Adult Fare Grows Up

Adult entertainment is, at its core, a pretty basic proposition. “At the end of the day, an adult movie is an adult movie; people watch adult entertainment for a very specific purpose,” Ken Boenish, president of New Frontier Media, once said. But in order to remain competitive in the space, programmers large and small must keep pace with shifts in cultural standards, new technological developments and emerging programming genres.

“We charge a big premium -- north of $10 for a movie -- so we better deliver a great experience every time or consumers are not likely to come back,” said Boenish, whose company runs The Erotic Networks, as well as Penthouse’s TV brand.

The biggest impact on programming in recent years has been the advent of video on demand, which has “made the competition more intense as the barrier to entry has been lowered,” said Gary Rosenson, senior vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for Playboy, which also owns Spice Digital Networks.

Indeed, Playboy TV and New Frontier used to have the field to themselves but VOD paved the way for Hustler, which is now in 45 million homes, as well as smaller companies such as Trans Digital Media, which operates Wicked On Demand and Cheri International (reaching 23 million homes), and Pure Play Broadcasting, a spin-off of the adult DVD company Pure Play Media (in nearly 12 million homes). Because operators take a bigger cut of on-demand sales, some programmers such as Playboy were slow to adopt the platform.

“There is a tremendous consumer desire for content,” Boenish said and with linear TV networks and VOD, adult networks can “begin to approach the variety available on DVD and the Internet.”

Pure Play senior vice president of network development Bill Furrelle said that because cable operators are “nervous about eyeballs migrating to the Internet” some operators are giving his company a chance against more “entrenched” competitors.

“Operators hope that we can help stop that flow,” said Furrelle, whose company takes content created for the Internet and repurposes it for television.

But Trans Digital CEO Geoffrey Lurie cautioned that, “with the proliferation of product, the general quality of programming has suffered -- people are throwing up anything.”

Rosenson added that the greatest challenge for any new players in the space is being able to offer operators something “radically new and different” while staying within their “comfort zone” in terms of content.

In such a crowded field, effective branding remains a constant challenge since the networks can’t market themselves in traditional ways. Cable operators aren’t as quick to cross-promote on other networks or conduct events for local affiliates, so these companies must find other avenues. (Hustler, Penthouse and Playboy have the advantage of being able to promote across all their platforms, which include magazines and Web sites.) But ultimately, a strong brand identity for a network and its content is critical for success.

“Without the ability to truly market adult brands, you need more easily defined brands with better definition,” Rosenson said. “Customers want to know what to expect.”

In 2006, Playboy’s Spice Networks were struggling so they brought in former New Frontier executive Bryan Postlethwait (“a kind of a rock star” in adult TV brands, according to Rosenson) to oversee an overhaul of Spice.

Out went the indistinctive Spice Hot, Hot Net and Hot Zone channels, and in their place now are more defined entities: Club Jenna, featuring industry legend Jenna Jameson and her coterie of “top shelf talent”; Spice Xcess, which features edgier material; Fresh, which spotlights premieres, amateurs and new performers; and Shorteez, which focuses on short-form programming. 

The Playboy TV brand retains its comparatively softer image, geared toward couples with entertainment-oriented programming like call-in shows and series such as Naughty Amateur Home Videos.)

Boenish said that need for sharp definition is why New Frontier struck a deal with Penthouse. “Penthouse is a beacon,” he said. “It has nearly the same brand awareness as Playboy but with a different level of perceived explicitness.”

By using Penthouse brands for programming -- as in “Girls of Penthouse” and “Penthouse Forum” -- and featuring Penthouse Pets in original movies (something Playboy does not do with its Playmates), Boenish hopes to bolster the number of annual buys from light viewers.

But New Frontier’s seven other TEN channels also have distinct identities, Boenish noted. “That’s important to consumer perception and consumer experience,” he said. Among the latest channels added are Real, combining adult entertainment with reality programming, and the foreign-import-focused Juicy.

Michael Klein, president of Hustler TV, said operators were initially wary of their brand because of founder Larry Flynt’s outrageous reputation.

“But now they realize it’s not a detriment, it’s an advantage,” he said, referring to the high profile of the Hustler brand as well as of the adult entertainment studios it draws on for content, such as Zero Tolerance and Evil Angel. “We differentiate ourselves by having the most titles in the Top 25 chart for DVD rentals and sales, which translates into popularity for VOD.”

