Swearing offends TV viewers more than sex and violence

Over 65s are most likely to be upset, but overall people are less likely to be offended by what they see and hear on TV than in previous years

Swearing (Getty, EH)

It may often be graphic scenes of violence in gritty dramas and daring depictions of sex that grab the headlines when television shows are put under the microscope by the press, but it turns out the public are most offended not by what we see – but by what we hear on TV.


Although discrimination, sex and violence are issues that concern many viewers – 42% of the British public cite bad language as the thing that most offends them on the telly. Just 38% of respondents to Ofcom’s Media Nations 2018 report said they were offended by sex on screen, with 37% put off by discrimination and 33% by depictions of violence.

In 2016, Ofcom research found that the words people find the most offensive in terms of “general swear words and body parts” were c***, f*** and motherf***er. Note that separate rankings were done for rude gestures and words linked to race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, mental health and physical disability and religion.

In total, 19% of all adults have seen something on the television in the past 12 months that they would describe as “offensive”. But it turns out the older you are, the more likely you are to take umbrage with the box. Almost a third (28%) of over 65s said they’d been offended by the telly, with the number dropping to 23% for those 55+ and just 17% for those 35 and over. Perhaps unsurprisingly those aged 16-34 are the least likely to have taken offence to what they’ve seen on the television, with just 15% having been upset by content they’d encountered.

But what do people do when they see something they don’t like? Well, almost half (47%) of people immediately reach for the remote and switch channels to avoid being further offended, while almost a quarter (22%) switch off their TV set altogether – although 17% clearly aren’t that offended by what they see and hear because they admit they just carry on watching anyway. More than a quarter of people who’ve been offended by a show admit that they discussed it with another person – which if you subscribe to the ‘all publicity is good publicity’ school of thought could explain why programmes often push the boundaries with their content.

And although there are clearly still a lot of viewers who find some of their TV viewing offensive, it looks as if public attitudes are softening over time. The 34% of television viewers who found there was too much violence in the most recent study has fallen from 43% in 2014, with those offended by bad language falling from 40% in 2014 to just 33% now.


But what offends you the most on TV? Let us know below…