Porn-shy cable TV giant goes hard core

Switch: Adelphia cable TV scraps its high moral stand to embrace triple-X pornography.

February 05, 2005|By Sallie Hofmeister | Sallie Hofmeister,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES - Porn is suddenly sexy to a cable TV company once considered the industry prude.

Adelphia Communications Corp. has quietly become the United States' only leading cable operator to offer the most explicit category of hard-core porn. The company began making triple-X-rated programming available yesterday for the first time in a major media market, Southern California.

Adelphia said the programming would also become available in other cities.

"People want it, so we are trying to provide it," Adelphia spokeswoman Erica Stull said. "The more X's, the more popular."

Stull stressed that the programming, supplied by Playboy Enterprises Inc., would not be advertised and could be blocked to prevent children from watching. It will be delivered through video-on-demand technology, available now to about two-thirds of Adelphia's 1.2 million Southern California subscribers.

The move is a radical departure for Adelphia, the nation's fifth-largest cable provider and Southern California's largest. Five years ago, Adelphia stirred a local controversy by dropping Spice - a popular soft-porn channel - from newly acquired cable systems in Southern California because Adelphia founder John J. Rigas considered X-rated programming immoral.

Today, the 80-year-old Rigas and one of his sons are facing prison terms after being convicted last summer of looting the company and engaging in fraudulent accounting.

Adelphia, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2002, currently is on the block. Last year, the company's new management began offering softer porn in various areas of the country and, in recent months, has introduced the hardest-core programming in a few markets.

Cable executives said Adelphia's decision to air hard-core porn was unlikely to scare bidders in the current auction. Some predicted that if Adelphia subscribers flock to the new triple-X programs, other cable operators could follow.

Adelphia, which is based in Greenwood Village, Colo., joins a marketplace already teeming with ways to procure graphic sexual content.

The Internet has become a carnal cornucopia, with graphic images, videos and cartoons. Satellite providers also have gotten in on the act. EchoStar Communications Corp., the nation's second-ranked satellite TV provider, has offered triple-X for several years on its Dish Network. Satellite leader DirecTV Group Inc., owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., peddles fare that falls just shy of triple-X.

20 percent share

Some industry experts say explicit programming has been a key reason satellite providers have carved out a 20 percent share of the pay TV market.

"It's scary how much money is made on porn," said Tim Connelly, editor and publisher of Adult Video News, an industry trade magazine that estimates that when strip clubs, magazines, the Internet, TV and DVDs are included, porn is a $10 billion industry. "That's more than Hollywood makes at the box office. And it just grows and grows and grows. It's mainstream now."

Despite an outcry among some religious organizations, parent groups and political figures over the coarsening content coming into homes, the "indecency" backlash could lead to even more graphic content on subscription services.

"The conservative groups that want to clean up the airwaves have forced people looking for racier stuff to pay for it," said Bill Asher, co-chairman of Vivid Entertainment Group of Van Nuys, Calif., the world's largest producer of adult programming. "It's given pay TV more authority to go further than before."

Insiders and analysts estimate that consumers spend more than $1 billion a year buying sexually graphic movies and other explicit fare on TV through pay-per-view and video-on-demand services. (That's not counting orders from hotel rooms, where 50 percent of all movies purchased are from the adult category.)

The revenues have quadrupled since the late 1990s, when cable operators first began moving beyond "soft" porn to embrace double-X fare.

Today, analysts say, adult programming gives cable and satellite distributors their highest profit margins. Such suppliers of adult programming as New Frontier Media Inc. and Playboy get 5 percent to 15 percent of the average $9 consumers pay for a movie, according to industry sources. By comparison, distributors typically give Hollywood studios half of the revenue on pay-per-view movies, which usually cost less than $5 per rental.

Viewer ire feared

Although the prospect of more money is enticing, most cable TV providers have been hesitant to move beyond double-X-rated movies for fear of inciting the anger of investors, subscribers and local politicians. But Adelphia executives say that new digital technology, which allows programs to be blocked, has given them more comfort and cover in offering hard-core fare to subscribers.

Adelphia's new strategy also has opened new opportunities for Playboy, which is providing triple-X programming to television for the first time.

"We're all public companies that want to make a lot of money," said James F. Griffiths, Playboy's top entertainment executive. "Playboy needs to supply whatever programming our distributors need to be successful. What do customers want? All you have to do is look at what's available on the Internet."

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