Sex on TV: What a turn-off

This winter, sex is big in the TV schedules. Are the viewers up for it, or have they got a headache?
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The Independent Online

How much sex is enough? Once a week? Once a night? Christmas and birthdays? What is the biggest turn-on, and exactly what is the best way to do it? If this is the sort of thing you need to know, then Am I Good in Bed?, starting on ITV tonight, is made for you. But on the pressing subject of frequency and performance, no one is more interested than schedulers, for whom the pulling power of sex-themed programming is compelling in times of financial insecurity.

How much sex is enough? Once a week? Once a night? Christmas and birthdays? What is the biggest turn-on, and exactly what is the best way to do it? If this is the sort of thing you need to know, then Am I Good in Bed?, starting on ITV tonight, is made for you. But on the pressing subject of frequency and performance, no one is more interested than schedulers, for whom the pulling power of sex-themed programming is compelling in times of financial insecurity.

As the nights draw in, the schedules are awash with sex. Watching people's bedroom foreplay threatens to replace watching people's bedroom paint dry in the world of leisure programming. Am I Good in Bed?, fronted by Penny Smith and Ben Shephard, presents "the nation's biggest ever interactive sex survey", inviting viewers to confide their experiences of a variety of sexual practices and giving them a score for bedroom behaviour.

For those keen to learn more, and on top of Channel 4's More Sex Tips for Girls, there's Channel 5's Fifty Ways to Please, which trawls through 50 favourite sexual practices, accompanied by a comprehensive sex survey by Cosmopolitan magazine. The same channel is also making Whatever Turns You On, a documentary series on the varying sexual preferences of people from different ethnic origins, complete with its own nationwide survey into sexual habits.

But do viewers actually have a large appetite for sex? Is it, in fact, still sexy? An ICM survey earlier this year showed that 85 per cent of people feel that programme-makers use sex to increase ratings and attract viewers, but 83 per cent said sex in itself did not attract them to a programme. Whatever they say, sex-themed shows are still reliable ratings-pullers, particularly among the young ABC1 audience. And the suggestion of on-screen sexual activity, whether in Big Brother, I'm a Celebrity... or Temptation Island, remains an important publicity tool.

Yet, accompanying the current plethora of sex shows, there is a noticeable change of tone. Channel 5, which openly used sex to attract viewers when it started broadcasting, recently announced that it now "deliberately steered clear" of putting the word "sex" in its titles and would play down the sexual content of its shows. Though Sham Sandhu, 5's controller of youth, admitted, "Any show with sex in the title... will initially draw in a large audience on any channel", he is keen to point out that he kept "sex" out of the title of Whatever Turns You On.

It may be the sensibilities of advertisers rather than viewers that drive this approach. "It's totally counter-intuitive," says Matthew Paice, controller of the cable channel Bravo. "Sex shows do draw an upmarket audience. And advertisers obviously want the numbers that sex shows bring. But they also want to build a brand, and no advertiser wants their product seen in the centre break of Miss New Jersey Wet T-shirt."

Paice believes that mainstream channels hypocritically conceal titillation under the guise of science or education – a move that pleases advertisers too. Certainly, it's notable that the new crop of shows claims to perform an educational function.

Tim Millar, producer of Am I Good in Bed?, says that there is a genuine hunger for information about sex and that shows such as his are boldly tackling taboos. "I think we are doing something unprecedented. There are a lot of sex surveys about, but we've never had a live one on television, in which the whole nation can take part. We'll be asking multiple-choice questions such as, 'What's the most sensitive part of the female genitals: the vagina, labia, G-spot or clitoris?' and, 'How would you react if your partner brought home a sex toy?'

"This is not frivolous stuff. OK, we're not pretending to be truly scientific – we are entertainment, after all – but it may be the case that, by seeing other people talking about sex toys or lap-dancing classes, viewers could be encouraged to give it a go."

Sex this winter, the broadcasters say, will be educational, scientific and fun. But it certainly won't be sleazy. After all, there's nothing worse than failing to deliver. When the BBC promoted its recent Victorian drama Tipping the Velvet, the promise of lesbian sex was an integral part of the publicity. Viewers were warned to expect "graphic portrayals of homosexual relationships", and Andrew Davies, the script-writer, said that it would be "absolutely filthy". But when the drama was broadcast, disgruntled viewers phoned to complain that the sight of Rachel Stirling wearing a leather dildo constituted a huge anticlimax.

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