Martin Hickman: How TV porn moved into the mainstream

When Richard Timney switched on his television in the Home Secretary's home in Redditch, Worcestershire, his choice of "adult" entertainment would have included films like Only Fools and Arses and Filthy British Sluts.

In the multi-channel digital age, pay-to-view pornography is booming, with subscribers able to access 55 porn channels with a credit card and a TV remote control, rather than having to hope for a glimpse of nudity in a salacious documentary or late-night film.

Ofcom says 98 per cent of the British population has access to at least one of the four major media groups who offer pay-to-view: Sky, Virgin, BT and Freeview. These digital broadcasters have 36.8 million customers, all of whom could instantly view pornography should they so choose.

The choice is limited on Freeview; its 17 million viewers watch 48 channels free but can pay to see Television X: The Fantasy Channel, between 10pm and 5.30am.

Cable operator Virgin's 10 million customers can subscribe to watch eight "adult" channels. BT Vision's 400,000 customers can see porn shows for under £1 a time.

Sky, James Murdoch's satellite broadcaster which has 9.2 million subscribers, is the market leader in pay-pornography. Among its 999 channels are 55 flesh channels including Playboy TV, Red Hot Amateur, Xtreme Babes, Viewer's Wives, and seven box office channels showing "18-Plus Movies".

Despite being accorded higher channel numbers (all of Sky's adult channels are in the 900s) and the difficulty of finding details of the programmes on the company websites, their easy availability shows how pornography has moved into the mainstream since the 1990s, when porn channels first emerged on satellite TV.

As a Virgin Media customer, the Home Secretary would have been able – if she had felt so inclined – to pay £11 a month for Playboy TV, the Adult Channel or Television X, or £17 a month to watch all three.

Instead, her husband paid £5 for a night-long subscription to one of eight channels, including the three above, 100 Babes and four Red Hot channels. The movies appeared discreetly as "Additional Feature (18)" on the bill – later settled by the taxpayer. Mr Timney would have found better value for the taxpayer had he pursued his hobby online, where such material is free.

The exact shows he watched on 1 April and 6 April last year were difficult to establish – and Mr Timney's hurried statement outside the family home did not elucidate. Playboy TV's shows are relatively tame. (Episode 13 of Medieval Mischief is billed thus: "The King of Thieves finally catches Robyn and delivers her to the king.")

Television X screens harder material with titles such as Gash for Cash, Gentleman's Relish and Anal Boutique. Ironically, for Mr Timney, if he had been watching Television X, or a Red Hot channel, he would have been funding the Sunday Express, which broke the story of his household's viewing habits.

Portland Enterprises owns Television X, together with the Red Hot group. The company in turn is owned by Northern and Shell Network Ltd, which owns the Express titles, the Daily and Sunday Star and OK! magazine.

Its chairman, Richard Desmond, bought Express newspapers for £125m in 2000 after making a fortune from an earlier form of pornography – magazines, which have suffered from the rise of internet and television porn. In 2004, Mr Desmond sold his adult magazines to concentrate on his newspapers and pay-TV empire.

The profitability of television porn is hard to establish because broadcasters do not separate "adult" shows from sports or movies in their financial results, nor provide subscriber figures.

It is reasonable, though, to assume that porn channels are highly profitable, at least to Sky, given that they constitute 5 per cent of its TV business, which recorded sales of £5bn in 2008.

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