from THE NEW YORK TIMES:
November 16, 2010
Courting Women, Playboy TV Puts Emphasis on Intimacy
By BROOKS BARNES
LOS ANGELES — Playboy TV is putting (some of) its clothes back on.
Since its introduction in 1982, Playboy TV, a subscription channel like Cinemax or Showtime, has focused on attracting men with soft-core pornographic movies, adult-oriented game shows (“Show Us Your Wits”) and Playmate specials.
It’s a fading proposition. The channel is too tame to compete with sex-related video-on-demand services — or even certain HBO shows — yet too raunchy to appeal strongly to women, who typically control the household cable bill, according to industry research. Never mind that plenty of titillation is available free with a click of a mouse.
So Playboy spent a year conducting focus groups and other research. “If this channel could be anything, what should it be?” said Gary Rosenson, a senior vice president and general manager of Playboy’s domestic television operation. The outcome: in January Playboy TV, which does not release subscriber figures but is available in 70 million homes in the United States, will begin shifting from traditional pornography toward a higher-quality, female-friendly slate of reality shows. Just as Nickelodeon has its Nick at Nite, Playboy TV will call this block of shows TV for 2.
The first new series is “Brooklyn Kinda Love,” a docu-reality program scheduled to make its debut on Jan. 15. Produced by Joe and Harry Gantz (HBO’s Emmy-winning “Taxicab Confessions”), “Brooklyn Kinda Love” follows the intricacies of four real couples’ relationships. Another new show involves monogamous couples receiving advice on how to achieve greater intimacy. In all, the channel will add six new shows by the end of next year.
The content remains firmly sexual — this is subscription television — but Playboy insists that it is less identifiable as pornography. The emphasis is now on intimacy, learning as a couple and of course those all-important higher production values.
“This is not just a face-lift,” Mr. Rosenson said. “This is a major movement away from the type of adult fare that you can easily find on the Web.”
He added, “They say that every important TV niche has been filled, but I’m pretty sure we’ve found one that hasn’t.”
Marketing hype? A touch. The new programming’s DNA isn’t much different from that of the 1980s-era “Good Sex!,” Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s Lifetime series, and television is overflowing with reality shows that walk right up to the line of sexual frankness — from “The Bachelor” on ABC to Oxygen’s “Love Games: Bad Girls Need Love Too.”
But Playboy’s programming conclusion says as much about loosening cultural mores as it does about the storied bunny’s bid for relevancy.
The channel’s research, conducted by Sharon Lee, founder of Culture-Brain, a firm that analyzes societal trends, indicated that women — particularly younger women — were not opposed to pornography as long as it had certain attributes. Among them: real chemistry, nonenhanced body parts, varied body shapes and “contextualized” sex. “They want the romance to flow organically from the story and not pop up in a forced fashion as is the case in so many adult movies,” Ms. Lee said.
Many factors play into women being more open to erotic television, Ms. Lee said. One is the steady march of cable channels like Bravo and MTV to racier content, not to mention what’s shown in mainstream movie theaters (“Sex and the City 2”). The Internet is clearly another.
“As a result of exposure to unrestricted adult content on the Web, where you can see naked midgets on a Sunday if you want, squeamishness around overt sexuality and the sex act is being desensitized,” Ms. Lee said.
The catch, she said, is that most sex-related programming looks fake, cheesy or cheap — or all three. In other words, if Playboy is serious about its new couples strategy it needs to invest in higher-quality content.
“We don’t suddenly switch on a different brain when we watch adult content — ‘Oh, I expect this to be really crappy,’ ” Ms. Lee said. “Sophisticated consumers, even unsophisticated ones, are asking, ‘Why is this so bad?’ ”
Playboy has little choice but to pursue a new path on the premium television front; the cost for its channel varies by provider, but is about $15 a month. Hugh Hefner, who founded the company in 1953, has long resisted the obvious way of competing with the Internet — going more hard core — for fear of damaging the Playboy brand. But that strategy has left Playboy TV without a sharp identity.
In the most recent quarter, revenue in the company’s entertainment group, which includes Playboy TV, declined 20 percent. A legal dispute with DirecTV played a role, but so did the company’s fading video content. Playboy wrote down the value of its programming by $22.3 million in the quarter.
“There is no sign that the difficult trends we have experienced over the past few years will abate,” Christoph M. Pachler, Playboy’s chief financial officer, told analysts on a recent conference call. (Playboy’s board is currently reviewing an offer by Mr. Hefner to take the company private.)
“TV for 2” reflects Playboy’s broader strategy as a company. In recent years it has made the bulk of its money through licensing deals, including lines of women’s apparel, jewelry and fragrances. “The Girls Next Door,” a long-running series on E! about Mr. Hefner’s live-in girlfriends, promoted the Playboy brand among women, analysts say.
Whether “TV for 2” will deliver results is anyone’s guess. Still, Mr. Rosenson is confident. “Guys will always be satisfied with Playboy,” he said, “but I’m pretty sure a lot of guys would rather be watching with their partner by their side.”