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Magazines in Decline : Sex Losing Its Appeal for Playboy

August 25, 1986|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | Times Staff Writer

Playboy Art Director Tom Staebler thumbed galley proofs of his magazine--past Miss November and a feature on men's skin-care products--and mused over recent problems caused by the religious right.

In little more than a year, fundamentalists have persuaded an estimated 17,000 stores to drop Playboy and rival Penthouse from their magazine racks. In part because of that loss, Playboy cut ad rates by 17% in July and announced the loss of close to 700,000 in circulation.

"I honestly don't think these people have looked at our magazine recently," Staebler said.

That, say magazine industry analysts, is the paradox of the recent assault by fundamentalists on American men's magazines. The attacks come as Staebler and his colleagues are trying to take some of the sex out of Hugh Hefner's magazine--but not because of a new wave of righteousness.

Shrinking Target Audience

Men's magazines are changing because they face an even greater threat from a shrinking target audience of young men and a growing American preference for watching more explicit sex on cable TV and video cassettes.

Playboy is competing by getting softer, trying to reposition itself as a competitor to Esquire and Gentleman's Quarterly. At the same time, its parent company, Playboy Enterprises, is moving more heavily into video cassettes.

Penthouse is countering by becoming more explicit, and by diversifying into everything from selling powdered milk in the Arab world to publishing a magazine aimed at military officers about biological warfare.

"The technological age of video," Hustler magazine Publisher Larry Flynt declared, "will make men's magazines passe."

These are indeed hard times in the skin trade. Playboy circulation has shriveled from nearly 7 million in 1972 to just 3.4 million this year.

Hustler Tumbled Too

Penthouse too has fallen to 2.7 million from its heyday of 4.5 million in 1978. And Hustler has tumbled from 1.9 million in 1976 to roughly 800,000, Hustler says.

One reason for the fall may have nothing to do with morality. Men's magazines are a young man's fancy, according to publishing analyst J. Kendrick Noble Jr. of the brokerage firm of Paine Webber. And the number of young men is declining as the baby boom generation ages.

Then there are more competing entertainment media, particularly cable TV and video cassettes, which offer adult entertainment of their own.

Numbers are inexact, but Americans bought or rented more than 100 million adult video cassettes in 1985, according to Paul Eisele of the Fairfield Group, a Darien, Conn., market research firm.

Playboy and Penthouse deny that their circulation hemorrhage is terminal, but Penthouse Publisher Bob Guccione concedes that his magazine could shrink to 2 million circulation within five years. At Playboy, said Photography Director Gary Cole, "Add up all these things, changing life styles, all the new leisure options, I think sometimes we all get pretty depressed around here."

Playboy believes its salvation may be in moving away from "a monotonous and relentless focus on sex," and positioning itself as a general-interest men's magazine, said Playboy's editorial director and associate publisher, Arthur Kretchmer, the man insiders say now runs the magazine.

Staebler talks about "fashion-oriented" covers, which means the women are wearing something. In the November issue, three out of every four pages of photographs are of people who are clothed, including a spread on men's skin-care products, fashion, male movie stars and college football. A few years ago, said Photo Director Cole, a feature on men's watches would have had the time pieces "draped over nude bodies."

And in those nude pictorials that remain, Staebler admits, "the erotic content is not great." In a September spread on "Farmers' Daughters," several of the daughters are clothed and several others appear as small figures in larger photos of barns or agricultural gear.

Cole discusses trying to give a "more complete" picture of life on the farm.

Took Out the Staples

The change, editors say, accelerated 12 months ago when Playboy took the staples out of the centerfold and switched to a glued or so-called perfect binding.

In addition to making it easier to swap ads in the magazine's 28 separate local and regional editions, Playboy President Christie Hefner also hopes that glue will push Playboy further from the sex magazine category, likening it to other publications using perfect binding, such as Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair and other so-called "coffee-table" magazines.

Can Playboy so transform itself? Many are skeptical. "I don't care how many Norman Mailer pieces you run," said Al Goldstein, the editor of a magazine called Screw. "As long as you have pictures of naked women, you're a men's magazine."

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