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Are young people under the influence of alcohol content on TV?

Ofcom's 9pm watershed might not be fit for purpose, argues Alex Barker

Alex Barker

04 February 2019 – Alcohol use at a young age is a strong risk factor for dependence in later life, and it is important to identify avoidable causes of alcohol consumption in young people. There is strong evidence to suggest that exposure to alcohol advertising or other alcohol imagery in the media increases use in adolescents.

Whilst the Ofcom Broadcasting code protects under-18s by restricting alcohol use in TV programmes made for children and preventing the glamorisation of alcohol use in programmes broadcast before the 9pm watershed or in programmes likely to be viewed by children, a previous study from 2010 found that there is a large amount of alcohol shown on prime-time UK television. We aimed to provide contemporary data on the amount of alcohol content shown in prime-time UK television.

In our study, A content analysis of alcohol content in UK television, published in the Journal of Public Health, we investigated the amount of alcohol content shown on UK television. We recorded free-to-air prime-time TV across the five main channels (BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) between the hours of 6pm-10pm during three separate weeks in September, October and November 2015. We then recorded the amount and types of alcohol content shown using 1-minute interval coding, which involves recording any alcohol content shown in every 1-minute period in the following categories; any alcohol content, actual alcohol use, implied alcohol use, alcohol related content (such as beer pumps or bottles), and alcohol branding.

We found that alcohol content is extremely common, occurring in 14% of intervals we coded, with alcohol content being seen in 67% of programmes and 47% of advertisement/trailer periods. We found alcohol use in 2% of the total intervals, implied use in 7% of intervals and alcohol related content, such as beer pumps, in 10% of intervals. Whilst branding was uncommon, 3% of intervals, 122 brands were identified, with three brands (Heineken, Corona and Fosters) accounting for almost half of all brand occurrences. The programme genres containing the most alcohol content were ‘Cookery’ (all cookery programmes included alcohol content), ‘Soap Opera’ (99% included alcohol content) and ‘Drama’ (94% included alcohol content). The majority of alcohol content was shown before the 9pm watershed, when programmes unsuitable for children are allowed to be broadcast. The amount of alcohol content was slightly higher than in the previous study.

The majority of branding occurred through the sponsorship of programmes, such as comedy on Channel 4 (sponsored by Fosters). Advertisements are regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and are expected to conform to the UK Code of British Advertising (BCAP code). According to the code, alcohol ‘may not be advertised in or adjacent to children’s programmes or programmes commissioned for, principally directed at or likely to appeal particularly to audiences below the age of 18’. However, programmes popular with or watched by large numbers of young people are not necessarily made specifically for them. Branding was also commonly featured in coverage of sports events, such as Heineken, which featured predominantly during the Rugby World Cup footage. The ASA’s definition of advertising does not include sponsorship of programmes or pitch side advertisements at televised sporting events. Exemption of prime-time television and sports programmes from alcohol advertising regulations has the potential to lead to significant exposure among young people during peak viewing hours.

Television remains a major source of alcohol exposure to young people in the UK and is likely to continue to be a contributor to alcohol uptake by young people. Our results suggest that the Ofcom 9pm watershed, designed to protect children and young people from harm, is currently not fulfilling its purpose in relation to commercial advertising and alcohol content in programmes. This has the potential to lead to significant exposure among young people during peak viewing hours, when approximately 4.5 million 7–14 year olds watch television. Tighter scheduling rules from Ofcom and the ASA, such as restricting alcohol content to after the 9pm watershed, could prevent children and adolescents being exposed to alcohol content and advertising.

Written by Alex Barker, research fellow in Epidemiology and Public Health, University of Nottingham.

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.