Wank Week

Wank Week was a controversial season of television programming that was due to be broadcast in the United Kingdom by Channel 4, expected to consist of a series of three documentary programs about masturbation. However, plans to broadcast it in 2007 came under public attack from senior television figures, and the planned broadcasts were pulled amid claims of declining editorial standards and controversy over the channel’s public service broadcasting credentials.

While ‘Wank Week’ itself has been cancelled, the films it was meant to showcase may yet be broadcast by the channel at a later date.

The season was commissioned by Andrew MacKenzie, the channel’s factual entertainment commissioning editor, and announced in 2006. It was to consist of three films broadcast in the 11pm slot, headlined by a documentary on mass public masturbation. This kind of programming was not unprecedented: the Channel had previously screened a ‘Penis Week,’ reportedly described by MacKenzie as a ‘success’ in a Guardian article. He continued on the subject of ‘Wank Week,’ ‘we feel this is exactly the type of provocative and mischievous programming that Channel 4 should be covering in the 11pm slot’ In the United Kingdom, the 11pm slot is considered post-watershed, although transition to more adult material ‘must not be unduly abrupt at the watershed or after the time when children are particularly likely to be listening.’

The first show to be announced centred on a Masturbate-a-thon held in Clerkenwell, London in the summer of 2006. This was a public mass masturbation event organized to raise money for the sexual health charity Marie Stopes International. A press release from Zig-Zag, the independent production company behind the recording of the event, promised that the film would reveal ‘if the only things allowed to be stiff in Britain are upper lips.’ The show’s working title was ‘Wank-a-thon.’

A week later, plans for an as yet unnamed second documentary about compulsive male masturbators were announced, to be produced by the independent company Spun Gold. The film was to be an hour long and focus on men trying to cut down excessive masturbatory habits of up to twenty times a day, using methods developed in the United States. The final film in the series, entitled ‘Masturbation For Girls,’ was also to be produced by Spun Gold. It was to feature the sex educationalist Dr. Betty Dodson.

‘Wank Week’ was criticized in the prestigious James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the 2006 Edinburgh International Television Festival only a month after Channel 4’s initial announcement. Charles Allen, the outgoing Chief Executive of Channel 4’s commercial rival ITV, attacked Channel 4 for deterioration of output and adopting a ‘begging’ approach to finances in the run-up to terrestrial digital switchover (requesting subsidies for public service output while pursuing a path of commercialism). Wank Week’s mention came as part of a critique of programming that Channel 4 was counting towards its ‘educational’ content. Allen joked that he was expecting ‘Wank Week’ to be included, ‘but that could be a hard one to pull off even for Channel 4.’ The pun was subsequently repeated in the press.

Criticisms of Wank Week were echoed later in 2006 by Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the first Chief Executive of Channel 4, in an article for ‘Prospect magazine.’ Isaacs argued that Channel 4’s increased commercialization led to a targeting of the 16-34 year old audience, and the subsequent ‘obsession with adolescent transgression and sex’ could be seen in programming such as ‘Designer Vaginas,’ ‘The World’s Biggest Penis,’ and ‘Wank Week.’ Although these public attacks led to reports of concern in Channel 4 management, postponement of ‘Wank Week’ did not take place until early 2007, only a month before its planned screening. There had been a major racism controversy during January’s ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ contest, and the launch of ‘Wank Week’ raised the prospect of further embarrassment at a critical time.

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