Daytime gets a makeover. Comfy sofas are out, prostitution and drugs are in

Alison Sharman, Controller of BBC Daytime, is proud to be bringing true-life horror stories into our living rooms at breakfast time
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It's now increasingly obvious that the sex industry is becoming more mainstream in the UK. Sex shops are appearing on high streets and pornography is no longer confined to seedy establishments and is readily accessible through digital television and the internet. It is now absolutely right that mainstream television should address this issue for its adult audiences, whether they are watching in daytime or primetime. Tomorrow a new current affairs series starts on BBC1, under the banner Britain's Streets of Vice. Fronted by journalist Sally Magnusson and made in conjunction with BBC Current Affairs, this is just one example of the on-going process of challenging the perceptions of daytime TV held by programme-makers and potential audiences alike.

Since becoming Controller of BBC Daytime in 2002 one of my chief goals has been to open up the horizons of this part of the broadcasting arena, which had traditionally been mainly associated with quite low expectations of quality, content and sense of purpose.

This addition to the "Britain's..." strand joins Britain's Secret Shame (which has tackled diverse subjects including bullying, the legal system and, in an award-winning series, abuse of the elderly) in consolidating the role that social documentaries play in offering a robust, mixed schedule to a growing and appreciative audience. Together with original drama (such as The Afternoon Play and now one-off films such as the upcoming Beaten), live news events (Yasser Arafat's funeral, Ellen MacArthur's triumph), current affairs (Climate Change week), sport and entertainment, these hard-hitting series on contemporary Britain have proved crucial in delivering the licence-payer fresh material during the day.

Both the diversity of this output and its purpose put clear blue water between our commercial competitors and ourselves. The "purpose" I refer to is that all programmes should offer something of value to people's lives - which I believe is fundamental to the BBC as a public-service broadcaster.

The BBC daytime audience is incredibly vocal about wanting programmes that are genuinely insightful and relevant to society and to their own lives, interests, aspirations and concerns. Nevertheless, responding to these demands appropriately has been a challenge, especially when factoring in restricted budgets and the need for a considerable degree of pre-watershed caution.

Bearing the latter in mind, an early-morning programme examining the UK's burgeoning vice industry may at first seem a bold choice. However, research and public feedback has been invaluable in showing that - whereas in the afternoon viewers are looking for more reflective and entertaining material - in the morning the audience is ready for a carefully framed "window on the world". They are ready - indeed "keen" - to look unflinchingly out on to the manifold realities of modern Britain and the global stage, as evidenced by the popularity of David Wilson's film for BBC Daytime about the juveniles on America's death row.

But how do we ensure that these sensitive subjects are approached in a way that is suitable for an adult daytime audience? By working with journalists of high standing (such as Sally Magnusson), and in conjunction with experts, (charities, law enforcement agencies, the medical profession etc) it has been possible to produce factual output that is authoritative, sensitive and responsible.

Britain's Streets of Vice continues in this vein. Far from being in any way titillating, these insightful and often painfully sad films take us - via modern lightweight digital video camera technology - not to another familiar chat-show encounter, but directly into the world of the sex industry. The series looks at its workers, the health issues involved, the industry's connection with drug use and the impact on the police working in the front line.

The aim has been to make a human and social document, never to be salacious or exploitative, but rather to be thought-provoking and informative. The films also highlight the opportunities there are - for the people whose lives are affected by the issues examined - to get professional help, in addition to the BBC offering direct support and information through its Action Line.

Regardless of the sensitive and careful manner in which these films have been made, the audience will find them challenging. A series like this is not about ratings, it is about raising public awareness in a responsible and non-exploitative fashion. Given the predominantly market-led broadcasting economy, this is the challenging role that falls, happily, to the BBC and its tradition of excellent factual programming. The BBC remains the market leader throughout the day, (with BBC1 daytime reaching an average of 16 million people each week and BBC2 daytime reaching just over 11 million), so it seems the audience is as passionate about range as it is about quality, and wants and respects a mature BBC that speaks with both care and candour.

'Britain's Streets of Vice' begins at 9.15am tomorrow on BBC1

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