Porn pulls in the viewers for Channel 5

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The Independent Online
AS DAWN AIREY and her fellow programmers at Channel 5 clink glasses over improved ratings this month, they are joined, in spirit if not in person, by a much grubbier crew - the "dirty mac" brigade.

The phrase was used by Airey herself at the time of the station's launch last year to point up the appeal of the odd naughty movie on the schedule. But in the last three weeks, the term seems the right one for its latest target audience, with the late night introduction of two extra adult sex shows a week, in addition to its regular adult film on Fridays.

It is the kind of scheduling which must put Airey strongly in contention for the title once bestowed on Michael Grade, the former controller of Channel 4, by the Daily Mail - Britain's Pornographer in Chief.

The two new series in question, called Hotline and Compromising Situations, are both American and have already been seen in Britain by an elite group of the cable channel Live! TV's subscribers. In the US too, they are cable fare and have not been shown on network TV. Nor are they likely to be. Their soft porn content, featuring scantily clad women and even scantier plots, puts them out of bounds over there and makes them the most sexually explicit programmes ever to be screened on a terrestrial channel in Britain.

A recent episode of Compromising Situations, for instance, featured a man who had just bought a new house and, reasonably enough, called up a succession of plumbers, electricians and decorators to help him get things in order. Strangely though, each of the skilled operatives that arrived at his door was a busty woman in short shorts who had a compulsion to have sex with him immediately. Dialogue was minimal.

The channel's response to the accusation that soft porn is fast becoming its trade mark, is two-pronged. First, Airey argues that the shows are not soft porn and that her ratings success can not be put down to such late-night programming alone: "The shows are not soft porn; there is narrative. We would not be allowed to screen porn. The ITC guidelines ensure that you cannot see an erect penis or anything exploitative. And anyway, our improved ratings are not being driven by our adult programmes.

"There is growth across the board. These shows are not something we promote anyway, the audience just finds it."

The second prong of Airey's defence is the argument that she had always intended the channel to be adventurous and that British viewing has so far been two prudish for its own good.

"We said at the beginning we would show films uncut. That is what we are doing. I don't mind that sexual activity is getting into the heart of British TV schedules. After all, we are all the result of a sexual act. And people are asking for more."

As director of programmes and after 14 months on air, Airey is happy to say that Channel 5 now has a sense of itself and will be "exploring the whole area of sex".

"We had a documentary in our Sex Lives series just a few days ago that looked at the issue of shopping and sex very intelligently. And we have a whole new series called Sex and Shopping that starts on Tuesday."

A salesman for Charles Jackson, the company that sold the two American shows to Channel 5, is a little less defensive on their behalf. "They are erotic dramas with the usual breasts, bottoms and grimacing faces," he said.

But are they soft porn?

"You might say that. I couldn't possibly comment, although some of them do have quite moral little stories."

The putative moral content of Compromising Situations, which is watched by 630,000 people, is lost, however, on the Rev Graham Stevens, president of the National Viewers and Listeners Association.

"For terrestrial television to go down this route is indefensible," he said. "They may say that people can turn it off, but that then becomes an excuse for showing anything. We should not forget that more and more young people have televisions and video recorders in their bedrooms these days and many parents do not monitor these things as they should."

It is time, the Rev Stevens believes, for the ITC and the Broadcasting Standards Commission to act. "We are sick of hearing that they don't find these programmes offensive. What really counts is what viewers find tasteless and offensive," he said.

At Channel 5, a spokesman said the programmes had drawn no complaints so far and that their purchase was not a sign that the channel had taken a cheap and easy route to popularity.

"These shows are not core viewing at all. Our viewing figures have gone up by 54 per cent during the day, don't forget, and our recent Stags and Hens documentary nearly broke the two million mark."

Initial promises not to "dumb down" the programming and offer a regular diet of sex, were also pushed aside. "That was a long time ago and you would expect a channel to develop from its original brief. It would be a very dead channel indeed if we had stuck to the letter of what we said then. That was not a commitment set in stone," the spokesman said.

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