attitudes is the first to be conducted by the broadcasting regulator since 2010.
The results will be shared with broadcasters to help them better understand audience expectations.
Ofcom’s findings included:
- The 9pm watershed remained vital as an indicator to audiences of potentially offensive material
- Bad language can be more offensive on the radio than TV, as it is considered more intimate medium
- Words that are bleeped out can be just as offensive as hearing the word itself
- Viewers were more likely to tolerate swearing if it was in an appropriate context and reflected the “real world”
Tony Close, director of content standards at Ofcom, said: “People draw the line at racist and discriminatory language – participants felt this was the most unacceptable of all.”
“Most people see these words as derogatory and insulting. Many were concerned about them being used in programmes at any time, unless there’s very clear justification for it in the programme and how it’s presented to the audience.”
The study, which was the biggest of its kind ever conducted by Ofcom, looked at 144 words, exploring what people were likely to find unacceptable and why.
As part of the research, the regulator conducted online surveys as well as focus groups and detailed interviews.
Participants were played clips from broadcasts which had been deemed controversial and asked participants how offensive they found the language used.
Recent excerpts from Big Brother and Don’t Tell The Bride as well as old episodes of Father Ted and Fawlty Towers were among the clips played to audiences.
The context, intent and tone that offensive language was spoken in were considered important factors to viewers, as well as whether there had been a warning about bad language before broadcast.
For example, a 2014 episode Big Brother was considered acceptable in its original post-watershed slot but offensive when the same episode was repeated in a weekend lunchtime slot.
In the case of Fawlty Towers, audiences also took into account the historical nature of the show and the fact the comedy made fun of the ignorant character using the racist language, but some viewers still took offence.
Sexual terms were viewed as distasteful and often unnecessary, but respondents said they found them more acceptable if used after the watershed, when they would be more prepared.
Another finding of the survey was words which were bleeped out had the power to be as offensive as hearing the word itself.
The research found most people would understand which word was being obscured, especially if repeated.
The survey also suggested audiences felt offensive language was more problematic on radio than TV.
Several participants said they considered radio a “more intimate medium”, where offensive language was rarely heard.
As a result, they thought that strong language would feel more intrusive and unexpected on radio than it did on TV.
Radio was also considered more likely to be heard by children, as it was often heard in the background in public spaces.