Channel 5 is the Daily Star of the airwaves: a mass-market TV station that fails to command a mass market. Last week its attempts to remedy that defect were savaged by the Independent Television Commission, whose review of the channel's performance in its second year declared starkly that it needed to improve its programmes and widen their range. Specifically, the ITC singled out the "tackiness" of 5's late-night erotic drama and its seemingly inexhaustible (though certainly not bottomless) documentaries on pornography and prostitution.
That other moral guardian, the Broadcasting Standards Commission, had already tut-tutted at some of the infant channel's racier output. This second indictment so inflamed the Daily Mail that it dubbed the station's chief executive, David Elstein, "our pornographer-in-chief" - a position vacant since Michael Grade left Channel 4. As soon as the paper hit the streets, callers were ringing Channel 5 to ask exactly where they could find its rich seam of tack.
Well, quite. What are we missing here, the 95 per cent of the TV audience that at most times of day is not tuned to Britain's newest and raunchiest terrestrial channel? To find out, I went to 5's headquarters only a few steps from the Soho sex district, where Elstein and his staff occupy a wholesome postmodern open-plan office - and not, as I had fantasised, a garret with a hand-written card on the stairs: "Young, friendly TV station - please walk up".
Any target of a moral crusade by the Daily Mail deserves not only sympathy but also an attempt at understanding. To appreciate how the infant Channel 5 picked up its dirty little habits you have to go back to the circumstances of its conception in the early years of the decade. That was when the advertising industry, eyes glinting with greed and lust, had its evil way with a compliant Tory administration, resulting in the birth of a problem child that could never hope to be as healthy and strapping as its siblings, ITV and BBC.
The advertisers had long been frustrated by ITV's monopoly of TV advertising. ITV could charge as much as it liked for airtime, because advertisers had nowhere else to go - satellite and cable were growing too slowly to make much difference. But what the ad industry lacked in bargaining chips it made up for in political clout. Its leaders lobbied the government, which instructed the ITC to look into the possibility of a third commercial terrestrial channel.
In the crowded broadcast spectrum, the only feasible slot for a new channel was one being used by millions of video recorders, which had to be retuned before transmission could start. Even when that had been done, the wavelength was available over only three-quarters of the country. Those daunting drawbacks deterred many potential bidders and the ITC failed to award the franchise at the first time of asking. Second time around, the highest of four bids came from a consortium made up of Lord Hollick's MAI (now United News and Media), the European media group CLT/UFA, Pearson plc and the investment firm Warburg Pincus. Pearson's Greg Dyke is chairman.
The £22 million a year that the consortium bid to win the franchise, coupled with the £165 million cost of retuning videos, meant that the money left over for programmes was always going to be well below the industry norm. Channel 5's annual programme budget is £110 million, compared with about £800 million for BBC1 and ITV and £400 million for BBC2 and Channel 4. Yet unlike those last two, Channel 5 is trying to reach a broad mass audience rather than an upmarket niche.
Elstein had the right experience to run such an enterprise, having been director of programmes at the satellite station Sky. Before 5's launch at Easter 1997 he said: "We are not trying to scale Himalayan peaks in terms of quality profile. That is not our brief." And in case anyone was still in doubt he added: "We are not Channel 4 and there will be no documentaries about Tibetan quilts."
He has kept his promises. If you start with modest aims it is not hard to fulfil them. And Elstein has developed a clever public relations strategy to convince doubters that, despite poor ratings, everything at Channel 5 is going as well as can be expected.
"The fifth channel was an afterthought," he reminded me, "unlike Channel 4 which filled a gap in what viewers were being offered. This was more of a business challenge than a creative challenge. We've shown how to make it work in spite of technical difficulties. What's remarkable is that you can launch without egg all over your face and can survive two years without any crisis, management upheaval, shareholder rebellion or whatever."
The technical difficulties proved more severe than anticipated. Even in those parts of Britain where the signal could be received it was often a poor one. Snowflakes on the screen became the channel's initial brand image, the butt of jokes by stand-up comics. Today it reaches 19 million of Britain's 23 million homes, but in about a third of these the picture is less clear than that of other channels. Only when digital television becomes universal will everyone in the country get good reception, and that is ten years away. Yet Elstein is confident that by next year his channel will be commanding a 6 per cent audience share, allowing it to break even and then start making a profit for its shareholders. "Where we have a level playing field with the competition we are overwhelmingly the most cost-effective terrestrial channel," he maintains.
