Taking some heat

When AT & T agreed to put adult pay-per-view service The Hot Network on its base digital tier, it gave a boost to the extra-graphic channel-and attracted a flurry of protests.

Longtime TV foe American Family Association called on the U.S. Department of Justice to initiate a criminal investigation of AT & T over its agreement to carry Hot Network.

The channel tries to distinguish itself as harder edged than Playboy, the chief supplier of adult television to cable and satellite. Hot President Bill Asher describes the programming as between the soft-core erotica carried by Playboy TV and the harder stuff available on videos. Asher also heads Vivid Video, one of the largest producers of adult movies.

An AT & T spokesman, noting that the MSO seeks to offer a wide variety of programming, emphasized that the network is being offered only on pay-per-view.

Although DirecTV and MediaOne carry Hot Network, other operators including Time Warner and Comcast have balked, citing the channel's graphic content. "I don't know why they'd do it," said a senior executive of one MSO that refuses to carry it.

But adult TV is profitable and has traditionally been more important to the PPV business than theatrical movies. Operators keep just 40% to 45% of the $4 to $5 charged for a PPV theatrical movie vs. 80% to 90% of a $6 to $8 adult-channel buy.

Patrick Trueman, government affairs director for the AFA, which is headed by conservative minister Donald Wildmon, wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno Wednesday asking for a criminal inquiry. Despite the fairly wide protection the Supreme Court recently gave adult cable networks, he believes that the harder-core programs on Hot Network should be reviewed. "I'm saying we've got to draw the line," said Trueman, a former DOJ official. "People are going to be very upset that AT & T can announce that they're going into a business that's potentially illegal." He acknowledged, however, that he has not personally seen Hot's programming.

Conservative critic Brent Bozell, whose Parents TV Council actively pressures advertisers to drop support of objectionable programming, labeled AT & T executives hypocrites, noting that the company is also a member of the Forum for Family Friendly Programming, a group of large advertisers pushing networks to tame down their shows.

"You're not talking about some sleazy Vince McMahon company," Bozell said, referring to the chairman of another of his targets, World Wrestling Federation. "You're talking about one of the hallmark companies of America. Why do it?"