Channel 4 drops plans to run series on masturbation

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The Independent Online

Channel 4 executives must have thought a week of programmes dedicated to the subject of masturbation was a daring fulfilment of its creative remit. Announced in July last year, the series of documentaries was to feature a behind the scenes look at a London masturbate-a-thon as well as examining the compulsive and female perspectives on the ancient practice of onanism.

That, of course, was before the international racism row prompted by the mistreatment of the Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother and Channel 4's bungled response to the furore.

The publicly funded broadcaster's most lucrative show provoked 45,178 complaints to the regulator Ofcom as well as drawing criticism from the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, and overshadowing Gordon Brown's visit to India. Worse still, it erupted as the channel's financial future lay in the hands of those rushing to condemn it.

Yesterday, in what many in the industry see as a deliberate attempt to improve its image as a responsible public broadcaster, Channel 4 quietly shelved so-called Wank Week from its scheduled broadcast date of next month. The programmes are now not expected to be shown as part of a week-long series but separately. No dates have been set for their eventual broadcast.

According to sources close to the commissioning process, executives are engaged in a damage limitation exercise to ward off future criticism and maximise public service "brownie points" with politicians and the regulator. There is already uncertainty over when Virgin School - a documentary about a man trying to lose his virginity - and a series on offensive humour, will go out.

"There is a conversation going on among commissioning editors aimed at redressing the balance. I think we can expect to see the end result being a lot more intelligent, multicultural programming on Channel 4," said one source.

Channel 4 insisted yesterday that the decision had nothing to do with the delicate state of negotiations over how much money the British taxpayer might be asked to stump up to help it survive in the digital age - a figure it has put at £100m. In a terse statement the broadcaster said: "Wank Week is the tongue-in-cheek term the channel has used when referring to three programmes on the subject of masturbation. The programmes are not currently scheduled but will be shown in due course."

The announcement of Wank Week last year predictably drew barbed criticism from long-term critics of Channel 4. But it also enraged grandees including its founding chief executive, Sir Jeremy Isaacs. He said it proved the broadcaster had strayed too far from its original mission and revealed an ongoing obsession with sex, bad behaviour and ratings.

Channel 4's chief executive, Andy Duncan, and its chairman, Luke Johnson, both heavily criticised for their handling of the Big Brother row, are to be called before the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee which is examining the future of public service broadcasting in the UK. Its chairman, the Tory MP John Whittingdale, said the broadcaster was facing a vexed future and had been politically damaged by the Big Brother debacle. He said: "Life will become more difficult for Channel 4 because the digital switchover will mean every household will have more channels to choose from and the certainty is that Channel 4's audience share will decline. So far they have been successful in maintaining their audience but have had to resort to populist programming a long way away from its public service remit."

The current Ofcom review is examining whether Channel 4's financial model, in which it receives state support through free access to the airwaves while enjoying advertising revenue, will continue after the digital switchover in 2012. Ofcom will look at whether "further regulatory intervention may be required to ensure continued delivery of Channel 4's public service broadcasting remit, and if so, the possible forms that intervention could take." The regulator will report back in March.

Ms Jowell must have made Channel 4 executives' blood run cold when she described the events on Celebrity Big Brother as "racism presented as entertainment". She has, however, promised that ministers would not let personal views interfere with policy decisions . She used her Commons speech to announce the BBC's new charter last month to reiterate the possibility that the corporation may be required to contribute up to £14m to the first six years of switchover costs - less than what Channel 4 is looking for.

The highs...

* The Tube: Friday evening music show that defined the era, bringing acts ranging from The Smiths to Grandmaster Flash to a generation.

* Comic Strip, right: Starring Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Alexi Sayle, the 38 screenings brought alternative comedy to a national audience.

* Channel 4 News: The Rolls-Royce of primetime television news brings the intellectual rigour of the Today programme under the wise stewardship of Jon Snow.

* Deal or No Deal: Noel Edmonds served up an unlikely tea-time winner with this touchy-feely guessing game that combines New Age mysticism with naked greed.

* Ugly Betty: The latest US network blockbuster to have taken British television by storm. The list includes Friends, ER and Desperate Housewives.

... and the lows

* Celebrity Big Brother, right: The groundbreaking reality TV show that defined a generation degenerated into allegedly racist bullying.

* After Dark: Unstintingly high-minded, open-ended late night discussion forever tainted in memory by a drunken Oliver Reed.

* RI:SE: Its failure to live up to the success of its predecessor the Big Breakfast led to a flurry of FA:LL of RI:SE headlines. Replaced by sitcom re-runs.

* Penis Week: Attracted a 21 per cent share of the viewing public but provided a field day for critics.

* Designer Vaginas: How women have surgery to improve the look of their most intimate parts. Inclu-ded footage of operations.