Too much sex on the TV, viewers say

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The Independent Online
CONFESSIONAL TELEVISION talk-shows are facing criticism again, this time over their perceived obsession with sex, research launched by the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC) revealed yesterday.

It found there is only so much sex a person can take and it appears that limit has been reached, as viewers' tolerance of endless chat on Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake and their like about how "my girlfriend is a man" or "I can't get enough and it's driving my husband bonkers" is ebbing fast.

Sex and Sensibility, which provides insight into viewers' attitudes towards the depiction of sex on television, says most people accept sex as a fact of broadcasting life. However, there has been an increase in the past year in the numbers (from 32 per cent to 36 per cent) believing there is too much on British screens, particularly on talk-shows.

A teenage girl interviewed said: "It's like a Marks & Spencer sandwich - an everyday thing." Another female from the 16- to-24 age group said: "The majority of times you turn the TV on, you can guarantee that sex will come up in the programme; there are a lot of other things the early- evening shows could talk about."

Lady Howe, chairwoman of the BSC, warned broadcasters that they needed to listen to viewers' concerns. "People accept sex as a fact of life, some even readily enjoy it," she said. "But that does not mean they want to see it on the hour every hour. Like everything else, a balanced diet is a healthy diet."

Although tolerance varied by age and gender (older people and women were less comfortable with on-screen sex), the vast majority (78 per cent) felt depiction was justified provided it was integral to the story. Half of those viewers presented with a homosexual kiss on EastEnders felt it was acceptable, although two-thirds thought it should have been transmitted after the 9pm watershed.

This programme and similar storylines on Brookside have helped, the report says, to create a more equitable view of homosexuality on television. In 1992, the last time the survey was carried out, less than half said it was acceptable to show gay relationships on screen. Fifty eight per cent) believe it is suitable today.

Overall, audiences take a cynical view of broadcasters' intentions in depicting sex, nearly three-quarters saying it is used as a cheap stunt to boost ratings. The report paints a picture of broad satisfaction with the current television regime governing sex. The 9pm watershed is well understood, as are the many warnings now made at the beginning of programmes. Controversy surrounding on-screen sex has been a broadcasting constant since the Pilkington Report bemoaned falling moral standards and talked about television's "preoccupation with the sordid and sleazy".

Television drama in the 1960s was placed in the hands of writers like Ken Loach, Dennis Potter and Harold Pinter, feisty auteurs who assaulted the senses with gritty tales laced with sexual realism.

They led the way for the wholesale adoption of sex as a legitimate theme for mainstream popular entertainment, to the extent that it now permeates practically every genre of programming, from late- night exercises in mass titillation (Eurotrash) to cerebral factual programming like Anatomy of Desire, as well as drama and film.

The naked and the panned

Up the Junction

The "Swinging Sixties"resulted in a rash of dramas that drew heavily on sexual realism. Nell Dunn's Up the Junction, with its scene of a backstreet abortion, was one of the first programmes to attract the wrath of Mary Whitehouse.


Mrs Whitehouse popped up again to condemn the "lewdness" of this 1971 six-parter starring Frank Finlay opposite women in varying states of undress.

Bouquet of Barbed Wire

Frank Finlay appeared to be making a career out of sex. Now incest featured in this 1976 series seen by 20 million viewers.

I, Claudius

BBC2's I, Claudius was a high-class production, starring Derek Jacobi and John Hurt packed with murder, incest and lots of orgies.

The Singing Detective

Take your pick from Dennis Potter's canon but most people tend to remember 1986's The Singing Detective and Patrick Malahide's bare backside.


Both series' depictions of homosexuality marked bigdevelopment in the presentation of taboos. And the fact that lesbian (Brookside) and gay (EastEnders) kisses were met with minimal fuss showed how far viewers' tolerance had come.

This Life

Amy Jenkins' series was packed full of excess but one area it made real progress in was the graphic portrayal of gay sex, which it achieved with an almost casual insouciance.