The Independent Television Commission’s second birthday present to
Channel 5 was a damning performance review accusing it, among other
things, of ’tackiness’ in its late-night erotic drama strand. Channel 5
CEO David Elstein, who tried to persuade the ITC to drop the offending
word from the final report after seeing the draft, responded that the
commission’s verdict was ’subjective’.
So it clearly is, but not all subjective judgments are unjustified.
Channel 5’s late-night movies and some of its documentaries have pushed
the boundaries of decency as far as terrestrial television is concerned,
even if some offerings on cable and satellite make C5’s naked, heaving
bodies seem demure by comparison.
Elstein certainly does not deserve the ’Pornographer in Chief’ title the
Daily Mail bestowed on him after the review was published last week.
His best defence is that Channel 5’s original licence application
specifically stated its intention of running uncut movies late at night,
including the sweaty sex scenes routinely left out of TV versions.
But while this was what made the headlines, it was not the only
criticism the ITC made of Channel 5, urging it as well to ’increase the
quality and widen the range of programmes in general’.
Channel 5 responded cheerfully, pointing out that the performance review
carried twice as much praise as criticism, ’which is remarkable for a
channel so soon after its launch’.
In its two-year life, the channel has developed a Teflon-skinned
technique of repelling criticism. It recalls its difficult start-up,
when it had to retune millions of video recorders. It points out that
its signal still reaches only 80 per cent of homes and its programme
budget is about an eighth that of ITV and BBC1. It then presents its
current five per cent share of viewing as little short of a miracle.
This is a perfectly logical line of argument, but it is questionable how
much longer it can survive as a viable PR strategy. The channel’s
programmes are aimed at the mass market, whose viewers tune in if they
think they are going to be better diverted than on any other available
channel - not because they want to marvel at what Elstein can do with
his tiny budget.
Elstein says the channel is only a year away from profitability. That
will be the time to stop making excuses and start a drive to get the
audience share at least into double figures, overhauling Channel 4 and
Only then will Elstein’s channel have grown up - and so, hopefully will
the ITC, which should recognise the world is changing and that, however
stoutly the Daily Mail may resist the notion, a bit of slap and tickle
around midnight never harmed anyone.
Maggie Brown is on holiday.