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The Food MagazineDoes TV encourage teenage drinking?

Published in The Food Magazine issue 76
10th March 2007

A survey for The Food Magazine has taken a look at alcohol in television soap operas. It shows that alcohol – shown in background scenes or being consumed by characters – accounts for considerable screen time in many popular soaps. Cally Matthews reports

Our Table (below) shows that, during the two week survey period, Hollyoaks was the leader in total alcohol related references with these accounting for around 18% of screen time. According to its website, Hollyoaks is the UK’s most watched teenage drama serial; it goes out Monday to Friday at 6.30pm, right after the Simpsons.

All of the soaps we surveyed go out before the 9pm watershed and have millions of viewers for each programme segment, including many children and young people. However, alcohol still plays a prominent role in these dramas.

During the survey period, the alcohol scenes in Hollyoaks were largely centred on the lives of three friends. One owned and managed a bar-restaurant while the others assisted him. The three were young twenty-somethings, single, carefree and enjoying life to the full. Each looked a picture of health, of average weight and physically fit.

The characters used alcohol to help them enjoy dates and to celebrate special occasions. Even when characters were not explicitly drinking, alcohol appeared in the background – on shelves at the bar, on other tables in restaurants.

Similarly, other programmes showed characters that were exemplars of health, yet storylines showed an obvious mismatch with their unhealthy drinking habits. In Home and Away, the chief offender was a gym instructor. As you might imagine, he was fit, healthy and sporty, yet 50% of his scenes saw him drinking beer or wine.

Our survey data is backed up by other studies, including one for Alcohol Concern, the national agency on alcohol misuse. The Portrayal of Alcohol and Alcohol Consumption in Television News and Drama Programmes (Hansen 2003) surveyed soap opera content over several weeks and found, on average, seven drinking scenes per hour, with alcohol used primarily for celebrations and as an aid to romance. The study found no explicit portrayal of alcoholism and a tendency to portray potential problem drinkers in a humourous, or light-hearted way.

A problem with over-saturation of images, particularly alcohol, is that it dulls the senses to the point in question – it becomes the ‘norm’. Suddenly a daily lunchtime and after work visit to the pub is normal. Two to three glasses of wine each night is normal. We become desensitised to the shock of the image.

Hansen criticises television for this naturalisation of alcohol consumption. Our survey showed that alcohol was the most frequent food group in background scenes, for example, 69% of all food occasions in Coronation Street involved alcohol. Our Bar Chart (below right) shows how alcohol dominates the food groups appearing in background scenes of Hollyoaks.

Evidence is accumulating about harm to young people from this ‘naturalisation’. A recent study in the British Medical Journal (2006), In a lather: do soap operas promote teen drinking? focused on young people in the Netherlands and found that soaps were linked with alcohol abuse in young people.

Alcohol Concern acknowledges that just because young people drink, they do not necessarily go on to develop into problem drinkers. However, according to their research, worrying numbers of young people do binge, with, for example, over 50% of 15-16 year olds admitting to having had more than five drinks on a single occasion in the previous month. The effects of alcohol of the bodies of developing young people is hard to predict. The charity is also concerned that accidents while drunk are a big problem; drink does not have to be a long term problem to have serious consequences.

The extent to which television can be expected to promote a ‘better’ vision of society, or even a truly realistic one, is a problematic question. Certainly, programme makers are required to follow official guidance from Ofcom, the government regulator, for alcohol in programme content.

We contacted the BBC, Channels Four and Five and ITV and received official statements confirming that they follow the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, with, for example, Channel 5 asserting, “Representation of alcohol use and/or abuse in Five programming is governed by the guidelines laid down by the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. In accordance with these, alcohol is not featured in programmes made primarily for children unless there is strong editorial justification. In other programmes broadcast before the watershed which are likely to be viewed widely by under-eighteens, alcohol abuse is generally avoided, and in any case not condoned, encouraged or glamourised unless there is editorial justification.”

