The second sexual revolution began 30 years ago, on 23 September 1991, with the release of an educational videotape called The Lovers’ Guide. The revolution’s unlikely figureheads were a film producer who had been making how-to videos about gardening and pets and cooking, and a 56-year-old doctor, while their ally was an American former TV and theatre director who had become Britain’s chief film censor.
The producer was a man called Robert Page, who had been approached by Virgin – which had recently started making condoms – to make a sexual health film for men that explained how to use one. There were two difficulties with that. The first was that no erect penis had been shown on screen in Britain. The second was that Page had no interest in making a film about penises. The censor – James Ferman, the director of the British Board of Film Classification from 1975 to 1999 – took care of the first issue.
“I was talking to the great James Ferman,” Page says, talking from New York, where he now lives, “and he went, ‘There’s only one law, and it’s called obscenity and it’s that which will deprave and corrupt.’ He said, ‘I see nothing depraving or corrupting in a man pulling a condom on in this era. I think it’s downright sensible.’”
Page brought up the second issue. “I went, ‘You know all these how-to videos? There’s this area of life that we don’t talk about. You wouldn’t let me make one about sex, would you?’ He said, ‘What would you want to show?’ I went, ‘Men and women, with actual intercourse.’” Page wanted to show oral sex. He wanted to show genitals. He wanted to show the things that even films made for sex shops couldn’t show, and he wanted to show them in a film that would get an 18 certificate and be sold as a VHS tape on the high street.
Ferman laid down conditions. The film had to be fronted by a doctor. The script had to be approved by a reputable organisation. There was to be no lingering on the explicit shots. It was not, in short, to be a mucky film, regardless of what its viewers might use it for.
Page wanted Alex Comfort, the author of The Joy of Sex, to be the doctor, but Comfort’s publishers rejected the idea. Instead he turned to Andrew Stanway, another veteran “sexologist”, with a string of books to his name (Stanway did not respond to requests for an interview). “He was a quite tall, wide man, with huge hands,” says Simon Ludgate, who was hired as director. “He had greying, curly, fair hair, a pointy nose and beady eyes. He reminded me of a bad magician with a ‘look into my eyes’ hypnotic stare.”
It’s Stanway who gives the clinical narration – “The clearest sign of male sexual arousal is an erection. Tissue within the penis fills with blood, making it stiffen. As arousal increases, so does heart rate. Breathing quickens and the nostrils flare” – and he both co-wrote the script and helped recruit the film’s stars. Chief among them were Tony and Wendy Duffield, former patients of his, who went on to be the Brad and Angelina of the sex ed video market. They later appeared on Desmond Morris’s The Human Animal making love with tiny cameras inside them to show the processes at work.
The Duffields weren’t the real problem, though. “There were a couple of people, who were supposed to be a couple and weren’t,” Page says. “One of the guys, the one who stands up to masturbate – Marino – was an adult film professional. We didn’t know that, but the press knew right away. I can’t tell you how naive we were. We had no idea. We had never been in this world. We had done very wholesome stuff, so doing this was breaking new ground.”
The press did indeed know right away, and before the film came out the News of the World revealed the fact that The Lovers’ Guide featured porn stars. “It almost sank us,” Ludgate says. “Woolworths at that point said they weren’t going to stock it, and Woolworths at the time were massive. And then WH Smith said they weren’t going to.”
The shops relented in time for release, and The Lovers’ Guide arrived on the high street. Page and Ludgate are insistent that their motives were purely to help couples, though the film’s makers knew the first certified film to feature explicit sex, even with Stanway’s lugubrious voiceover, would fly out of the shops, and not just to people wanting to learn some new positions. And so Page spent more on The Lovers’ Guide – it was shot on film, not tape, with purpose-built sets – than anything he had ever made before.
He says now he thought it might rival the 250,000 copies of a Neighbours tie-in video he had made. In fact, it sold 200,000 copies in its first fortnight, going on to sell 1.3m in the UK alone, and hundreds of thousands more around the world. (“My greatest regret is not taking a percentage,” Ludgate says. “I still kick myself about that.”)
Looking at it now, in a world of Pornhub, YouPorn, PornMD and everything else, The Lovers’ Guide seems almost unbearably innocent. It is sex at its gentlest. Everything is shot in soft focus; candles are everywhere. (Page was insistent the film’s primary market be women, though the soft focus and candles spoke more to male ideas of female sexuality. Nevertheless, 55% of buyers were women.) Couples wander through fields, smiling happily, before retiring to bedrooms and bathrooms for soft and sensual lovemaking (with a voiceover). Nothing from it would now get anywhere near the front page of a porn aggregator site.
