Media: It's not all sex, we also do weird stuff

The Sunday Sport's fare of wall-to-wall breasts is no longer selling. Has it served its purpose by opening the door for laddism?
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The Independent Culture
AFTER THE solar eclipse every single UK newspaper carried the picture most of us had missed - that breathtaking moment of totality. Every UK paper that is, except one - the Daily Sport made do with a picture of a woman with unfeasibly large breasts. So, what's new? Since its launch, the Sunday Sport has done more than any of the tabloids to make journalism into a spectator sport. Only the recipe is no longer working: the title now sells a fraction over 200,000 copies a week, almost a third of its late-Eighties peak.

"The whole red top Sunday market is struggling and I'll admit our sales picture doesn't look fantastic right now," says the Sunday Sport's editor in chief and managing director Tony Livesey. "But I think we are like the suffragettes. We eased the way for the whole culture of new laddism. Loaded and FHM wouldn't have dared try what they did if we hadn't been there first. When we started we had people picketing the building, we were denounced everywhere and had all sorts of dark threats made against us. Now I see us as a sort of elder statesman that has cleared the way for more liberal approaches to sex and nudity in the media."

Amazingly, in the early days the Sport's proprietor, porn industry big- wig David Sullivan, saw the title as an unlikely passport to media respectability - these things being relative when you're the proprietor of magazines such as Asian Babes and Shaven Ravers.

Thus he did all the things proper media owners do to support and nurture the value of any fledgeling brand. He met and courted the advertisers, commissioned market research to establish his readership profile and supported the title with its own high-profile advertising campaign.

The paper's blend of the bizarre and the sexually explicit made a powerful impression. A first six-monthly audit figure of just over 551,000 up to December 1988 marked a sensational debut. It also marked the highpoint of the newspaper's fortunes.

By June of the next year, average sales had fallen to 530,000, by December they were below the half million mark. In 1991, sales dipped under 400,000. And the slide has continued, exacerbated by an apparent editorial lurch towards out and out pornography.

"We're not all sex, we still do the bizarre stuff," Livesey protests. "Only last week we found a dolphin with a moustache. I was at the paper in the days when the B-52 bomber was found on the Moon, and when we discovered the amazing octopus lady, but after a while people get tired of it. Sex still sells, despite what anybody says."

Livesey claims that the paper is still talked about in the wider world as much as ever, pointing to the fact that its scantily clad Sport girls have visited 10 Premiership soccer clubs and that the paper is still regularly name-checked by DJs such as Chris Evans. Others are less sure. "When it first came out, people at the ad agency I was working for then would cut out the front-page stories religiously every week and pin them up on the noticeboard," remembers Simon Timlett, now head of press at Optimedia, one of the UK's largest media buying agencies. "It was all the bizarre stuff that caught the eye. Of course, there was sex in the title too, but in those days it didn't seem that far away from something like the News of The World. It was still hard to think of advertisers that wouldn't be embarrassed by the content. Now it doesn't figure at all, as the only advertisers are for porno chat lines and videos."

Livesey refuses to spend much time apologising for the lack of Calvin Klein ads in the paper.

"The fact is, we employ a grand total of eight journalists who produce a total of six ad-packed editions of the paper. And because our costs are so low we make vast amounts of money. Thirty per cent of our turnover is profit. And, just as importantly, we're still here and we're now even part of the media establishment. No one thought we'd last six months."

Terrifyingly, Livesey now claims to be working to a 25-year plan for the paper. And, as 25-year plans go, this one makes a virtue of its breathtaking simplicity. "Someone else asked me how we were going to respond to this sales slump and whether we would make the paper more tasteful, a bit more upmarket - more like those men's magazines," says Livesey. "And I said, `Yeah we might go upmarket, we might put some lipstick on the nipples'. Face it, we're not going to radically re-invent this paper. We'll still be ceaselessly searching for the woman with the biggest breasts in the UK a year from now.

"And we'll still be making money. I can think of at least one of our tabloid rivals who won't be in business then."