Arts: How the medium met the massage

Television has realised that sex sells. With a future of digital abundance, how much further can it go? By Michael Collins
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According to a character in the recent novel Whatever, by Michel Houellebecq, when a society develops a sudden passion for eroticism in the media, it is a mere pretence. Most people, he says, are bored by the subject, but they pretend the opposite, out of a bizarre inverted hypocrisy. British television has slowly found itself consumed by a similar passion as the Nineties have crept up and slipped away. But the jury's still out as to whether the viewers' interest in the meta-sex that now infuses so much of the schedules is authentic or artificial.

As a topic, sex has become as ubiquitous as the hobbies - gardening, cookery and DIY - that have grown into bankable and repeatable series on prime time. Along with the pursuit of reality entertainment, sex is the theme that now dominates the schedules. The logical step for the future of television - for the digital age, in which the passive viewer is expected to actively customise their viewing - could be the two areas merging into one television hybrid.

Live TV had previously arrived at this particular turnstile, toying with the idea of a televisual equivalent of reader's wives, or home videos of naked couples assuming positions. You've Been Laid! Instead, the cable station came up with what its head of drama and acquisitions, Simon Allchorn, believes to be the first erotic drama to be made in this country, for broadcast in this country. Threesome, which comes as a 24 x 30 series, makes much of the sex lives of a group of thoroughly modern twenty-somethings. "Instead of buying in all our adult programmes, we decided to make one that wouldn't need to be cut to be shown here," says Allchorn. "We built it from the ground up, from the writing stage. But we shot it in a transatlantic kind of way, by shooting it like a film."

If a small British cable station has just stumbled upon the idea of making homegrown eroticism this late in the day, it seems unlikely that hardcore pornography will shanghai the small screen in the near future, even with channels sprouting as rapidly as mushrooms. "There are too many things that legislate against it, and hardcore pornography would never be of interest to a general, wider audience," says Simon Allchorn.

What is surprising about Threesome is that it is actually being sold abroad. Europe has, of late, taken very little interest in the purchasing of British televsion formats, with only the Dutch reputedly having a Eureka! moment and applauding the British for discovering a new genre, that of docusoap. The idea, therefore, of the motherland selling its own, homegrown soft porn to Europe, brings to mind coals to Newcastle. When it comes to pornography and television, Britain is still chaste compared to its European neighbours. France's high-minded Canal Plus, and Sweden's TV 1000, each show some hardcore films. In a number of other European countries, such films are permitted so long as they don't include violence, criminal acts, or children.

Britain's attitude to the subject could one day make the EC's pursuit of a single television market as big a bone of contention as the single currency. The broadcasting regulators, the ITC, have in the last couple of years recommended that the government take action against foreign channels that have become accessible in the UK, via decoders. Even the pornography of the British-based subscription channels, like The Fantasy Channel, is restricted to the kind of X-rated content that can be bought in video shops. Hardcore remains anathema. But the Fantasy Channel has no plans to be anything other than what it is: unashamedly pornographic.

According to a spokesman for the station, mainstream television is becoming more and more transparent in its efforts to be gratuitous. "Every week I get a call from someone wanting to make a documentary about us. This has nothing to do with research. They see it as a way of using us to make cheap TV and show sex."

But while pornography is kept at bay, sex as a subject has infiltrated numerous areas of British television. Once, it largely reared its head in drama, with unrest in Middle England after a genital shot in an adaption of something by Malcolm Bradbury or David Lodge. Maybe Patrick Malahide's rear or Gemma Craven's nipple in a Dennis Potter.

Now, everything from factual documentary to the latest Denise Van Outen vehicle, finds a way of squeezing a penis into the proceedings. "It used to be simply the case that women were always on top in a sex scene," says Terry Watkins, head of a market research company specialising in media. "This was in order to show the woman's body."

Watkins was recently commissioned by ITV to compile research for a session entitled Dramatic Sex at the Edinburgh television festival. Questions were raised about producers being under pressure to come up with more explicit sex scenes, and if this was what the audience wanted. "What emerged from the research," says Watkins, "is that the viewer responds negatively when the programme is simply a vehicle for talking about sex. They are aware when they are being cynically manipulated and led by the genitals by TV."

One of the highest-rated documentaries on the HBO network in the US, Turn-On TV, takes a regular look at how sex is being portrayed on television around the world. According to the programme's producer, Fenton Bailey, "in recent years the show has noticed a tremendous surge of interest in sex on the television in one particular country - England". This coincides with the arrival of Channel 5, and a remit that included late night adult entertainment and uncut films, which quickly branded the channel. Previously, it had been Michael Grade at Channel 4 who was "TV's pornographer-in-chief", according to Paul Johnson at the Daily Mail. Now the baton has been passed to Channel 5. It has had its knuckles rapped for the first series of Sex And Shopping, as well as elements of Swindon Sugerbabes and On The Piste. The ITC's 1998 annual report was concerned about the channel's incessant use of "low-budget erotic drama".

Meanwhile the series Compromising Situations and Hotline marked the spot where, for the very first time "regular slots for erotic series appeared on British terrestrial television".

Interestingly, these series, and much of the channel's late-night erotic output comes from the same stock that emerges on Live TV. The fact that this kind of material could be common to both a cable and a terrestrial channel marks another turning point. Although each are expected to adhere to the rules of the ITC's programme code, free-to-air television is also required to cleave to a quality threshold and a request for diversity. Viewers that subscribe to satellite channels are actively seeking out and buying a particular brand, and so the erotic content doesn't have to be concerned with "context", or integral to any kind of plot. It's all about expectation.

The restraints on terrestrial television could be relaxed in the not too distant future. Media Secretary Chris Smith is planning to ease up the current regulations by reassessing the role of the public service broadcaster and deregulating content rules.

In the meantime, the most pornographic imagery that terrestrial television is likely to transmit will be in the imminent Channel 4 series Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation, which claims to show images that have never been seen on the television screen before. The six-part series chronicles the history of pornography, and reveals how it was always the first port of call for new technologies, from print and photography, to film, video, and the Internet. "Without pornography, there wouldn't be media," says producer Fenton Bailey. "Because, whatever may have inspired the invention of each of these forms, the first thing they were used for was always something to tantalise - something to do with sex. It was always pornography that pushed them forward and brought them into the mainstream."

The one piece of technology to which this argument doesn't apply, however, is television. It may never have relied on pornography in the past, but it may yet grow to depend on it in the future.

Tomorrow: Pornography - the lost film genre?