Competitors scoffed when word got around that Hustler TV is televising the first-ever adult entertainment musical, Misty Beethoven, later this year. But Hustler, which launched a video-on-demand service in April and is planning a pay-per-view service for August, is far from the only erotic service groping for alternative program genres.
The granddaddy of them all, the Playboy Channel, now Playboy TV, has its MTV Real World-inspired 7 Lives Exposed, a reality show that frequently goes all the way, and is far more explicit than the Playboy of yesteryear. Another new Playboy show, Weekend Flash, showcases models who recount the news of the week (including assassination attempts and war updates) while peeling off lingerie.
There’s little wonder that adult services are stealing pages out of other programmers’ books to distinguish themselves. Between 1999 and 2003, the number of erotic channels was pretty much flat. But this year, TV options have increased dramatically with the growth of both VOD and traditional services. Some, like Playgirl TV, are making themselves available in PPV and VOD; while others, like High Society and Cheri are focusing exclusively on VOD.
Cheri is set to debut in the early fall and is positioning itself as the E! Entertainment Television of adult services. It follows the lives of erotic stars and features documentary-style programs on topics like fetish-wear as fashion or wife-swapping. High Society, also debuting this fall, considers itself to be the “National Geographic of sex,” according to Mark Graff, president of Trans Digital Media, which owns both Cheri and High Society.
High Society features movies from around the world, with technology that allows cable operators to choose programming based on their community’s demographics (for example, Mexican movies for California; non-Mexican Latino movies in New York).
Two other new services are in a cat fight to expand female, and by extension gay, audiences: the Trans Digital service Playgirl, debuting this summer, and its competitor Inpulse, which hopes to launch as soon as it finalizes any distribution agreements.
New audiences aside, much of the innovation may be wasted effort, according to Ken Boenish, president of The Erotic Networks. “At the end of the day, an adult movie is an adult movie,” he says. “People watch adult entertainment for a very specific purpose. If they want a fancy Hollywood production, they’d watch a different movie.”
People just don’t have the same viewing habits when they watch adult television. “The average viewing time for a movie is seven minutes,” says Dennis McAlpine, founder of McAlpine Associates an independent research firm specializing in media and entertainment.
THE BRANDING ADVANTAGE
So how do the channels stay unique, particularly when there’s so much erotic content on the Internet, and when DVD sales are altering the course of the home-video business? “Branding is key, and will be more so as time goes on,” says Tim Connelly, publisher of the trade publication Adult Video News.
Today, Playboy Entertainment Group Inc. and TEN have significant brand advantage. Playboy owns Playboy TV and an array of channels under the Spice and Hot brands. TEN has its own stable of networks.
Both services distinguish their channels by their degree of explicitness: Playboy has Spice for X-rated movies, Hot Net for XX, and Spice Platinum with XXX; TEN has Pleasure (X), TEN (XX), and TEN Xtsy (XXX). Plus, each have “best-of” clips channels (Spice Clips, TEN Clips, TEN Blox).
Playboy’s Hot Zone and TEN Blue target African-American and Latino audiences. TEN’s efforts are a direct result of Boenish monitoring the video sales and rental markets. Playboy has also increased programming featuring black and Latino performers. And newcomer Hustler has tried besting them by producing adult videos with hip-hop star Snoop Dogg.
Some networks, like Spice Live and Hot Zone, offer original interactive programming like Spice Clips, in which viewers request their favorite clips, and The Nooner, where viewers call and make suggestions for a couple performing live.
Playboy’s original programming has grown increasingly explicit, but Playboy TV still takes a relatively soft approach, featuring movies that are more plot-driven. “We’re a first stop for couples,” claims Playboy Entertainment Group vice president Jeff Jenest. “Women want plot-driven, story-driven material to surround the sexual material.”
Boenish and Jenest both contend that TEN and Playboy cover so much territory there’s little to no room for newcomers. “As far as we’re concerned it’s a two-horse race,” Boenish says, adding that the genre’s low-end economics don’t leave room for competitors to woo MSOs. “The lion’s share of revenue already goes to the cable operators.”
Not surprisingly, Michael Klein, executive vice president of Hustler’s parent company, LFP Broadcasting, begs to differ with the two-horse race scenario. He contends that Hustler’s movies, which have been licensed to other networks over the years, have a strong track record. Hustler’s branded Web sites, Hustler Hollywood video stores, and new gentlemen’s clubs around the nation also allow for promotional tie-ins, Klein says.
The women’s channel Inpulse may not have that kind of name recognition, but CEO Sandra Stagg, believes there’s “untapped revenue in this underserved market.” The service will produce movies and offer lifestyle programming from talk shows to advice shows to music videos.
Inpulse’s main competitor, Playgirl, will feature movies with “more storyline, more kissing, holding and cuddling and much fewer gynecological shots,” according to Graff. Playgirl will also offer originals, including Man of the Year contests and Spotlight, which will focus on individual hunks.
All this emphasis on good-looking men won’t just draw women — about 40% of Playgirl magazine’s readership is gay men, and Graff expects to tap that market in VOD. McAlpine says this affluent market is definitely underserved and will remain so until gay male sex breaks through onto television.
Although Boenish says that could happen “in the near future,” Graff believes a full-fledged gay erotic channel won’t emerge until the next generation of consumers, who will make no distinction between the PC and the TV. Then barriers will tumble, and cable operators will open up to kinkier fare, leading to a whole new round of efforts by adult entertainment networks to distinguish themselves from each other.
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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.