Pink, paranormal and proud

Living TV's attention-grabbing formula is pulling in viewers. But this is just the start, the channel's boss tells Ian Burrell

Living TV likes to refer to itself as "Britain's Sixth Channel", which is not yet a truism but could become one if it continues to enjoy its current extraordinary growth. Lesbianism, high camp, cosmetic surgery, spooky stories of the supernatural and now Cilla Black are the subjects that define the channel. It is a cleverly thought-out mix that appeals in equal measure to open-minded young women and gay men, and has seen Living's commercial audience grow by 60 per cent in the last 12 months.

Living TV likes to refer to itself as "Britain's Sixth Channel", which is not yet a truism but could become one if it continues to enjoy its current extraordinary growth. Lesbianism, high camp, cosmetic surgery, spooky stories of the supernatural and now Cilla Black are the subjects that define the channel. It is a cleverly thought-out mix that appeals in equal measure to open-minded young women and gay men, and has seen Living's commercial audience grow by 60 per cent in the last 12 months.

Outside of the five terrestrial giants, Living (not so long ago the 17th most-watched channel) is the fastest-growing station, frequently beaten only by Sky One and ITV2 in the ratings, and often overtaking better-known rivals such as E4 and UK Gold.

The success is something that the rest of the television industry is watching closely. With 53 per cent of British households now having moved on from terrestrial TV to take up a selection of up to 200 more channels, broadcasters know that having a clear identity in such a crowded market place is absolutely key.

Richard Woolfe, Living's director of programmes, says: "It's important people know what they are going to get with us because we don't get listed properly. People need to know what our environment is all about, that if they come to Living TV, they are going to get the best pink programming, the best paranormal and the best American drama series."

Woolfe, 42, took over the channel (which is part of the Flextech television family that also includes the channels Bravo, FTN, Challenge and Trouble) three years ago. Then it had a disparaging reputation as the "Jerry Springer channel" because it brought Jerry to the UK and had an apparent love for talkshow bust-ups. "I'm not interested in doing 'son of' versions of shows that are already out there. What I'm trying to do is create a unique Living TV flavour," he says.

One of Woolfe's first big plays followed his realisation that "every single women's magazine" appeared to feature stories of the paranormal. "At one end you had horoscopes and at the other you had stories like 'I married an alien' or 'My psychic premonition saved my daughter from disaster'. I realised there was nothing like that on TV and it struck me as rather strange."

Other broadcasters, he believes, had shunned the subject because of the lack of "conclusive proof". But that problem didn't dissuade Woolfe from scheduling shows such as I'm Famous & Frightened and Most Haunted, which has turned the Scouse spirit medium Derek Acorah into a cult figure. Acorah (real surname Johnson), a former Liverpool FC reserve, has captivated audiences by tramping around castles and stately homes, recounting their grisly secrets.

When Living staged a Most Haunted Live event in Derby recently, the free tickets were being traded on eBay for £350, and a discarded call sheet for the show was offered for £60.

Living has also become the home of pink programming, although Woolfe acknowledges that the likes of Larry Grayson and John Inman have been at the heart of British entertainment television for years.

"Gays on TV are not a new phenomenon but I wanted to bring out the notion of a girl's gay best friend. That had never been done before," he says. The ideal vehicle for this ploy was Will & Grace, which premieres on Living and is about to start its seventh series this autumn.

"Will is Grace's gay best friend, and our audience was so comfortable with that it seemed absolutely right that we should extend that to other areas of programming," says Woolfe, who went on to commission the American gay makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. He then ordered a British version of the same format, which has become the first American format to be repackaged in Britain and sold back to the US.

Living is locked in battle with channel Five ( Cosmetic Surgery Live), Sky One and Channel 4 (both Nip/Tuck) to become the bastion of plastic-surgery television. Woolfe's latest commission is the UK version of the radical Extreme Makeover, where a team of plastic surgeons, cosmetic dentists, hair and make-up artists, stylists and personal trainers are used to transform the lives of the guinea-pig volunteers. Another new show, The Swan, "takes plastic surgery one step further and turns it into a competition", says Woolfe of the American programme, which sees women having implants and liposuction as they compete to win a place in a beauty pageant (the loser is "sent packing").

But the real attention-grabber, Living hopes, is The L Word, the sapphic version of Sex and the City, which began its run this month starring Mia Kirshner from 24 and Jennifer Beals from Flashdance.

"It's controversial because it's about lesbians but it's really great drama," says Woolfe. "It moves our peak programming on because it tackles an area sensitively and emotionally that hasn't really been done properly on TV." Woolfe, who began his television career as a researcher on BBC's That's Life, can kick on into new territories and "take risks" partly because "we are a small team, I don't have 87 zillion bosses that I have to get to sign off these shows".

His latest move has been to bring Cilla Black on to the screens after an 18-month absence. A Christmas special followed by a series of Cilla projects next year are designed to link the channel to a presenter who audiences still associate with much bigger broadcasters. Woolfe says: "Although we recognise that we are a cable and satellite channel, we think like a terrestrial channel. If we are going to achieve our ambition that is the way we will succeed."

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