LONDON—In America, parents often fear for what their children might see on television.

Across the Atlantic, it's worse. Britain's newest free television station, Channel 5, is airing movies that are rated “18” in theaters there — the equivalent of the American “X.”

“We have been accused of showing soft porn,” said a spokesman for the channel. “These are not soft porn; they are erotic dramas. Anybody who thinks they are has never seen a soft porn film.”

Catholic activists disagree, and say that movies like mmanuelle and The Happy Hooker have no place on channels as accessible as America's network TV.

“They are turning our living rooms into red-light zones,” said John Beyer, who heads Britain's leading viewers organization.

Jim McDonnell, a consultor to the Pontifical Council For Social Communications and director of the Catholic Communications Center, the media training center funded by the English and Welsh Bishops'Conference, is calling on Catholics to make their voice heard.

“If viewers do not protest, then a change for the worse will happen,” he warned. “It is up to ordinary people to phone and complain.”

That outcry has already had an effect. Britain's Broadcasting Standards Commission, citing complaints, issued a report castigating Channel 5 for broadcasting erotic material “for its own sake, especially its regular screenings of two U.S. imported series, Compromising Situations and Hot Line. ... In the commission's judgments the point of those programs was clearly erotic.”

The station defends itself both by calling the programs “dramas” and by arguing that, after 9 p.m. — the so-called watershed hour in Britain — anything goes.

The report disagrees.

“The commission acknowledges the arguments put forward by Channel 5 about the time of transmission of these programs and the warnings that had been provided,” it said. “Nevertheless, in the commission's view, the inclusion for its own sake, of erotic material in a free-to-air television service is a steep change in the use of sex on British television and begins to erode the other difference, which research indicates that viewers themselves wish to see, between what is available on open access channels and that which is available through pay services.”

Beyer, director of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, said that Channel 5 also has aired documentary series such as Sex and Shopping, which showed clips from European and U.S. porn films as part of its reportage on prostitution.

“I don't believe this is really what people want in their living rooms,” Beyer contended. “I think people want excellent drama and good films they don't want to be experiencing a strip club or a brothel in their own families.”

McDonnell said that by showing such material, even in a news format, “Channel 5 is pushing back the boundaries of public acceptability and my sympathy” is with the standards commission, he said. “People will keep trying to push the boundaries, but the question for society is how far we are prepared to change in relation to the kind of material to be shown.”

‘I don't believe this is really what people want in their living rooms ... I think people want excellent drama and good films they don't want to be experiencing a strip club or a brothel in their own families.’

The standards commission report is sympathetic to that argument.

“The commission also considers that [the questionable shows'] inclusion in mainstream television runs the risk of encouraging both the amount of such material and the erosion of standards generally,” said the report.

In a letter to The Times of London, Channel 5's chief executive David Elstein said, “The [standards commission] is anachronistic and patronizing in seeking to challenge the right of free-to-air viewers to watch what would be perfectly acceptable on pay television and what would probably earn a 15 certificate if submitted to the British Board of Film Classification for classification.”

Said Beyer, “In the last 15 years our standards have been falling. The head of Channel 5 seems to assume that everybody likes this kind of material simply because very few people write to protest and complain about it. This does not signify public approval. ... There is very little public debate about these sort of issues.”

He added, “We have excellent costume dramas such as the BBC's Pride and Prejudice which are admired the world over and these show that you can have quality programs which are not sexually explicit and attract good ratings.”

Elstein also accused the Standards Commission of “simply seeking to assert its own aesthetic judgment over the clearly stated preferences of Channel 5 viewers.”

He added, “The time has come for a genuine public debate — not the conversations of the chattering classes or debate by focus group it has to be far wider than that; we need a referendum.”

The commission has planned no such action. It pledged to keep the issues under close review, adding, “The commission wishes to remind broadcasters that gratuitous scenes of violent or coercive sex are unacceptable.”

Both sides feel confident that they would prevail if the issue were brought before the public. A Channel 5 spokesman said viewers like the show, and generally “people do not think there is too much sex on television.”

McDonnell said he considers the matter a challenge to Catholics in the pew.

Catholics must do all they can to prevent Channel 5 programming from continuing to undermine standards, he said. “We as a Church consistently try to uphold and support those people who are trying to uphold public standards.”

Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.