Soft Porn, OFCOM and Dickheads: One Night Behind the Scenes at Babestation

What's it really like being a Babestation babe? And, more to the point, who's calling them when porn exists?

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Mar 23 2015, 4:03pm

Its 6.30PM on a weekday evening and I am about to embark on my journey to the most popular premium-rate interactive TV show in the UK, Babestation. A lot of my friends have eagerly, agitatedly asked for a plus-one, citing non-existent photography skills in exchange for a foot in the Babestation door. Needless to say: their offers went unaccepted, and fantasy is very different to reality.

The first hint that the Babestation myth might not measure up to the reality is the journey there: previously based on Great Portland Street, the operation recently moved a bleak, hour-long car-ride down the motorway to new premises, housed on an industrial estate out of town. The exact location of Babestation is kept a secret – a few of Babestation's more ardent fans have, in the past, looked to close the gap between fantasy and reality by turning up outside with a bunch of wilting petrol forecourt flowers – but needless to say the hub of Babestation's operations are now nestled among a plethora of warehouses packing food and churning out sandwiches. The ground rules upon entering are simple: "No exchanging numbers with the performers".

Founded in 2002, Babestation is unequivocally the exemplar of late-night British softcore. The format is simple: one or two Babes front the show, keeping viewers titillated with various boob grabs and giggling, while two sub-Babes take up position in booths where viewers can call a premium rate chat line and speak to them. Despite the basic production values, Babestation is neatly run: it makes a seamless show where fantasy and escapism are created, that appeals to a whole spectrum of men, from loners to the happily married to tanked up lads wanting a laugh. The Babes rotate, the calls keep coming and Babestation churns a profit.

"The whole format was created by owners who are telecoms guys," says Mo, the executive manager for the company, Cellcast, who produce the format. He's the one who's going to get mad at me if I give out my number. "There are different stories as to how it all began. It apparently started off with a phone number in a newspaper like the Sport, where people would call up and listen to a recorded sexual story. Then the guys came along and were like, 'We have a TV channel, why don't we combine them?' and that was the birth of the show and this format."

That was in about 2002, the perilous halfway year between widespread broadband access and nationwide digital TV rollout. Then, business was booming – now, easy-access web porn is obviously taking a chunk out of Babestation's market share. We sit in on the 8PM strategy meeting to get a handle on how Babestation are intending to compete.

The strategy meeting could be lifted from any other office in the country: we pick our way through a vista of cigarette butts outside and into a staid office, stock image-ready if not for the gleamingly iconic Babestation logo printed large above our heads. Minus the performers, the crew sit to discuss themes, targets and the general running of the night. Despite all that goes on in front of the screen, the crew is surprisingly small, comprising of the producer, the service producer (who, among other roles, makes sure that compliance is being followed – he is the metaphorical hand in front of the junk), and the skeleton camera crew, who double- and sometimes triple-up as lighting, sound and music engineers.

There are five performers who work on a rotational basis during the night across BabeStation 1, BabeStation Extra and BabeStation Blue. The standard format for each night is the same: three girls on screen while two are off, creating further content in the shape of photoshoots, Babestation cams and voice-overs. It's all part of this well-oiled machine, which, at its most basic, is there to facilitate a demand for phone sex chat – the Babes drum up some 1,200 calls a night in the week, and double that on the weekends.

Tonight's performers, as one camera operative tells me, "are really hot" – the crew are expecting a high volume of calls. Preeti Young is the longest serving out of the quintet tonight, having worked on the show for the past five years. "I tried the whole education thing," she tells me, while dabbing on her make-up. "I tried a full-time employment thing, too. But I knew that wasn't what I wanted – living paycheque-to-paycheque isn't what I'm about. I wanted to be independent and enjoy life and use the money I made wisely." She blots her lipstick and turns to me. "Now I have a beautiful house and I am going into business."

Behind the scenes in their dressing room and away from their alter egos, normality ensues among the Babes – chat veers between the latest non-Babe TV programmes to the best baby names. Mo is proud of the girls' extra-curricular activities. "I have a girl on my books who is at university, while Katie Cole has a masters and is training as a lawyer. The thing is all the girls are business savvy and very intelligent." Delia Rose, who performs on the night, is already a homeowner at 20. It seems that being a Babe is good business.

With the strategy meeting done by 9PM, the pre-broadcast atmosphere starts to shift, imperceptibly at first, and then extremely perceptibly, as the girls start walking around semi-clad while putting the finishing touches to their BabeStation alter-egos. The producer lets the performers – tonight we have Preeti Young, Maddy Rose, Beth, Dannii Harwood and Delia Rose – know their schedule, and then it's go time.

It's a gentle start: performers take things fairly easy through to the watershed, prepping the callers for some X-rated material from 10PM onwards ("Stay on the line, lads, we've got Preeti Young coming up and she's feeling racy" – that sort of thing). Then, once the clock gongs, the floodgates open: the switchboards light up as viewers call the hotline for a chance at some intimacy with their favourite performers. Callers wait on the line to speak to the performers directly, but, while they wait, they can listen in while performers chat to other viewers. I opted to listen in from behind-the-scenes, and it's a strange experience listening in to another viewer's fantasy: both private and not private, all at the same rather antagonistic time.

