It has been argued that these distinctions in taste between high and low culture are no longer relevant as a result of the democratizing effects of the mass media. Brian McNair, for example, in his book Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratisa – tion of Desire (2002), has argued that in postmodern consumer culture the distinc­tions in taste that structured modern societies no longer operate, thereby drawing pornography into the mainstream, including on to television. This proliferation of explicit sexual discourse fuels political fears that television as a rational public sphere is being debased by ‘tabloidization’; that is, the replacement of public service values by commercial profit seeking and the pandering to ‘low’ sensationalism. McNair, on the contrary, regards these fears as a symptom of the patriarchal authoritarianism that regulated the Anglo-American media in the twentieth century and constrained sexual expression. The power to determine what people can consume is being swept away by the democratizing effects of capitalist markets in which progressive sexual representations are contributing to a more liberated, democratic future. Instead of legitimizing the tastes of the powerful, the market caters for a diversified range of consumers. Crucially, this now includes women as potential consumers of sexually explicit texts, whereas in the past they had been restricted to men.

One of the effects of the blurred boundaries between high and low culture in post­modern culture, McNair argues, is that it allows the margins to exert an influence on the mainstream, with pornography being a particular case in point. ‘Pornochic’ is the term he uses to describe the effects of this process:

Pornochic is the representation of porn in non-pornographic art and culture; the pastiche and parody of, the homage to and investigation of porn; the post­modern transformation of porn into mainstream cultural artefacts for a variety of purposes including, as we shall see, advertising, art, comedy and education.

(McNair 2002: 61)

The iconography of pornography thus becomes stylish as it is taken up in fashion and advertising. No longer embarrassing, this ‘trash’ culture is incorporated into post­modern irony and camp innuendo. McNair also identifies the way in which the pro­liferation and control of pornography has become a topic for serious discussion in the public sphere of print journalism and factual television. Matter-of-fact explication and academic intellectualism have, he argues, replaced moralistic condemnation as the dominant mode of discourse in these debates. Pornography, he deduces, has lost its low-class social stigma and people now can admit to enjoying it without shame (ibid.: 84-6).

There is some truth in this argument, which rightly draws attention to the wider availability of pornography in consumer culture, and the way in which its iconography has been more widely disseminated and its social significance more openly debated. But McNair also oversimplifies the situation. The examples he uses are decontextualized, drawn from across all media forms with scarcely any consideration of their distinctive institutional histories and the regulatory contexts that shape their production and consumption. Pornography as a genre is certainly not universally regarded as ‘chic’ even if its iconography has been more widely used in this way. It is only through constructing a very selective account that his optimistic progressivism can be justified. There may be more diversity, but moralistic and patriarchal discourses still abound in the discourses of taste that regulate television production and consumption in both commercial and public service contexts. The continuing low cultural status of pornography can be seen, for example, in the history of the first five years of Channel 5, the most recent of the UK’s terrestrial networks.

Dawn Airey, the controller of Channel 5 in the first period following its launch in 1997, audaciously declared that her schedule was organized around ‘films, fucking and football’ or ‘beer, balls and bosoms’. The channel quickly became notorious for including late night, low-budget ‘erotic dramas’ in the schedules. These were typically evaluated in the Guardian (a left-wing ‘quality’ broadsheet) in aesthetic terms as dull, pathetic, sad and unconvincing, and condemned by the Daily Mail (a mid-market, traditional paper with a large female readership) in moral terms as ‘filth’. But Airey consciously refused to be cowed by the adverse critical commentary and talked the channel up as less straight-laced than other channels, ready to have a bit of fun with sex. Apart from the late night erotic dramas there were also numerous documentaries about the sex industry. These were epitomized by the Sex and Shopping series, which ‘investigated’ the sex industry with programmes on lap dancers, porn, stripping and prostitution in which lingering camera shots of naked female flesh were a key feature (this series is discussed in some detail later in the chapter). It provoked many com­plaints to the BSC, whose condemnations of the channel’s output worked to publicize the channel ‘brand’ and differentiate it from the existing terrestrials.