“Some of the sex scenes in The Lovers’ Guide were certainly erotic,” Ferman – who died in 2002 – would later say. “But eroticism was never, I think, the primary purpose of the scene. The primary function of the scene was to be helpful to couples in the audience who were trying to improve their own sex life.” He argued that what separated the finished film from pornography was context: “You weren’t looking at two bodies, two strangers on screen having it away. You were actually looking at people who told what sex meant to them, what their relationships meant, what they wanted to do, what they were trying to do. And they were real people. And ordinary people watching felt, ‘They are just like us, and if this is what they do, this is what we can do.’”
Page accepts that not all his audience had education in mind, but takes the view that he was smuggling greens into their meal. “We discussed this with Jim Ferman. They were buying it to get off on it, but actually they’d learn loads of things along the way. If it had been some medical thing with diagrams, who would have bought it?” (Curiously, Ludgate says that’s exactly what Stanway wanted – women with their legs in stirrups while he pointed out the clitoris.) “There were 10,000 or so letters,” Page continues, “saying, ‘We’ve been married x years, we started watching your programme and we were making love on the living room carpet before it had finished. Thank you for saving our marriage.’ And that was fantastic.”
What was crucial was that you could buy The Lovers’ Guide easily. There were only 80 or so licensed sex shops in the UK, selling R18 films – which were not, at that point, as explicit as The Lovers’ Guide. “My family moved to Cornwall in the 1990s,” says Clarissa Smith, editor of the academic journal Porn Studies, “and the nearest sex shops were in Plymouth or Bristol, but you could buy The Lovers’ Guide in WH Smith. The ease of access was definitely really important.”
While it wasn’t pornography, it was revolutionary. Politics has the concept of the Overton window – the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time – in which the centre of political gravity shifts left and right. One might think of sex, too, as having its own Overton window, and the 90s saw that window shift to allow portrayals of explicit sex, and an explosion in pornography.
There were simple, practical, legal reasons for that. From 1986, the Reagan and Bush administrations in the US had vigorously pursued obscenity prosecutions against pornographic film-makers. Bill Clinton came to power in 1993 promising to follow that agenda; in fact the Clinton administration had virtually no interest in prosecuting pornographers. In 1992, there were 42 prosecutions in the US in which federal obscenity offences were the lead charge; by 1998, there were only six. The result was a boom in porn production, and the rise of mega-studios such as Evil Empire and Vivid Entertainment.
That would have been irrelevant had porn remained the preserve of sex shops. But three things were happening at once. First, escalating traffic loads caused the first wave of free porn sites – often run by college students, and usually consisting of images stolen from professional porn – to fade from business, because they didn’t have the bandwidth to continue. Second, in summer 1994, a man sold a Sting CD to his friend over the internet, described by the New York Times as “the first retail transaction on the internet using a readily available version of a powerful data encryption software designed to guarantee privacy”. E-commerce was born. It wasn’t long before those who lived too far from sex shops, or who couldn’t bring themselves to walk into one, would be able to buy those Evil Empire and Vivid films without leaving their homes: they could visit a site such as Blissbox and have them delivered, in plain packaging, for the same cost as a Hollywood film, rather than the high prices charged by sex shops for something tamer. Third, a dancer and stripper called Danni Ashe noticed how many of her pictures were being traded on Usenet groups, and set up her own website, sparking a rush for porn producers to sell content directly via the internet.
At the same time, the culture was changing. Soft porn mags for women were launching, as was the hugely explicit Black Lace series of novels, also aimed at women, which sold more than 4m copies between its launch in 1993 and its closure in 2009. Margi Clarke’s TV show The Good Sex Guide launched in 1993, and got unheard-of ratings for a late-night show: 13 million viewers. And a new kind of male culture – in which it was assumed and accepted that viewing porn was nothing to be ashamed of – was emerging. Porn was in newsagents, in the “lad mags”, and it was on screen.
By the end of the 1990s, what was officially licensed lagged so far behind what was readily available to anyone with an internet connection and a credit card that change was inevitable. The driver of change, again, was James Ferman. He was convinced the only way to draw people away from violent pornography – his particular bete noire – was to grant R18 certificates to films depicting consensual penetration and allow them to be sold in licensed sex shops. The test case was a film called Makin’ Whoopee, to the outrage of the new home secretary, Jack Straw.
Straw summoned the BBFC’s vice-president, Lord Birkett, to his office and railed at him. “Do you really mean that you are going to allow oral sex and buggery and I don’t know what else?” Birkett later recalled Straw as saying. “That you are actually passing this? You are giving a certificate to it?”