Besides a strong brand, Klein said that in marketing adult entertainment on VOD the right title is critical. He cited the adult film Christmas in Memphis, featuring porn star Memphis Monroe: Without the promotional art that would appear on a DVD box, a VOD customer “might think it sounds like a Disney film,” Klein said, so it didn’t fare as well as it might have.

Rosenson agrees, saying that while Internet sites can offer free video trailers and other marketing tools (for example, Memphis Monroe’s personal Web site offers a half-dozen free short preview videos), cable operators aren’t comfortable with doing that for adult titles. “This is an impulse purchase,” Rosenson said. “The name has to jump off the screen.”

Still, a title doesn’t tell the whole story, and operators’ varying edit standards ultimately determine what and how much viewers actually get to see.

One of the biggest changes in the world of adult entertainment has been the little-noticed demise of the X-rated movie. These days, program distributors only provide XX, XX.5 and XXX edits of their movies (with each delineating a new level of explicitness) -- these ratings aren’t used for marketing to consumers but for clarity in discussions between operators and programmers.

According to Lurie, this partly reflects overall shifts in society. “What was once very risqué is now considered to be meek,” he said.

Rosenson said the growth of VOD is also having an impact on what adult fare consumers are watching. Premium channels like HBO and Showtime once could only show soft-core adult shows late at night. But with subscription VOD, that material -- essentially the equivalent of a single X -- is available 24/7. “With the economy now, people are tightening their belts so the millions of [premium] subscriber customers will say that stuff is satisfying enough,” Rosenson said.

Also significant is consumers’ ability to block specific on-demand channels or entire VOD genres from appearing on TV screens in their homes. Klein and Boenish believe that has made it easier for operators to shift away from single X toward more explicit fare. Still, they believe operators remain overly sensitive on the issue, fearing protest from social conservatives who don’t ultimately distinguish between edit standards anyway. “The conservative right wing sees them all as bad,” Boenish said. “The edits are done to appease people who don’t even see the programming.”

The cable operators contacted for this report would not discuss adult programming on the record.

While consumer demand has fueled the availability of more explicit and diverse programming (spanning various ethnicities, fetishes and sexual orientations), programmers nonetheless share some of the operators’ sensitivity on what content crosses the line in ways that adult fare on the Internet often does.

Boenish conceded that “we’ve seen the graduation to more and more explicit material and will continue to see that.” He added, “We are plain vanilla adult entertainment for the masses. We don’t show things where the average person on the street would go, ‘Ewww.’”

Among the more popular programming trends these days, Klein cited films featuring sexy older moms -- a genre that he said “has gone through the roof” -- though Lurie points out that none of the actresses are actually moms or even that much older. Similarly, another big-selling category, “amateurs,” is almost entirely comprised of professional performers. “They’re just being paid to seem like amateurs, meaning that they look natural,” Lurie said,

Boenish added that most viewers don’t really want actual homemade videos. “That’s not exactly what people are looking for -- their out-of-shape neighbors shot with a handicam,” he said. “That looks awful. They just want believable people in believable settings.”

Pure Play’s Furrelle noted that his company actually does provide amateur footage through studios like Homegrown Videos.

On the other hand, pseudo-blockbusters and star-driven vehicles are among the genres in decline, but Rosenson said the latter will always be around because operators like them just to “round out the categories.”

Ultimately, Boenish and others said that viewers are most interested in a specific subject matter or series from a brand or studio that they are familiar with.

On the technological front, advances -- particularly in encryption and compression -- have improved the processing, traffic and storage of films, allowing a company such as New Frontier to provide thousands of hours more of content than before. “The scale of this new infrastructure brings affordability for us and that brings the viewer more variety in programs,” Boenish said.

Another technology having a significant impact on adult programming is high-definition. “Adult consumers are always early adapters,” said Boenish. “They were with VOD and we’ll see it happen in HD.”

Klein said some studios are already shooting adult fare in HD and that within five years it will be commonplace. But that, in turn, creates a new wrinkle for the genre.

“With a clearer picture you’ll have to make sure your stars are really good-looking,” he said, with a laugh. “And we’ll have to shoot certain scenes from different angles. You don’t want to show people what they don’t want to see.”

Stuart Miller

Stuart Miller has been writing about television for 30 years since he first joined Variety as a staff writer. He has written about television for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Vulture and numerous other publications.