Television that turns the clock back: Geraldine Bedell on the new channel for women

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BACK in 1963, Betty Friedan identified 'the cry of the suburban housewife: 'I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.' ', and started what seemed an unstoppable progress towards the achievement not just of whiter washing, but of salaries and a place in the world. Thirty years on, a group of women, thus enabled, have launched a television channel focusing on 'topics and advice relevant to today's woman: health and fitness, cookery and homemaking, relationships, soaps and romantic films'.

Someone was bound to do it. In recent years women's magazines purveying similar stuff, such as Chat and Take a Break, have mushroomed and made their publishers a lot of money. And the more high-minded attempts at women's broadcasting - Channel 4's Watch The Woman and the BBC's Head Over Heels - have failed to attract anyone very much. Over on Radio 4, someone is always complaining that Woman's Hour is too feminist. But, the thinking goes, women's broadcasting must represent a huge market: if magazines can do it, so, surely, can broadcasters. Accordingly, two of the recent applications for Greater London radio franchises made great play of their appeal to women.

UK Living, a sister channel to UK Gold, is launched on cable and BSkyB on 1 September. Lis Howell, head of programming, promises her channel will be 'domestic, very pleasant, undemanding'; the tone will be 'warm, friendly and optimistic'; the slogan is 'inspirational, not aspirational'. Jayne Irving, the anchor, or 'hostess', is unfortunately rather aspirational. A former reporter, and presenter of After Nine at TV-am and Open Space at the BBC, she says she is 'allergic to domesticity' and was attracted to UK Living because it represents a 'a reversal of power: a whole channel devoted to women's issues. Female presenters are so often used as decoration on the end of a sofa, but not here.'

When Irving speaks of 'women's issues' though, she doesn't seem to be talking about the quality of education, still less rapes in Bosnia. Bosnia might as well not exist for all the airtime it will be getting on UK Living, which, as its name implies, is resolutely domestic.

So what does she mean? 'Any woman who has a child - whether she is a brain surgeon or a nuclear physicist - will have to stay at home to have that child and may want to watch daytime television,' Irving explains. 'At the moment her needs are not being met.' Resting brain surgeons may well watch Something to Say, the segment of the channel described as 'more serious', which might typically feature 'a lady describing how to make corn dollies'.

UK Living's own research shows that 70 per cent of women work. The majority may not be brain surgeons or nuclear physicists, but do they, as UK Living's schedule seems to imply, all leave their interests in the wider world on the doorstep when they get home, as their thoughts devolve exclusively to 'the latest fashion and beauty issues', and emoting all over the place?

Emoting is important at UK Living. 'Emotional and psychological issues are normally dismissed as women's things and not scheduled in the evenings. Actually relationships are the whole of life,' says Irving. Lis Howell has promised that 'the presenters will talk about themselves. They will relate.'

Irving may find all this emoting difficult, with her background in current affairs and her reputation for being tough, though she insists she doesn't. 'It was embarrassing at first, but the breakthrough came in an interview with a woman with a Down's syndrome baby.

'My two sisters were born with Down's syndrome and my editor suggested it might be a good idea for me to talk about that. I feared it would be mawkish and self-indulgent, but afterwards it felt almost therapeutic.' Television, it seems, is now a form of therapy for presenters.

Irving rejects any suggestion that the deliberate, 'undemanding' exclusion of the wider world from UK Living is anti-feminist. 'It depends how you define feminist. We will be saying that women should be assertive, speak out.'

But, it appears, speak out on a rather limited range of subjects. If women want to watch lots of programmes on skin creams and sexual problems they should have every opportunity. Though it would be nice to think that within a few months UK Living would be including the odd provocative item, just to keep up the ratings. It would be encouraging to think women at home had some of the same aspirations as the women replacing the men in the middle of the presenters' sofa.

Because, as Irving says, 'What really matters is economic freedom. If you've got that, whether you spend your free time knitting or not is irrelevant.'

(Photograph omitted)

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