This strategy changed, however, when after five years Channel 5 announced a reposi­tioning of its brand. ‘The ‘football, films and fucking’ image could only go so far – a 5 per cent share to be precise. The audience profile was also skewed more heavily than the other minority channels towards the lower end of the economic spectrum, making it unattractive to niche advertisers. In 2002, a new channel controller decided to shed that image, and establish Channel 5 as a serious competitor to BBC2 and Channel 4. To do that it needed ‘respectable shows that don’t scare anyone away’ (Wells 2002). By 2003 a headline in the Guardian announced ‘Channel Five programming stripped bare of pornography’, reporting that the channel had decided to scrap the remaining ‘erotic drama’ output directed at a post-pub male audience on Friday nights. It had already reduced the number of ‘sleazy factual programmes about strippers and alternative sexual practices’ in a move to rebrand ‘Five’ by bringing ‘arts documentaries’ and ‘classic US dramas’ into peak time slots. The channel was finding it difficult to shed its ‘tacky’ image while any of these shows remained, and this prevented it being taken seriously as a mainstream terrestrial broadcaster (Wells 2003b).

This rebranding exercise was timed to be effective before new regulatory rules brought in by the Communications Act (2003) allowed Five to be acquired by a foreign company. The same process has been noted in the trajectory of the US cable channel Showtime, whose logo ‘No Limits’ was closely tied to the promise of soft porn as a well – publicized component of its schedules, signposted as The Erotic Zone. Now part of Viacom, a huge media conglomerate that includes CBS and MTV, it has dropped this publicity and moved instead to promote its showing of sexually controversial ‘quality’ drama, such as the US version of Queer as Folk and the adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City or films such as Adrian Lyne’s Lolita (Backstein 2001). We can see, therefore, that it isn’t just public service authoritarianism that sustains the distinctions that keep pornography marginal. It indicates that a ‘quality’ brand, based on well-established aesthetic and moral distinctions, might be considered more valuable than a ‘tacky’ one on the international market. Local, low budget ‘access’ channels in the USA are at the other end of the media hierarchy and this is where pornography thrives most freely (Backstein 2001).

The second objection I have to McNair’s argument is that, although it is true that popular genres are open to transformation and influence from the vanguard margins, their established conventions don’t simply disappear. They act as a residue of past social and aesthetic norms, which are relatively resistant to change. This is especially true of pornography. The exclusive address to men in the formation of the genre, with its iconography of old-fashioned underwear, for example, seems to persist as if nothing has changed, either in fashion or in the relations between the sexes, since Victorian times. The use of this as generic iconography is demonstrated in the cultural references evoked in ‘pornochic’. This generic ‘time-lag’ also contributes to the difficulty in finding an erotic vocabulary for pornography addressed to women, an issue that is taken up in later sections in the chapter. The development of ‘infotainment’ in which pornographic imagery is hybridized with a range of documentary forms does encourage border crossings between the respectable and the disreputable, the legitimate and the illicit. But this hybridization is produced by the continuing lack of legitimacy of pornography on television. The traffic is between respectable mainstream television at the centre and a highly constrained and conventional soft core pornography on the margins, rather than a more obviously transgressive hard core. However, as Sex and Shopping makes evident, television does also function as a kind of marketing outlet for hard core through documentary investigation of the pornography industry that promotes consumer awareness.

A third problem with McNair’s free-floating textual examples is that they don’t take into account the way in which genre as a system legitimizes certain ‘uses’ and ‘pleasures’ for an imagined community of taste (Altman 1999). He makes the mistake of treating the ‘people’ as an undifferentiated ‘mass’ with equal access to pornographic texts once they are available in the media. In fact, very fine distinctions in taste separate what is deemed appropriate sexual discourse for particular social groups across the multiple channels and specific spaces of the schedules. Mark Jankovich (2001: 5), in contrast, characterizes the mainstream as a ‘construct that is continually defined and redefined through the struggles for distinction between different social groups’. He draws on Bourdieu’s analysis of the distinctions in taste that characterize the ‘new petit bourgeoise’ to explain the emergence of a ‘middle-brow’ form of pornography in the post-war period, exemplified by Playboy magazine. This analysis can help to locate more precisely the different kinds of pornography on television in relation to historically formed taste cultures and to see how class-based distinctions legitimize television’s sexually explicit genres.