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Age: four and a half. First broadcast in January 1990.

Frequency: early Saturday evenings, 22 weeks a year, plus repeats - that's almost 100 hours so far.

Formula: flesh. Pneumatic male and female lifeguards strut, pose and pout on Malibu Beach, California, rescuing drowning children, foiling criminals, pacifying gang members, resolving their own inner conflicts, but mostly just running around in inadequate red swimsuits. The perfunctory plotlines fade in the glare of body-worshipping close-ups that are halfway between Playboy and Leni Riefenstahl.

Hallmarks: oddly vacant characters; happy endings - no one ever dies; actors filmed from the neck down.

How do they get away with it? They don't always. In 1992 the Broadcasting Standards Council declared its 'unease about the nature of some of the camera angles used in shots of young women' after viewers complained about the notoriously voyeuristic second series, widely known as 'Crotchwatch'. Consequently, the third and fourth series have upped the lifeguarding and general do-gooding and cut back on the full-frontals. A bit.

Audience: around eight million for the current series - good for the slow slot between Grandstand and Jeremy Beadle. Mostly watched by young men, in groups, fired up by an afternoon's sofa sport and waiting to go to the pub.

Who's responsible? A Los Angeles lifeguard called Gregory Bonnan had the idea at the beach one day (lifeguards spend a lot of time doing nothing), roped in David Hasselhoff, of Knight Rider fame, as star, and sold it to NBC in 1989. LWT took it up two years later, and have stayed loyal ever since.

Obscure facts: real lifeguards have to stand by at all times to protect the actors when they shoot the sea-rescue scenes. Filming of series five starts this week, and will continue until December, when the water's cold enough for Hasselhoff to have to stuff his trunks to avoid on-screen embarrassment. All this happens on a public beach (just north of Santa Monica, if you want to go and watch) right beside the busy Pacific Coast Highway.

Cultural subtext: like the similarly vacuous Beverly Hills 90210, Baywatch can be seen as an important text about contemporary America. Its soft-porn elements co-exist uneasily with a carefully PC mix of non-white characters and an emphasis on the lifeguards 'serving the community' (which the producers claim is the point of the show). This in turn clashes with the show's obvious nostalgia for the hedonistic Aryan utopia that the Beach Boys sang about. If all this seems like reading too much into a 55-minute chunk of kitsch, consider the recent episode called 'Rescue Bay'. In this, a sleazy Hollywood mogul visited the lifeguards' beach and got the idea of making a TV series called Rescue Bay about . . . heroic beach-lifeguards in bikinis. For half an hour Baywatch's lifeguards vied with each other to 'play' lifeguards in Rescue Bay - with implications tailor-made for cultural- studies essays with titles such as 'The Difficulties of Reality in the Postmodern World' - only for the evil mogul to cast his own actors instead. The episode climaxed with these actors having to be rescued by the 'real' Baywatch lifeguards. Quite bewildering, except for the swimsuits.

Does the cast ever escape Baywatch? Hasselhoff was briefly a teen pop-idol in Germany four years ago. Pamela Denise Anderson, a blonde ex-volleyball player who plays busty lifeguard C J Parker, recently posed for Playboy. The current Hello] features a four- page interview with her proud mother.

Anything that makes you want to kick the set in? The lack of actual sex - like most American shows Baywatch eagerly and degradingly ogles the bodies but prudishly keeps real action limited to mere snogs.

The bottom line - is it any good? Not really. You need to watch it with other people to avoid getting bored or feeling pathetic. Lifeguards aren't very interesting, and the flesh becomes an aerobicised, asexual blur on repeated viewing. But it fulfils a basic need and, like Benny Hill, is easily exportable, watched in over 100 countries. A fifth series has just started shooting, and the Baywatch Production Company is planning a spin-off, Baywatch Nights. Wait for the Modern Review to canonise it. Andy Beckett