Friday, May 02, 2008

What's next, free milk?

Cows still charge for milk, but it's never been a better time to be a voyeur, or a worse time to try to make a living in the pornography trade.
DVD sales are in free fall. Audiences are flocking to pornographic knockoffs of YouTube, especially a secretive site called YouPorn. And the amateurs are taking over. What’s happening to the adult-entertainment industry is exactly what’s happening to its Hollywood counterpart—only worse.

On Friday, May 18, Steve Hirsch, founder of Vivid Entertainment Group, the world’s largest producer of adult videos, was expecting a mysterious visitor. But Stephen Paul Jones was late. When Jones, an unknown figure in the pornography world, finally arrived in the all-white reception area of Vivid’s Los Angeles offices at 2 p.m., he was apologetic. His private plane had broken down, he explained, and he was forced to fly commercial. Hirsch, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, found that excuse a little slick. But he was eager to speak with Jones, so he let it slide and introduced him to two Vivid colleagues. When the four men sat down in the company’s conference room, Jones got right to the point: He wanted Vivid to buy his website, YouPorn.com.

As its name suggests, YouPorn lets users upload and watch a virtually unlimited selection of hardcore sex videos for free. The user-generated clips on YouPorn—like those on YouTube, the site it mimics—range from the grainiest amateur footage to the slickest professional product. Also, like YouTube, the site has far more traffic than income. Just nine months after going live, in September 2006, YouPorn was on pace to log about 15 million unique visitors in May, Jones told the Vivid executives, and its audience was growing at a rate of 37.5 percent a month. Today, YouPorn is the No. 1 adult site in the world; Vivid.com, a pay site, is ranked 5,061. According to Alexa, a website-ranking company, YouPorn’s overall rank is higher than CNN.com (84), About.com (114), and Weather.com (195). (Those numbers are averages for the three-month period from mid-June to mid-September.)
...
Vivid’s situation is grim but not unusual. DVD woes plague the entire Valley, from multimillion-dollar corporate operations to backroom bottom-feeders: Total sales fell 11 percent in 2006, to an estimated $3.8 billion, according to Adult Video News, the industry’s leading trade publication. Hirsch’s company shares the high end of the market with about 20 other studios that each claim more than $20 million in annual revenues. Outside of those are at least 100 small producers who bring in $500,000 to $5 million a year, estimates Paul Fishbein, president of Adult Video News. These companies shoot on shoestring budgets of $10,000 or less (sometimes much less) per film. “Those rinky-dink companies are struggling to get 1,000 to 1,200 DVDs out at $8 to $10 wholesale,” says Fishbein. “That barely pays for the cost of a cheap production.”

And the decline of DVDs will only accelerate. “You’re going to see a precipitous drop now,” Fishbein says. “Hopefully for producers here in the Valley, that will be offset by internet sales. Hopefully.”

As the portion of Americans with broadband connections (47 percent and growing) continues to rise, consumers are becoming increasingly addicted to the immediate gratification of Web video. But suddenly, there’s a chasm between porn consumption and porn sales. While sales of internet-based adult entertainment grew 14 percent last year, to $2.8 billion, that figure would be substantially higher if there wasn’t so much free competition, especially from the user-generated adult sites.

So far, the Valley’s biggest players have tried to combat this by offering subscription sites, which give users access to a deep trove of content in exchange for a membership fee, usually paid monthly. Vivid.com is one of the more successful. With about 40,000 subscribers paying $30 a month, Hirsch says, the site generates roughly $15 million in annual revenue. Ali Joone, the founder of Digital Playground, charges the same monthly rate and says he has a comparable number of subscribers.

Much like the TV networks, movie studios, and record labels on the other side of town, porn companies are also engaged in a frantic attempt to diversify their offerings, filleting their films into smaller pieces that can be easily sold via an ever-shifting variety of digital distribution channels. From the pay-by-the-minute model on video-on-demand sites such as Adult Entertainment Broadcast Network and Hotmovies.com, to the four- to six-minute clips edited for mobile devices, the industry is looking to take the 90-minute sex videos from its old business strategy and carve them into bite-size moneymakers.

But for many companies, the sum of these new revenue streams doesn’t even come close to offsetting the decline in DVD sales. What’s happening in porn right now is directly analogous to what’s happening to the music industry—CD sales are down 16 percent since 2005, according to Nielsen SoundScan—but worse.

“What you’re losing in the DVD market, you’re not making up on the paid internet side,” says Fishbein. “Instead of 99 cents a song on iTunes, these guys are doing 10 cents a minute for porn.”

If these were steelworkers or low end assembly workers being displaced by overseas sweatshop labor I'd have some sympathy, but somehow the thought of porn producers or actors being forced into the unemployment line brings me little sorrow. But I am troubled by the thought that beyond being a society of voyeurs we are now also becoming a society of exhibitionists. Hoffman's article gives a very detailed view of the production end of the traditional porn business, but I'd be be more interested in finding out more about what's driving the amateur producers. That is the real story here.

Our society is going through a very real, very troubling shift, one that I don't think anyone had on their radar, not even the sci-fi crowd. How can one even begin to imagine the future when you can't even understand the present?

3 Comments:

Blogger Bret said...

"But I am troubled by the thought that beyond being a society of voyeurs we are now also becoming a society of exhibitionists."

What percentage of people are engaged in this exhibitionism? One in ten-thousands? That'd be less of the percentage than those who are insane. Indeed, they may be a subset.

May 03, 2008 3:55 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

This constitutes an interesting social experiment.

The outcome of which indicates that all claims regarding pornography's harm are hugely exagerated.

May 06, 2008 12:23 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Skipper,

And how do we know that? What measures are you using to gauge its effects? And what makes you think that those effects would be immediately visible?

This is not a controlled experiment. We don't have a proper control group to serve as a comparison. It's not a good practice to debug your beta code in production.

May 06, 2008 5:31 AM  

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