Camera crew and performers work in a seamless (and, most importantly, fun) union, ensuring that they keep viewers titillated while observing the omnipresent rules of Ofcom. As one camera personnel lets me know, its an absolute minefield of regulations – no sexually aggressive movements, no closed hands over the crotch (they must be open so as not to suggest rapid fingering), no full frontal shots... The night is a constant battle to avoid the chance of what the industry calls "spillage".

"Back in the day it was more relaxed," the producer tells me. "But now on certain channels you can't mimic a blow job."

"Back in the day it was more relaxed," the producer, tells me. "But now on certain channels you can't mimic a blow job." What can you do? "You can look at two fingers and talk about blowing them, but you cannot actually put the fingers in your mouth. The sex, at the end of the day, is more on the phone, but then they need to be careful because there are regulations there as well."

As I listen in on the conversations (which, regulations or not, are filth) it's totally engrossing to hear the girls work the callers up into frenzies. Just looking at my notebook, here: "Yeah, you're fucking me really good"; "Wow, that nine-incher is lovely"; "You want me to put it in my mouth". The visuals add to the caller's fantasy of intimacy, while thumping hard house resonates through the studio to keep the performers, crew, two outsiders and the callers going until 5.30AM.

Through the night, themed performances range from cheerleader to office secretary to exceptionally saucy girl you meet in the alleyway (a regular fan request). Promises of further X-rated material and verbal foreplay increase the callers as the camera crew intently monitor their real-time screens, which feed back the number of callers at any given time. And they keep coming: occasionally punctuated by a "dickhead caller" (industry term), the phone keeps ringing in a marathon of nine-incher boasts and moans of "yeah, baby". As the night progresses, the performers work hard in front of camera, gyrating suggestively and listening to fantasies while the camera crew sweat to get the camera angles just right – just enough tit, absolutely no junk – to keep their eager callers interacting with the hours-long fantasy. This is where the money's made: there's an addictive quality to the control-power relationship wielded by the caller over the performers that keep the phone lines blazing; the camera crew are faceless, if necessary, fantasy facilitators.

"Wow, that nine-incher is lovely"



Dr Funke Baffour, TV psychologist for Big Brother, sees the user-controlled element of Babestation as akin to playing a videogame. A sexy videogame. "It's like you are playing PlayStation and you are directing the cast – that's a rush," she tells me. "Now I can ring in and say 'open your legs' and it's more arousing and more stimulating [than just watching porn]. The power is very addictive, and the viewers are sucked into these images that are on the screen; they are the viewer's creation. There's almost a sense of pride in the 'work', knowing that what you get that girl to do is also being watched by other people – possibly enjoying – what you get the girl to do."

It's the control over the object of their desire that is the draw for Dave*, a fan of the station since it began. "There is control, I think, and it is the caller that is powerful because they are directing it," he tells me. But with a caveat: "At the end of the day I watch Babestation to see some sexy ladies getting their tits out and their feet out and they do the stuff that I want."

The power dynamic is a two-way road, though, and the performers have power of their own – they are the ones creating intimacy, they are the ones keeping the viewer on the line for as long as possible, they are the ones exerting the real control. At its core, Babestation is good, old-fashioned role play: all parties (for the most part) know that this is a fantasy.

But for all the productive synchronicity, the psychological interaction and the astute home-owning performers, Babestation and its position as the forefront interactive premium sex line may be in jeopardy. As Mo bluntly puts it: "Phone sex lines have become niche, and they are for a... particular age group." Simply put, interactive TV just can't compete with the goliath of internet porn, especially when the webcam niche of the industry offers the same services as Babestation (intimacy, control, direct contact with the performer) but without the £1.53 per-minute call cost.

"When I grew up it was all about Page 3," the producer tells me, wistfully. "Now this generation has changed. Now it's all about online, and that's undoubtedly the biggest revenue maker. We have an amazing format with the TV show, but it is shrinking. You have a generation who were introduced to it and now they have grown up and can afford to make the phone call – that's the core of our business. But you have a generation coming through now who look at Babestation and say, 'I'm not spending 30 quid on a phone call when I can go on the net.'"

"At the end of the day I watch Babestation to see some sexy ladies getting their tits out and their feet out and they do the stuff that I want."

To that effect, Babestation has launched two spin-offs – BabeStation Unleashed and BabeStation Cams – based purely online to accommodate a younger, porn-savvy audience who are accustomed to harder material. Babestation Cams, in particular, has opened up a wider market for the brand while keeping overhead costs low. BabeStation Latina, South Africa and Germany are just a few offshoots being mooted as a result. There is life in Babestation yet: online, away from the regulations of Ofcom, performers can offer more private (and lucrative) one-on-ones with their existing core audience.

So while the future might be uncertain for the TV format, the brand's foothold as a provider of viewer-controlled sexual escapism will evidently mean that it will be 'Viva La Babestation' in the years to come. How long the phonesex-in-a-warehouse TV model can sustain is anybody's guess – but when it comes down to it, there is still an audience of men out there willing to pay £30 a go to talk to a Babestation Babe in the quiet hours of the night.

At 5.30AM, the night is winding down – callers are starting to slow, and the night crew swap shifts with the early morning team. All that's left is our grim, dark commute back to London. As our cab takes us down the motorway towards London, lights glimmer in the houses of distant towns. Are those the living rooms of Babestation viewers? Did they stay up late especially to see Dannii Harwood clip and unclip her bra? Or are they just cranking it to Pornhub? We may never know. We may never know.

Follow Semper on Twitter.

*Names have been changed

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