Never mind the cost-effectiveness, what about the programmes? Apart from the sex - which he assures me accounts for just 2 per cent of the output - what else are we missing by ignoring the 5 button on our remotes?
The evening starts at 6pm with the news. Originally scheduled at 8.30, then at 7, it has gone forward another hour so as to have a head start on the new 6.30 bulletin on ITV. No matter when it starts, 5 News seldom attracts more than a meagre 300,000 viewers, but it has still had a profound effect on the feng shui of the TV newsroom. As soon as we saw Kirsty Young striding about the set and perching on the front of a desk, instead of being anchored behind it in time-honoured fashion, we knew things would never be the same. Now such legendary practitioners as Trevor McDonald and Jeremy Paxman have been prised from their chairs and forced to go walkabout. Other attempts at making 5's news more accessible have included an emphasis on domestic and lifestyle stories and an urgent, pervasive theme tune between and even during some items.
After the news comes Family Affairs, the five-day-a-week soap opera so dire in its early months that a hit squad from Coronation Street was brought in to liven it up. The radical solution, played out at the end of January, was to have all eight members of one family, amounting to half the cast, blown up during a party on a houseboat. To justify the wholesale butchery, Elstein pleads self-defence: "We can only afford 16 characters so to bring in new ones we had to do something drastic." Family Affairs still attracts only 1.5 million viewers, less than a tenth of Coronation Street's 17 million-plus.
From 7pm to 9pm we have a detective series and programmes about gardening, animals and food. (If you want to know what happened to Keith Floyd, you will catch him here.) The full-length movie at 9pm is one of the most popular features on the schedule: the other night Broken Arrow drew a record 3.2 million viewers. Occasionally it is pre-empted by live soccer, another sure-fire ratings winner. Finally, at around 11 on most weeknights we enter the adult zone.
The first point Elstein makes about the erotica is that it formed part of Channel 5's licence application. That document, written by Greg Dyke, expressed the intention of running uncut movies late at night, leaving in the explicit bits usually snipped out of TV versions. Indeed Sarah Thane, the ITC's director of programmes, conceded last week that there was a place for "mildly erotic drama, so long as the context and scheduling are right".
But it was not just the drama that bothered the commission. Documentaries such as The Real Monty (male strippers) and Swindon Superbabes (women on the hunt) were slated as "overly voyeuristic", while the quango's severest wrath was reserved for Sex and Shopping, a long and explicit series about the porn industry.
Elstein is unrepentant: "Regulators tend to be tut-tutting kind of people. They are not asking us to take away the erotic drama, they're just expressing their collective distaste for it. So be it . . . All TV channels show documentaries about people's sex lives and sexual preferences these days. It's a staple diet. I think it's TV catching up with the newspapers . . . In Sex and Shopping we decided to show a number of heavily pixillated shots to show that these were not people pretending to have sex but were actually having sex. Until you've crossed that Rubicon you're not going to understand what the industry is all about."
He was talking about the porn industry but the remark could apply equally to the TV industry. To attract viewers from its better-funded rivals Channel 5 has to differentiate itself from them and Elstein has chosen to do so by cultivating an image not too far removed from lads' magazines such as FHM and Loaded. He wants to create a channel with "a certain amount of attitude . . . I don't think you'll ever see costume drama on 5 except by accident".
That final throwaway line provides a clue to the significance of Channel 5 and explains why, fuddy-duddies that we are, we have difficulty in appreciating the new baby on the proud father's terms. It is to do with the genesis of British television. Most of us grew up with our on-screen fare supplied by two huge paternalistic organisations. Although one of them was commercially funded we never regarded it primarily as a business but as a benevolent provider whose function was to keep us entertained and instructed in a manner that we and the regulators thought proper. The epitome of good TV was a dramatisation of Dickens, Hardy or Jane Austen, with the nuclear family clustered around the flickering screen to watch. Like the Horlicks we were probably sipping at the time, we knew it was doing us good.
It is still hard to escape from that mindset and embrace TV channels that, putting business first, find a way of making a living with a modest schedule of undistinguished programmes which are just good enough and rude enough to catch the eye of a restless audience. When we have all gone digital there will be other cheap and cheerful channels created in 5's image. Some of them will make Elstein's coy ventures into tack (did you catch the S&M morris dancing on UK Raw on Wednesday?) seem as innocent as teenage fumbling behind the bike shed.