In the face of Straw’s rage, the BBFC withdrew Makin’ Whoopee’s certification, and Straw changed the body’s leadership, with Ferman and Birkett departing. But in his final report for the BBFC, Ferman displayed prescience. “It may well be that in the 21st century, it simply becomes impossible to impose the kind of regulation which the board exists to provide,” he wrote. “After all, what is the point of cutting a gang-rape scene in a British version of a film if that film is accessible down a telephone line from outside British territorial waters? I am probably the last of the old-time regulators.” Ferman may have lost his job, but he won the fight with Straw – for another statutory body, the Video Appeals Committee, simply reversed the BBFC’s decision to back down, and seven porn films were licensed for sale in sex shops. Censorship of pornography had, to all intents and purposes, finished in the UK.
The Lovers’ Guide did not cause the collapse of censorship. It did not lead to YouPorn. That was the internet. But it was the starting point for a decade of change. “I think it was one of those moments in social history where there was a need for change, and we fulfilled the need,” Ludgate says. “I think there was a collective need for change, and curiosity. Since the 60s, the cult of the individual had grown and this was part of that process. It was something people wanted individually that changed a lot of attitudes towards sex. I think it was a massive, seismic shift in attitudes.”
And still it does its work. A few weeks after we talk, Page forwards an email he has just received. “Hi Robert. I just want to give you a VERY, VERY BIG THANK YOU AGAIN. I have bought your complete collection of The Lover’s GUIDE. Your work is impeccable. I began watching them, and all I can say is. You sir are AWESOME. What I have been learning from them is amazing, and I just really wanted to THANK YOU AGAIN!!!!!!!”
The price of a 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer is going up $10, and its supply is expected to be capped at seven million devices this year due to the ongoing global chip shortage.
Demand for components is outstripping manufacturing capacity at the moment; pre-pandemic, assembly lines were being red-lined as cloud giants and others snapped up parts fresh out of the fabs, and the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak really threw a spanner in the works, so to speak, exacerbating the situation.
Everything from cars to smartphones have felt the effects of supply constraints, and Raspberry Pis, too, it appears. Stock is especially tight for the Raspberry Pi Zero and the 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 models, we’re told. As the semiconductor crunch shows no signs of letting up, the Raspberry Pi project is going to bump up the price for one particular model.
The 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 will now once again set you back $45, an increase of $10 from its previous retail price. It used to be $45, then was brought down to $35 early last year when the 1GB model was discontinued. Now it’s back up again. This is the first time the project has hiked its prices, the trading arm of the Raspberry Pi Foundation said.
Don’t worry, however, the bump is said to be temporary and the module will eventually return to its original price of $35, company CEO Eben Upton announced on Wednesday.
The 4GB Raspberry Pi 4 and 8GB Raspberry Pi 4 versions will remain at $55 and $75, respectively. For those relying on a supply of $35 2GB boards, the project will bring back those 1GB Raspberry Pi 4 modules, priced $35.
“This provides a degree of choice: less memory at the same price; or the same memory at a higher price,” said Upton. 2GB for $45 or 1GB for $35. A choice, but not one people might expect.
“As many of you know,” he continued, “global supply chains are in a state of flux as we (hopefully) emerge from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. In our own industry, semiconductors are in high demand, and in short supply: the upsurge of demand for electronic products for home working and entertainment during the pandemic has descended into panic buying, as companies try to secure the components that they need to build their products … At Raspberry Pi, we are not immune to this.”
The project is expected to make around seven million of its computer boards total this year, maintaining the same level of production as last year as the pandemic took hold of the world. This is unlikely to increase much next year either, Upton said. Judging from his explanation, this figure is lower than hoped: “Despite significantly increased demand, we’ll only end up making around seven million units in 2021.”
Pis containing 40nm chips will feel the chip crunch the hardest over the next year, meaning there will be limited supplies of devices older than the current generation of Raspberry Pi 4, Raspberry Pi 400, or Compute Module 4.
“In allocating our limited stocks of 40nm silicon, we will prioritise Compute Module 3, Compute Module 3+, and Raspberry Pi 3B, and deprioritise Raspberry Pi 3B+ … Our guidance to industrial and embedded users of Raspberry Pi 3B+ who wish to optimise availability in 2022 is to begin migrating your designs to the 1GB variant of Raspberry Pi 4,” Upton said.
The biz expects to be able to make enough systems using 28nm silicon – namely the Raspberry Pi 4 and Compute Module 4 – over the next 12 months to hold their price… bar the aforementioned 2GB model.
