‘Cathouse’ Not a Secret to Viewers

Jul 11, 2005  •  Post A Comment

HBO has been keeping quiet about a successful new series. Very quiet.

The program premiered Thursday, June 16, at 11 p.m. (ET) It is a low-cost production aired without any off-network promotion-no screener tapes sent to critics, no billboards, no press releases and not even a listing on the HBO Web site home page.

Yet its late-night debut managed to pull in slightly more total viewers than the highly touted prime-time season premieres of “Entourage” and “The Comeback.”

The show is “Cathouse: The Series,” a half-hour docu-soap set in a Nevada brothel following the lives of sex workers and their encounters with customers.

Though recent press articles have reported on HBO’s drop in prime-time viewership-which has fallen from 1.2 million in 2004 to 900,000 this year-HBO executives are not eager to tout their latest success.

“Cathouse” also represents a departure for the network’s late-night strategy. Though the network says it has not increased the amount of adult-oriented original programming on the channel, typically such content is aired as specials (such as the ongoing “Real Sex”) or, occasionally, a six-episode miniseries (such as the 2000 title “G-String Divas” and this year’s “Pornocopia: Going Down in the Valley”).

At 11 episodes, however, “Cathouse: The Series” is firmly a standard weekly series. It’s even called a series, which begs the question of why HBO is so quiet about it.

“There’s a long tradition at HBO for late-night programming, it has a very loyal audience and that audience knows where to find it,” said HBO spokesperson Jeff Cusson. “So the truth be told is we don’t have to put a big push behind the marketing.”

Showtime, which declined to comment for this story, has a similar tradition. “Family Business,” a docu-soap about a family working in the pornography business, is currently in its third season. Yet the show has received barely more promotion than “Cathouse.”

Network modesty about adult titles is so doctrine, the networks will even pass up the potential to gain revenue.

DVD sales, for instance, represent a sizable portion of HBO profits, and adult-oriented DVDs are a billion-dollar business. Yet HBO’s adult titles are rarely released on DVD. “Real Sex” has more than 30 installments dating back more than a decade but has never had a home video release. An HBO spokesperson claimed a cost-benefit analysis, not the graphic content, is the reason.

Showtime, which has more freely blended highly sexual content with dramatic storytelling in shows such as “The L Word” and “Queer as Folk,” does release adult series such as “Family Business” on DVD.

One thing is certain: Viewers do not shy from tuning in for premium cable late-night shows. “Cathouse” was viewed by an average of 1.3 million viewers season to date, according to Nielsen Media Research. That’s the same as “Entourage” (1.3 million) and better than “The Comeback” (1 million). The recent miniseries “Pornocopia” did even better, averaging 1.6 million viewers.

“Cathouse” began as a pair of documentary specials-2002’s “Cathouse” and 2003’s “Cathouse 2: Back in the Saddle”-before being greenlighted as a series. The “Cathouse” specials showed prostitutes talking with their clients before and after sex in the brothel rooms, while the series ups the ante by showing scenes from an actual session.

Patti Kaplan, producer-director of “Cathouse” and “Real Sex,” said the network has allowed more freedom in recent years to depict adult situations.

“Not freedom to be sleazy, but rather more liberating. … I think it’s a matter of good taste,” she said. “Certainly, things that are overtly pornographic we do not air, even though you can see things that are quite explicit.”

The programming is inexpensive to produce. Ms. Kaplan declined to reveal the budget for “Cathouse,” but the series is shot on videotape at a single location and without a hired cast. The brothel owner and male clients are paid only modest appearance fees, but the working girls, oddly enough, are not paid. “We are not going to be, in a sense, paying prostitutes,” she said.

In addition to its graphic content, “Cathouse” has another thing in common with “Real Sex,” “Family Business” and other nonfiction premium cable sexcapades: All endorse a progressive and unabashed discussion of sexual attitudes and behaviors.

But asked whether HBO is too shy about promoting and discussing her shows, Ms. Kaplan had no comment.