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Tit for Tat

When girls started going wild, Playboy Video stopped playing mild

It's one of the great ironies of the modern-day smut biz that it took a boob burglar like Joe Francis to shake Hugh Hefner's once-mighty empire to its creaky knees. Francis is all of 28, which means he wasn't born the first time Hef bagged triplets on the merry-go-round bed. Just a few years ago, around the time Hef was marrying an entire family of wannabe supermodels, Francis was just a business and radio-television major at the University of Southern California (dude, where else?), thinking about what to do with his life. By 1998, Joe Francis was Joe Franchise--a kid about to pocket millions selling videotaped nipple over late-night TV. Boys were about to go wild for girls gone even wilder.

Francis first hit the late-night TV circuit peddling Banned From Television, a clip job featuring footage of shark attacks, executions, bystanders getting mowed down by speeding trains--this generation's Faces of Death. (Most of the material came from TV-news cameramen who shot stuff they could never air or amateurs in the right place at the wrong time, at least for someone else.) As Francis recounts in a recent issue of Rolling Stone, he hatched Girls Gone Wild when someone turned in footage of drunken girls flashing breasts for Mardi Gras beads. That B-roll material turned out to be grade-A stuff: Francis told Rolling Stone he moves some 2 million tapes a year (at $9.99 to $29.99 each), all thanks to a late-night TV ad campaign aimed at the horny kids with spare change and a telephone. Boobs, it turns out, love boobies.

Which is what terrified the hell out of the old men at Playboy Home Video. This year, the brand turns 20 (which is far older than anyone Hef's ever slept with), only it was a birthday that nearly became a funeral. At this time last year, Playboy Home Video was completely dark, offering no new product after two decades of cranking out a very special brand of self-help tapes. After years of taking hits from all sides--from hard-core porn companies that had slowly moved into the mainstream, from freebie nudie pics strewn across the Internet--the latest onslaught of Girls Gone Wild seemed enough to off the Bunny for good.

"You heard all the same things we'd heard--you know, the Internet and free images were going to take over, and who would pay for mature programming anymore when you could get adult programming for free?" says Tony Borg, Playboy Home Video's director of sales and promotions. "We heard all those nightmares, and we thought, well, damn, is that true or not?"

This time last year, Playboy Enterprises Inc. was losing money ass over tit--almost $12 million during just the first quarter of 2001, as Playboy was well on its way to suffering one of its worst years since Hugh Hefner founded the business in 1953. There weren't enough thongs in all of the Playboy Mansion to staunch the bleeding. But one year later, the Mansion isn't entirely in ruins. In fact, Playboy Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Christie Hefner insists the company is about to rebound, after months of layoffs and cost-cutting; she even figured the company's online operations, which have been leaking silicone for years, will break even in 2002.

Hefner will have to rely, in a big (fake-breast kind of) way, on Playboy Home Video. Late last year, after Playboy Enterprises purchased three hard-core pay-per-porn channels--Vivid TV, The Hot Zone and The Hot Network, where most anything goes and everything comes--the company relaunched with four lines aimed at very specific audiences that, execs figure, don't necessarily overlap. After decades of being all things to all people--all naked people--the company has made a dramatic shift to keep pace not only with Girls Gone Wild, but with such companies as Vivid, Wicked, Adam & Eve, Simon Wolf Productions and other porn peddlers who target, ahem, couples (meaning, likely, a right and a left hand) frequenting once-off-limits adult bookstores.

Borg and Barry Leshtez, senior vice president and general manager of Playboy Worldwide Home Video, spent most of 2001 reconfiguring the business. First, they switched distributors, then debuted last November its new brands: Playboy Exposed, with such titles as All-American Girls, Florida Flash 'N Splash and Confessions of a Party Girl, "skews very young," Leshtez says, "you know, teen-ager, 20-ish." Playboy TV, whose titles come from shows airing on the Playboy Channel (America's Hottest Strip Clubs, Sexy Urban Legends, Sizzling Sex Stars), and a monthly movie line, Playboy Eros, which offers such R-rated films as Personals 2: Casualsex.com, sell well among thirtysomethings. The good ol' Playboy Home Video line--"our Rolls-Royce brand," as Leshtez likes to say--is more title-driven, meaning its success depends on the particular Playmate featured. "It is, by far, our broadest demographic," Leshtez says, "anywhere from 18 to 70-something."

The Exposed line is aimed directly at those buying Girls Gone Wild: The tapes are full of women trading cleav and beav for baubles in New Orleans, or giving sneak peeks for drunken grins. Every now and then, a little soft-core porn wiggles its way onto the screen, but for the most part, this is dorm-room drinking-game material--chug a beer for every flash of pink. The movie-a-month line is soft-soft-core, playing like Cinemax sin, while the Playboy TV line is a little harder, still without scenes of penetration. The Playboy Home Video line is still where you'll see Playmates, an hour-long centerfold without all that text getting in the way.

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