“These changes in pricing are not here to stay. As global supply chain issues moderate, we’ll keep revisiting this issue, and we want to get pricing back to where it was as fast as we can,” Upton concluded. ®
UK headquartered Swoop was one of three finance companies to have received funding from RBS, which has previously given the start-up £5m in 2019.
Irish start-up Swoop Finance has received £2.5m from a fund established by banking giant RBS.
In 2019, it was awarded £5m by the banking firm, which accepted a £45bn bailout from the UK government at the height of the financial crisis in 2018. The bailout programme came with the condition that RBS would set up a £775m fund to boost competition in the region’s finance sector.
Swoop is one of three companies to have benefitted from that fund, with the others being UK finance companies Codat and Cashplus. The three start-ups will receive a combined £12.5m in grants from RBS.
Codat and Cashplus will both receive £5m from the fund.
Swoop was founded in 2017 by former KPMG chartered accountant and corporate financier Andrea Reynolds along with Ciarán Burke. Reynolds spoke at Silicon Republic’s Future Human event last year about the process of launching Swoop. She said she founded it after she spotted a gap in the market for a virtual “finance buddy” aimed at SMEs seeking financial advisers and lenders.
Today, Swoop is headquartered in the UK and it employs around 60 people. It recently launched in Canada, adding to its existing locations in Dublin, London and Sydney.
The fintech’s backers include Enterprise Ireland and Velocity. It has raised around €1.6m so far. Speaking last year, Reynolds said the pandemic’s digitisation of the finance industry – and most other industries – had benefitted the company.
She added that the ongoing changes in the industry would hopefully “democratise finance” and “open up opportunities” to companies seeking funding no matter where they are located.
“The future is that you won’t need to know who the lender is,” Reynolds said.
“All decisions will be made through your data and you’ll get those decisions instantly. So you could have a lender in Barcelona lending to a business in Ballyjamesduff, for example. It won’t matter where you are. It’s what your profile is and does it match to their algorithm.
“This means it’ll open up opportunities. It’ll democratise finance further because businesses, regardless of where they’re located, will not be disadvantaged. Everybody will have this at their fingertips,” she added.
Reynolds said she had seen “a 30pc increase in businesses moving online” during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I’m going to try to convince you that you should care about exactly how many people watched the moral panic-inducing hit Netflix series Squid Game. Yes, I know there’s a lot going on in the world. But bear with me: I think this really matters regarding how we understand our culture – and the balance of power in a media business where data is king.
(As a treat, if you stick with this newsletter then further down I’ll tell you about some of the biggest flops that Netflix would prefer you didn’t know about.)
In the past it was simple to find out how many people watched a popular television show. Audience figures for traditional television broadcasts have been produced in a similar way for decades. Research companies recruit a group of households considered to be statistically representative of the general population (in the UK this is done by Barb, in the US by Nielsen) and then their viewing habits are monitored, often using a box attached to their television set.
This data is then processed and used to produce industry-standard television ratings that can make or break careers. Journalists love these figures because you can make narratives out of them! It’s why you see headlines in news outlets about how half of the UK watched a football match, or how no one watched a new rightwing news channel.
These figures are made public, in part, because commercial television channels have advertisers. And advertisers need to know their adverts are actually being watched, so they need reliable and trustworthy numbers produced by a third-party organisation. Sure, this survey system is flawed, but broadly speaking it is equally flawed for everyone. You can tell if a programme on BBC is much more popular than a show on ITV, and you can tell if a particular drama massively outperformed what you’d expect.
Then Netflix and subscription streaming services came along. They don’t have advertisers. Their aim is to hook, retain, and encourage customers to keep using their service until it becomes so ingrained in their lives that they can never stop paying their monthly subscription fee. Core to working out how to do this is the data they collect on you.
Because Netflix knows exactly what shows you watch. They know how many seconds you lasted with each programme, when you got bored, what you put on instead when you got bored, and exactly what time of night you were watching that smutty foreign series. And it’s really not in Netflix’s interest to share this information with journalists, their rivals, or with the people who make the shows.
Which brings us back to the original question: How many people watched Squid Game? And why does it matter?
Well, if you believe Netflix, who occasionally drip-feed out positive ratings stories when it suits them, by last night Squid Game had been watched by 142 million households, making it one of the biggest hits ever.
But we’ve only got Netflix’s word to go on for that figure. And even then, Netflix currently defines a viewer as someone who watched the first two minutes of a show’s opening episode. Did you put Squid Game on for a few minutes to check out the hype then get bored? Well, you might be surprised to find you’re counted to be just as much a “fan” of the show as someone who watched all nine episodes back-to-back.
