Violence in Drama
Summary and Guidance in Full
In this article
Last updated: October 2010
Editorial Guidelines Issues
This guidance note should be considered in conjunction with the following Editorial Guidelines:
- Harm and Offence
Summary of Main Points
- Context is key to the depiction of violence in drama. Audience acceptance of violent acts will be affected by a range of factors including transmission slot, genre, quality, integrity and the programme's pedigree.
- Audience understand that pre-watershed drama may occasionally contain stronger scenes than normal, but believe they should be set within a moral framework and should not be gratuitous.
- Audiences dislike casual or 'normalised' aggressive behaviour in pre-watershed drama, whether in dialogue, attitude or brief scenes of violence.
- There is an audience expectation that post-watershed dramas will contain some violent scenes. However, many parents do not want to be ambushed by strong scenes immediately after 9pm, but want time for a programme to develop in order to determine its suitability for their children. Clear programme information about strong content is also important.
Context is the key consideration for the depiction of violence in drama. Our audiences are capable of sophisticated and nuanced judgements on the suitability of a specific act of violence. This judgement will be affected by factors such as:
- Slot: the watershed is still important to audiences, but they do not expect to be "ambushed" by strong content immediately after 9pm. In addition, there is a general expectation that programming on Sunday evenings will be more restrained;
- Genre: different genres carry different expectations and tolerance thresholds for violence.
- Quality: audiences are more accepting of violent content if the quality of the programme is high;
- Integrity: audiences are unforgiving of violence which seems tacked on and not integral to the story being told;
- Pedigree: well-established and liked programmes and performers are given greater license by audiences
Audiences understand that pre-watershed drama will occasionally contain stronger scenes than normal, for example at the climax of a long-running story or on special occasions such as Christmas Day, New Year's Eve etc. However, it is important to viewers that strong scenes are not gratuitous and are set within a moral framework; they are less tolerant of scenes which appear "out of the blue" and have little editorial justification either in terms of plot or character. Additionally, viewers often believe that the consequences of violence on the life of the victim need to be shown, especially in those programmes which have particular appeal to children and young teenagers.
Soap operas carry considerable impact on the moment of transmission. Production values often mean that few strong scenes retain the power to shock post-transmission, but we should not underestimate the ability of violence in soap operas to cause a shock at the time they are first broadcast, especially for families watching with children.
More latitude is afforded to "precinct" dramas, such as shows set in hospitals or police stations, where the subject matter is inevitably going to contain some fairly strong or violent scenes. For example, the very nature of a medical drama allows for some violence, whether accidental or deliberate, to be an intrinsic part of storylines. However, there are still limits to audiences' tolerance - prolonged violent or gory scenes or frequent strong scenes may provoke complaints despite the subject matter of the series.
In addition, audiences are more concerned about violence in realistic drama or series than in fantasy, supernatural or comedy content.
Audiences are often more concerned about the impact of persistent, low-level aggressive behaviour (such as shouting, slapping, shoving and threats) in pre-watershed dramas, than the occasional violent scene. Many viewers dislike casual or 'normalised' aggression, whether in dialogue, attitude or brief scenes of violence. We should bear in mind that verbal aggression, shouting and bullying can have a very negative impact on audiences, especially when they contain younger viewers.
There is an expectation that post-watershed dramas will contain some strong and violent scenes and viewers feel this is justified as long as such scenes enhance the plot or characterisation and are not gratuitous - that is, included simply to shock.
Quality, context and heritage are all important to the acceptability of violent scenes.
- A strong compelling story is often the first criteria for viewers' acceptance of violence; they are more tolerant of violence when watching a drama considered to have high production values and an original and well-plotted storyline.
- A well-established series with known and trusted characters will often be afforded a little more leeway for strong scenes than a new show.
- However, viewers are still capable of being made to feel uncomfortable by very violent images, or prolonged or gratuitous scenes, even in long-running shows. Strong violence needs to be part of a good plot and proper character development to be acceptable to viewers, rather than as a short-cut to create dramatic intensity.
High-quality US imports hold particular appeal for younger adult viewers and there is little concern about levels of violence as long as these shows are appropriately scheduled with comprehensive programme information available to audiences.
The 9pm watershed is still important to viewers. Many parents with near-teenage or younger teenage children expect to watch television beyond the watershed as a matter of course and do not want to be ambushed by strong scenes immediately after 9pm; they want time for a programme to develop in order to decide on its suitability for their children and are particularly concerned that scenes of sexual violence are not shown until the story is well-established. Clear programme information and warnings about strong content are also important.
This guidance is informed by the findings of BBC research into the broadcast of violent content, contained in the 2010 report Reviewing the Acceptability of Violence to Audiences.