As the soaps we surveyed all have bars or clubs or pubs as significant settings, it is likely that ‘editorial justification’ is going to allow many scenes with alcohol. The questions of glamourisation and encouragement are perhaps more open to interpretation. The regulator, Ofcom, is charged with enforcing its Code, but day to day programme content is more likely to be monitored, and complained about, by members of the public who object to certain scenes.

While the nation’s soaps continue the process of normalisation of alcohol under the watchful gaze of the regulator, campaigners have focused their attention on efforts to get a pre-9pm watershed ban on alcohol advertising on television.

The drinks industry spends around £800 million a year promoting its products, against a spend last year by the government of not quite £4 million on safe drinking capaigns. According to Srabani Sen, Chief Executive of Alcohol Concern, “This is way off beam.” Campaigners want to make sure young people are protected as much as possible from the power of that spend and believe a total pre-9pm ban is the best way to do this.

A recent study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Effects of alcohol advertising exposure on drinking among youth (2006), found that young people aged 15-26 who watched more alcohol adverts tended to drink more too. Nearly 2000 young people were interviewed for the study, which took place in the United States.

Scheduling restrictions on TV advertisements are almost all based on the Broadcasters Audience Research Board audience index. Programmes attract alcohol advertising restrictions if the proportion of under 18s in the audience is greater than the proportion of under 18s in the population at large.

This still leaves some programmes with many young viewers but not of a high enough percentage to enact a ban; it also means that programmes with very high overall viewing figures need large child audiences to enact a ban. For example, alcohol adverts are allowed during Home and Away – a programme full of young characters that goes out on weekdays at noon and 6pm and which has a viewing audience comprised of around 8% under 16 year olds.

The complexities of the current system mean that it is not that easy to find out if advertising is allowed during specific programmes. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) was unable to tell The Food Magazine whether alcohol adverts were allowed during Emmerdale, Coronation Street, Hollyoaks and Home and Away, despite its role as a so-called one-stop-shop for consumers concerned about advertisements. They told us to phone the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC), a specialist body responsible for the pre-transmission examination and clearance of television advertisements.

However, BACC told us, “Our role is to advise broadcasters of the character of the commercial, and in this case, we will inform the broadcaster whether it is a commercial for alcohol. It is up to the broadcaster to apply the scheduling restrictions which apply, and they are therefore better placed to reply to your question, whether the four programmes have a higher share of young among their viewership.”

We checked back with the ASA which told us they work on a complaints basis; if we had a complaint about a specific alcohol advert they would then investigate and the broadcasters would have to release audience information to them.

This type of system calls into question the degree of regulation and is not particularly useful to a parent who might not want to sit and watch a programme, but who would prefer to find out if adverts for alcohol were likely to occur during programmes their children would be watching. The Food Magazine tried to get in touch with, for example, Channel 4 and were told that it could take up to three weeks for an answer.

According to Jane Landon, Deputy Chief Executive of the National Heart Forum, “A pre-9pm watershed ban is logical, it is easy for people to monitor at home, as all they need to do is look at their watch to see if an advert is on when it shouldn’t be. A watershed also offers a higher protection to all children and young people, as we know many young people watch all kinds of programmes which attract a mixed audience. At the moment the viewer at home is left to decide whether to make a complaint, which is then investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority. Even if at a later date the ASA rules against a broadcaster, the consequence is usually the regulatory equivalent of a slap on the wrist.”

Cally Matthews is a Public Health Nutritionist

Average soap screen time with drinking related references
Television programme (all pre-9pm watershed)
Visual reference to alcohol %
Character drinking alcohol %
Total %
Hollyoaks, C4
Coronation Street, ITV1
EastEnders, BBC1
Emmerdale, ITV1
Home & Away, C5
Data collected in July 2006


Food groups in background scenes of Hollyoaks

Food groups in background scenes of Hollyoaks

Useful resources

Alcohol Concern is the national agency on alcohol misuse. The agency works to reduce the incidence and costs of alcohol-related harm and to increase the range and quality of services available to people with alcohol-related problems.

A critical analysis of the media representations of food and eating in soap operas, televised in the United Kingdom. Cally Matthews, Faculty of Medicine, University of London.

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