Journalistically, it’s a challenge. We end up having to accept Netflix’s word for the figures they provide because there’s simply no other option. It also enables the streaming outlets to selectively publish the narrative that they want to construct. It’s sexy and cool to trumpet your investment in high-end original drama. (And hell, Netflix really is investing incredible sums in high-end original drama!) It’s less sexy to admit that your critically acclaimed show was a ratings flop and people just want to watch endless repeats of Grand Designs.
What’s more, it warps our perceptions of audiences and what is popular in culture. Is a Netflix drama more popular than a BBC drama? Possibly. This may have enormous implications for the future of whether we still need the licence fee. Does the public really engage with Oscar-nominated state-of-the-nation films or secretly sit there watching another Adam Sandler release? With the culture wars grinding on, it’s probably worth knowing. What are the truly unifying television moments that bind a society together? It’s hard to be sure. Because we can’t get the data out of Netflix.
The truth is out there
Except … one small family business based in Bristol has worked out how to do just that. The staff at Digital i, an analytics firm, realised that while Netflix won’t release viewing figures, it does release data to members of the public about their personal viewing history.
(It’s true, you can see an overview of your recent Netflix viewing history, or you can download every bit of data that Netflix holds on you by visiting this link. In my case, it reveals that I was really binge-watching an awful lot of episodes of The Good Wife in 2015.)
Digital i realised that if they could convince thousands individuals to willingly hand over this personal viewing history in return for a small payment, the company can effectively create a statistically rigorous survey panel, then use this to create audience “ratings” for Netflix shows and sell this data to rivals. At the moment they have users signed up in five major European countries but they hope to expand globally.
“We’re trying to level the playing field for Netflix competitors,” said Sophia Vahdati from the company, who says their customers include the likes of BBC and ITV.
Her company has shone a light on one of Netflix’s biggest secret: how much of their audience is viewing endless repeats of old shows, because people binge high-profile original series in such a short period of time.
“The biggest thing that isn’t mentioned in the hype is how important sitcoms are to retaining Netflix subscribers,” she said, highlighting the availability of Brooklyn 99 and Big Bang Theory as just as core to Netflix’s offering as their buzzy acclaimed shows.
Here’s some of the findings of their Digital i’s data from its UK audience research that she shared with the Guardian:
British Netflix users spent more time watching old episodes of Friends in 2020 than watching big-budget original series the Crown.
The three most popular new releases in the UK during August were Clickbait (watched by 2.34m Netflix accounts), Hit & Run (2.1m households), and The Chair (1.64m). These are high ratings but Channel 5 can top them.
Sex Education Series 3 was released on the same day as Squid Game and performed just as well in Europe – but has had a fraction of the hype.
Shows such Bridgerton, Afterlife and The Queen’s Gambit were all hitting over 80% completion rates in the UK – meaning people were hooked and watched to the end of each series.
At the other end of the market, the five shows with the worst series completion rates were The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (just 35% of viewers finished it), What/If (45%), The Irregulars (53%), White Lines (56%), and Sex/Life (56%) – which explains why most of them were cancelled.
Any film that is watched to the end by 70% of people is a success. Martin Scorsese’s big-budget much-hyped Irishman? That struggled, on their metrics.
People now watch original series in a very short space of time – about a quarter of people who watched Squid Game finished it within two days.
Even though Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are not far apart in terms of signed-up users, Netflix dwarfs Amazon when it comes to people actually watching their content.
Oh and almost no one chooses to watch the credits nowadays. Sorry to everyone who made the programmes, we’ve already autoplayed the next episode.
So why does all this matter?
A lack of transparency changes the balance of of power when it comes to small companies negotiating with a global giant such as Netflix.
One independent producer who sold a film to Netflix suspects their release performed well, based on online reaction. But they told me that they just don’t know: “Netflix doesn’t usually give producers information about viewing figures of films they made – which is both frustrating and very disempowering for producers trying to negotiate funding for the next one, with them or anyone else.”
And for Squid Game? Digital i reckons 79% of Europeans with Netflix on their research panel watched at least one episode within the first fortnight of its release – with half making it all the way to the end in that time. So it really is a massive hit. Just perhaps not quite as big as Netflix’s own figures would suggest.
Last night, the streaming company announced that they would slightly change the metrics they use and drop the “two minutes watched” measure in favour of total hours watched. But it’s still in the company’s gift when they make the information public.
Vahdati says her company’s data shows how the streamer can selectively release data to shape the narrative about their output: “The originals are punchy, sharp and aesthetically innovative. But at the heart of it we haven’t become a nation who like to be challenged all the time with foreign-language dramas.”
Oh – and if you’re one of the many Squid Game viewers, then no spoilers please. I’m still only two episodes in.
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