Porn Industry Gets F**ked in the A**

A recent feature article in the LA Times on the porn industry looks at the changes facing the business as it grapples with a major drop in revenue:

I'm as hard as a rock.

I'm as hard as a rock.

Industry insiders estimate that since 2007, revenue for most adult production and distribution companies has declined 30% to 50% and the number of new films made has fallen sharply.

“We’ve gone through recessions before, but we’ve never been hit from every side like this,” said Mark Spiegler, head of the Spiegler Girls talent agency, who has worked in porn since 1995.

But this is not another hard-luck story about the effects of the current recession; rather, it is a story about the detrimental effects of technology, globalisation and new forms of media distribution on a well-established business. Doing the most damage is the ready availability of free porn on the Internet:

“It’s the free stuff that’s killing us, and that’s not going away,” said Dion Jurasso, owner of porn production company Combat Zone, which has seen its business fall about 50% in the last three years.

There is irony in this. For years, the porn industry has grown fat on the back of ‘new’ technologies that helped build it up into a $13 billion-a-year business. Now, newer technologies may have effectively castrated it.

Historically, it was the domestic video player which became the first great driver in changing the porn industry and allowing it to blossom.  In an interesting symbiotic relationship, it was the ability to easily purchase and watch porn in the privacy of one’s own home that helped boost sales of these machines back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Furthermore, it was the porn industry with its early adoption of JVC’s VHS system that allowed the cheaper, lower quality tape format to triumph over Sony’s then-superior Betamax technology.

The effect of this was twofold: firstly, the sleazy porn theatre was consigned to the dust heap and, secondly, the price of making porn dropped with new video technologies and the opening up to massive new home markets. Greater demand meant that huge amount of cheap porn was being pumped out on a weekly basis.  Quality has never been an aspect of porn demanded by the viewer, so poor lighting, poor makeup, poor sound effects and very poor music became de rigueur. It also meant that virtually anyone could set up a porn operation and start cranking out the product. Any semblance of a plot went out the window in favour of getting straight to the action. All of this would later prove very detrimental to the industry.

If anything, the digital wave was even more beneficial to the business: digital media was cheaper and easier to copy and distribute, while digital cameras and editing software made filming and post-production vastly cheaper.  Pay-per-view cable further helped the industry to grow.

Then came the Internet.  During its big take-off phase in the late 1990s, it was often joked that the web was driven by porn.  Adult movie pay sites were springing up everywhere – a global market was now possible.

For a while all looked rosy.

But the cracks were starting to show–globalisation would prove to be a double-edged sword. While bigger markets were opened up, so too was the competition and huge amounts of cheap porn began flowing out of the Eastern European countries. The great thing about porn is that there is no language barrier to worry about when you are making it. Regardless of the nationality of the participants, a moan’s a moan in any language and we all know what the guy’s saying when there’s jizz flying everywhere.

But what those in porn could not foresee is that which has happened in the last two or three years. As broadband speeds have increased and data storage space has become larger, faster and cheaper, websites were created where the audience itself could upload huge amounts of material to be viewed free of charge by anyone who wished:

At least five of the 100 top websites in the U.S. are portals for free pornography, referred to in the industry as “tube sites,” (Tube8, my favourite!) according to Internet traffic ranking service Alexa .com.

Some of their content is amateur work uploaded by users and some is acquired from cheap back catalogs, but much of it is pirated.

You see, there is a paradox in this business: newer technologies made it easier and cheaper to pump out product, producing it on a massive scale. They also meant that virtually anyone could go into the business. But the upshot of this cheapness meant there was no industry support for a central controlling authority and, therefore, when copyright was infringed, no one to co-ordinate and pay for the litigation. Unlike the mainstream movie business with its massive legal muscle, the porn industry lacks the centralised organisation  necessary to protect their content.  Hollywood can also protect itself to a degree with slick production, big budgets, special effects and star power. So, the very ease and cheapness of creating independent productions has ended up being the industry’s greatest weakness.

But here’s the giant killer: unlike feature films or TV programmes, porn clips can be short. There is no need for a narrative because that’s not why people watch it and, besides, we all know what happens in the end.  Because of their complex narrative structures, mainstream  films and TV don’t work as ten minute snippets. Porn does. Not sure why, but it does! We don’t need to see the whole of a porno flick; just the small clips—or wanklets—are enough. Quickly stripped from longer movies, these wanklets can be easily posted online. Bang, free content, profit gone!

Oddly enough, there is one piece of technology—the mobile phone—that is keeping the porn industry’s hopes alive:

The only growth market most executives see is mobile devices, since they let consumers watch porn anywhere and in relative privacy.

Belief that this may be a saviour is based on what is already happening in Japan. Here, downloads of porn to mobile phones are not only driving the industry but the sheer volume of traffic is also threatening to overload the phone networks. The Japanese, it is reported, like to watch porn on their way to work on the subway.

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