No Shortage of Sexy Programs

Apr 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

While Congress debates what may constitute indecent broadcast programming, the reality is that the most outrageous, sexy, edgy content isn’t on broadcast television. It is available for those willing to pay to see it on premium cable channels and through pay-per-view and new technologies such as video-on-demand, which are beyond the jurisdiction of Washington regulators-at least for now.
As elected officials posture and fume about MTV and Howard Stern, a whole new generation of sexy programming is just rolling out. This time it’s of better quality and includes brand names such as Hustler, Cheri, Playgirl and High Society-all veteran adult magazines.
Those names will soon be joined by an array of adult programming from new networks with names like HYPE TV, Inpulse TV and Mav’rick, all of which are seeking access to the cable audience.
How can an occasional naughty word or brazen image bring regulatory furor, while on these new entrants it seems as if anything goes?
“It’s not a contradiction at all,” said Trans Digital Media’s Mark Graff, a veteran adult programmer who founded the Spice channel and is now involved with launching Playgirl TV and two other new services. “You have broadcast TV, which is free and available over the air, and you have video-on-demand and pay TV that is behind a wall. Having Janet Jackson show her breast on the Super Bowl was an offense to people who didn’t want to see it at that moment. Americans aren’t anti-sex, they just don’t like to be subjected to it when they didn’t want to see it.”
On-Demand Is Key
A top cable executive who did not want her name used explained it this way: “The big term now is `on-demand’-products offered for those who want them. First, a given household has to purchase cable, and then it has to make a conscious effort to subscribe to erotic programming. [At the same time] cable operators are offering a way to lock out any channel. Nobody has to watch adult programming if they don’t want to.”
“It’s not something that you will be casually going to,” said Mike Klein, executive VP of broadcasting at Larry Flynt Publications, which will launch Hustler TV On Demand next month. “You have to make a conscious effort to find it and there are parental controls preventing children from accessing it.”
Adult programming is not going to go away from cable anytime soon, Mr. Graff said, noting it is very lucrative. About half of all adult programming on pay-per-view and via VOD comes from two main distributors, Playboy and New Frontier Media, which operates a variety of PPV, VOD and subscription services under the brand name The Erotic Networks. Mr. Graff estimated the revenue they generate is “in the hundreds of millions of dollars for cable operators.”
These two programmers are in about half of all cable homes (at least 40 million) with PPV or VOD offerings. They typically run in blocks of 90 minutes to 3 hours. VOD and PPV adult programming retails for $5.95 to $12.95, about the same amount as a month of HBO. But operators clear a much higher “split,” typically 90 percent of the revenue.
The publication Video on Demand 2004 from Kagan Associates asserts “total revenue from VOD and PPV [will] rise from about $2 billion a year currently to $6 billion a year by 2010.”
“Cable operators may hate the business, but they love the money,” Mr. Graff said.
Chris Ellis, a spokesperson for Comcast Cable, will not discuss which companies his company has met with or does business with, but said customers can request that specific channels be blocked.
Sandra Staggs is CEO of Inpulse TV, which plans to launch as a VOD service in April, said her team has met with Comcast.
Inpulse TV is being marketed as a more “palatable” erotic network, said Ms. Staggs, and representatives of the channel have appeared on “The View” and “Access Hollywood.” “One DBS company said that the next time you’re on national TV, you should mention we will be carrying you,” Ms. Staggs noted, but quickly added, “That was before the Janet Jackson thing.”
Tim Connelly, publisher of the trade publication Adult Video News, said that VOD was a natural outlet for adult vendors. “If you know the history of the adult entertainment industry, it has always been on the cutting edge of technology,” he noted. “The first year such things were measured, back in the 1980s, the largest-selling video was `Insatiable,’ with Marilyn Chambers.”
Trans Digital Media is marketing its three channels, set to launch beginning this month, through both PPV and VOD. Playgirl, which calls itself the first adult network for women, will focus on profiles of sexy men. High Society TV, promoting itself as the first international adult network, will focus on European and Asian adult fare. “It’s the National Geographic of sex,” Mr. Graff quipped.
Cheri TV will present lots of documentaries and a behind-the-scenes approach to adult content, something HBO and Cinemax do a lot of now.
Neal Gabler, the media critic and author of many books on popular culture (he’s working on a biography of Walt Disney), noted that “pushing the envelope” has always been a factor in American life, going back to the dime magazines of the Victorian era, which offered sex and violence between their covers.
“There’s a point where people feel tainted,” he noted, though the boundaries allowed on cable are fairly broad, especially on VOD. “Broadcast TV is predicated on not offending people; cable TV is predicated on offending people,” he laughed.
Another new group of channels ties together music, lifestyle and sex. The group includes 1AM, from Universal Music Group, HYPE TV and Mav’rick.
HYPE and 1AM, a channel proposed by executives at Universal Music, promote themselves as the source for the hip-hop lifestyle. They intend to be premium channels offering uncut videos from such recording artists as Ludacris or Lil’ Kim that even MTV would consider too racy to air.
Tracy Lawrence is president of HYPE, which boasts of an investment from Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. A former general manager at Fox Family Channel, Ms. Lawrence said that HYPE would be “more than just videos,” describing it as a “hip-hop lifestyle channel.” She cited statistics that 25 percent of purchases in the United States are “influenced by hip-hop,” adding that 70 percent of hip-hop records are sold to Caucasians. HYPE will be seen starting in May, when it launches as a weekly two-hour block on the Playboy Channel (available on pay-per-view in much of the country). The block will debut with an exclusive airing of the video of “Show Me Your Soul,” a single featuring Mr. Combs from the soundtrack of “Bad Boys II.”
BET Too Tame?
HYPE TV’s demonstration reel, shown to cable operators, features Jameel Spencer, president of Mr. Combs’ Blue Flame Marketing + Advertising, implicitly criticizing BET for being too tame. “A lot of these other networks are a watered-down version of what hip-hop was supposed to be,” he said on the promo tape.
“Playboy’s interest in hip-hop is centered on how to help develop our own brand,” said Jeff Jenest, executive VP at Playboy. “We have an interest in tapping into the overlap between the hip-hop community and programming for adults.”
The idea for 1AM came out of frustration at Universal Music, the world’s largest recorded music group, over the difficulty of getting its edgier artists played on MTV, Fuse and other music channels. Universal’s list of artists includes Eminem, Limp Bizkit and Marilyn Manson.
Robert Marsucci, a spokesperson for DirecTV, confirmed that his company, now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., had a single meeting with Universal’s 1AM channel, but he would not comment further. Sources at Universal said that DirecTV advised 1AM to “come back in six months or so,” which is not the most ringing of endorsements.