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Playboy Sheds 'Gentleman's' Cloak, Buys 'XX' TV Channels

Media: Its plans to add explicit programming emphasize the growing tolerance of racier TV.

July 03, 2001|SALLIE HOFMEISTER and RALPH FRAMMOLINO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Playboy Enterprises Inc. on Monday moved to preserve its role as America's dominant purveyor of sex on television by bringing more explicit movies into the living room.

The Chicago-based company agreed to acquire three XX-rated sex channels from the owners of Van Nuys-based Vivid Video, one of the largest producers of porn movies, for $70 million.

The transaction, as The Times reported Saturday, will put Playboy far out in front of New Frontier Media Inc., which will become the only other significant adult television programmer.

The move is a departure from Playboy's carefully cultivated image as a "gentleman's" brand. The three channels it is acquiring--Vivid TV, Hot Network and Hot Zone--carry more extreme programming than anything on Playboy's three X-rated networks--Playboy TV, Spice and Spice 2.

Playboy's strategic about-face underscores the growing acceptance of racier sex on television. Hard-core pornography has become increasingly popular and hugely profitable for satellite and cable operators, forcing Playboy to give up its singular devotion to soft-core programming.

Monday's deal "dramatically expands the number of U.S. television households that we reach and therefore clearly positions us as the leading supplier of a range of adult entertainment," said Christie Hefner, Playboy's 48-year-old chief executive, in a conference call with investors. "We will be able to serve [our] constituencies better, by providing a range of nonviolent erotic entertainment to meet market demand."

In doing so, the Playboy empire hopes to stay at the vanguard of the sexual revolution that founder Hugh Hefner kicked into high gear nearly 50 years ago with the famous Marilyn Monroe magazine centerfold. The company also is trying to protect its star television business at a time when Playboy's flagship magazine and its fledgling Internet operation are losing money.

Many industry experts said Playboy was losing ground to upstarts that are fast redefining adult television with extremely hard-core channels.

"Playboy had the advantage of a brand name and a lot of real estate on cable," said Jedd Buss-Palmer, a Denver-based programming consultant and cable industry veteran. "But they missed the market. They were becoming marginalized."

Christie Hefner declined to be interviewed for this report. But her father, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, said he has no regrets about the company's late entry to the hard-core arena.

"If we wanted to get in [earlier], we would have," Hefner said last month at the 75th birthday bash for the late Marilyn Monroe held at his mansion in Holmby Hills.

According to interviews with dozens of cable, satellite and company executives, Christie Hefner--who with her father owns 71% of Playboy--was protective of the company's image and personally uncomfortable about pushing into graphic fare. One former employee said Christie Hefner describes the company as a "Disney for grown-ups."

"It stems from coming out of the Midwest," explained Jim English, president of the Beverly Hills-based Playboy Television Networks. "You wouldn't want to go to a cocktail party and have someone come up and say, 'I hear you're making porn movies now?' It's OK for me, but not for Christie."

Once a pioneer in breaking sexual taboos, Playboy became so comfortable with its own brand of 1950s "stylized eroticism"--symbolized by the ubiquitous bunny logo--that the Hefner empire failed to keep pace with America's growing appetite for more graphic porn on television.

The line between mainstream and pornography has blurred. Porn stars date rock stars, chat on radio programs and appear on album covers. R-rated films veer into X-rated territory. Television tilts toward the risque, from bare buttocks on "NYPD Blue" to the bed-hopping antics of HBO's "Sex in the City."

"Playboy has always been the class act, more creative and thoughtful," said Larry Gerbrandt, chief content officer at Kagan World Media, a market research firm in Carmel. "But that's not necessarily what people wanted. The company has suffered for not plunging into dirtier waters."

Satellite providers such as DirecTV and EchoStar Communications Corp. have been selling XX-rated pay-per-view movies for at least two years. Some major cable companies have started carrying XX-rated channels in the last year. And one of the last and largest holdouts, AOL Time Warner Inc., the nation's second-largest cable operator, is expected to change its policy against carrying XX-rated material within the next year, according to sources close to the company.

Cable and satellite sales of adult pay-per-view programming are expected to nearly double by 2005 from $465 million in 2000, according to Kagan World Media.

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