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Friday, October 22, 1999 Published at 15:05 GMT 16:05 UK


L!VE TV: Talking topless darts

One of L!VE TV's bikini-clad weather girls

L!VE TV, the television station that became famed for stunts such as News Bunny and topless darts, could be doomed. News reports say its owner, Mirror Group Newspapers, has been in secret talks with cable operator NTL, which may close down the channel.

Earlier this year, BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy took a close look at the channel through the book L!VE TV; Tellybrats and Topless Darts.

L!VE TV is a bit like the Pamela Anderson "honeymoon video", and not just because both lay claim to a surfeit of silicon and bare flesh.

Everyone has heard about them and human curiosity is such that a lot of people would sure appreciate a look, but hands up those who have actually seen either of them?

But that has not dissuaded journalist Chris Horrie from writing a 500-page exposé on the former.

To the unsuspecting reader, L!VE TV; Tellybrats and Topless Darts, is a rib-tickling romp through the birth of Britain's trashiest television station.

[ image: Kelvin MacKenzie: Former editor of the Sun]
Kelvin MacKenzie: Former editor of the Sun
And so it should be. With two of the most potent media personalities at the helm - pioneer of "yoof" TV Janet Street-Porter and former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie - there is no shortage of incendiary material on which to feast.

Neither Street-Porter nor MacKenzie, nor indeed their boss David "Monty" Montgomery (chief executive of the station's parent company, Mirror Group Newspapers) would speak to Horrie or co-author Adam Nathan. Yet this only heightens the sense of achievement.

Horrie, author of Stick It Up Your Punter, a riveting account of journalistic practice at the Sun during its 1980s heyday, is more than an ambitious gossip columnist. He uses the astonishing antics of the "L!VE TV three" to tell the wider story of the birth of pay television in Britain.

"What I try and do is write serious books and try to tell it in quite an entertaining way," says Horrie, a self-confessed "sad old lefty" whose stance on the cable and satellite TV revolution is that he resents paying for programmes he used to watch for free.

'Four-letter rants'

So Street-Porter's renowned Estuary English and MacKenzie's four-letter rants are brought to life in tabloid-style italics on the page. Janet: Innervatiff (innovative), dreery (dreary) ghaaastly (ghastly); Kelvin: "For f**k's sake put a sock in it and let's get on with making a bit of telly!"

[ image: Janet Street-Porter: Lasted five months at L!VE]
Janet Street-Porter: Lasted five months at L!VE
The book establishes that, from the start, L!VE TV was a weapon in the long and bloody tabloid battle between the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun and the Mirror. Murdoch had set up the satellite-based Sky TV to offset the long-term decline in newspaper sales; Montgomery hoped to hit back through Britain's fragmented but growing cable network.

At the back of everyone's mind is the fact that viewers the world over will only pay up-front TV subscriptions for sport, Hollywood movies and pornography.

For a brief moment, L!VE TV looked like winning through. But when Sky scoops the golden egg, in the form of Premiership football, the plan falls apart, Street-Porter quits and MacKenzie turns the station into a pale televisual equivalent of the Sun.

Trampolining dwarfs

Bring on the L!VE TV we know and love, though have probably never seen, today: topless darts, trampolining dwarfs and the weather in Norwegian.

[ image: David Montgomery: L!VE TV was his brainchild]
David Montgomery: L!VE TV was his brainchild
Ideas were conceived during "drink-filled brainstorming sessions", Horrie says. The most talked about is surely News Bunny - someone dressed as a floppy-eared rabbit who appeared behind the newsreader to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down depending on whether it was good news or bad news.

Staffed by a plethora of sexy young media wannabes - tellybrats - and lacking in investment, direction or a cohesive distribution network, L!VE TV became famous for being outrageous.

And bearing in mind the colourful personalities involved, Horrie defends his treatment of the leading players. In particular he says he never wanted to be vindictive to Street-Porter, who is portrayed as spiky and self-obsessed.

"If some people say our portrayal of Janet is nasty, we've failed," he says.

[ image: The opposition: Sky had a headstart with satellite]
The opposition: Sky had a headstart with satellite
"But we spoke to 30-odd people who worked with her, and the impression we got is that which appears in the book."

And while L!VE TV may continue draw only a small fraction of pay-TV viewers, he believes cable will eventually triumph over satellite in the UK, not least because of its interactive qualities.

In 10 years time, he says, the "big American cable companies will own the superhighway. It will be like oxygen. Information will be the main commodity and if you want to shift it you will have to pay them."

If a victory of cable over satellite is on the cards, the story of L!VE TV must be a bit of an aberration.

For while it proudly claims that it scores "more than a 1% share of the cable TV audience on a regular basis", the opposition - BSkyB - is investing its huge profits in signing up digital satellite customers and trying to buy Mancester United.

There is no doubt at all who won the battle between the rival Sun and Mirror camps.

So it seems that there is life in the unsightly satellite dish yet. Even though Horrie refuses to deny that he owns one.

L!VE TV; Tellybrats and Topless Darts, by Chris Horrie and Adam Nathan, is published in paperback by Simon and Schuster, price £8.99.

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