High-Tech Tokens

Ernest Greene
The first quarter of 2009 is nearly over, and it won't be missed in our business or many others. As the other components of the economy that employ our customers suffer, and those customers either lose their jobs or start buttoning their wallet pockets in fear of losing them, our numbers will show the impact.

While "staycations" and the need for distraction will continue to offset these challenges to some extent (noted with interest a bit of a bump in sales of sex-ed videos recently, suggesting that more people may be tuning up their sex lives with all that freed up time not spent at the mall), we're not going to see any real relief until our clientele does.

But while we've been sweating through the hard months with our eyes fixed on the near horizon, something bigger and more specific to our long-term prospects raises a dust cloud just beyond the next ridge.

While most the X-rated press was focused on the lack of luster at AEE this year, scant notice was paid to a new gizmo exhibited amid all the skin. An outfit called FyreTV rolled out its set-top "BoXXX" that would give subscribers instant access to a vast library of X-rated video content, streamed wirelessly straight to the consumer's TV with zero download time. The roster of content providers already signed on is a pretty good indicator of how big a deal this could really be. When you've got Wicked Pictures, Evil Angel, Elegant Angel, Red Light District, Adam & Eve Pictures, New Sensations, JM Productions, Teravision and Kick Ass Pictures on board already, you're looking at some serious bandwidth.

Part of the charm of this latest gadget is the way it helps the user navigate the vast ocean of content with a computer-like search capability, allowing viewers to find favorite performers, favorite scene types, whole features or short clips. This is a big advance over VOD, which is still largely driven by title purchase.

Remember what I said last time about the return of the arcade system? We didn't have to wait long. Beyond the basic membership (which is good for about one hundred minutes of viewing time), FyreTV sells "credits," that are worth about a minute of running time each; much like a physical token. Upgraded memberships offer longer segments, but the retail platform is basically token-driven.

How big an impact this particular venture will have on the industry depends on its ability to deliver on some big promises. It will need to be as user-friendly and dependable as the DVD player before it poses much of a threat to either physical media or existing adult web operations. FyreTV launched a slightly bulkier version the previous year that hasn't yet attracted a lot of takers. Even though the new model can deliver a hi-def picture, the service doesn't provide them yet and that leaves the whole proposition stuck in a transitional state for the moment.

But the fusion of computer and video technology that The Boxx represents is inevitable. As viewers become more selective in a tighter consumer economy, they're likely to buy those "tokens" in whatever form for exactly what they want when they want it, no more, no less.

The computer already handles the selection part of the process pretty well. A little practice with any search engine will fairly handily take a potential customer to whatever virtual storefront offers the right kind of merchandise. There is a lot of junk to wade through in pursuit of certain specific content elements, and the dangerous temptation of various fraudulent imitations awaits the unwary or unscrupulous. But basically, you can get what you want in the way of XXX material on the web.

But there are some things you can't get, such as comfortable. The experience of watching porn while sitting up at a desk is not the same as watching porn from a couch or in bed. Another thing you can't be is in a hurry. Computer downloads, even with high-speed connections and fast processors, isn't exactly instantaneous. Often it's a real-time operation: pay now, watch in a couple of hours. That's an imperfect delivery system to an impulse-driven market.

And then there's the quality of what you get from the PC. It's screen will be smaller and its speakers far less capable than those of the mighty fifty-inch flat-screen in the living room. It may be fine for a quick and furtive wank, but if you want to see "Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge" in all its zillion-pixel glory, you'll still need to go out and rent or buy a physical copy.

But that trade-off won't always be necessary. Variations of The BoXXX with even more bells and whistles and services that support even the most demanding formats are headed our way, and pretty soon. At first, like most new entertainment technologies, they'll be pretty expensive and a bit clunky on the job. They'll also be fairly rare, as not that many consumers will be willing to install yet another gadget in family territory expressly for looking at porn.

But within about five years, a single set-top box capable of delivering full HD signal from a variety of different services offering everything from the latest Hollywood release to a remastered "Behind the Green Door" to a do-it-yourself comp of all-redheads-giving-BJs, with billable time sold in bundles, packages or increments will set several industries on their ears, including ours.

Conventional cable, satellite and broadcast providers will have the hardest time making the adjustment. They'll need to make deals with this new devil, which will be hungry for its share of a cash flow already parsed out into ever-narrowing niches. The DVD-is-dead doomsayers will truly have a point at last. The desire to own some nicely packaged physical material will remain, as mainstream Hollywood has already discovered to its relief despite bitter competition from cable, sat and PPV. But the number of XXX products that will make the cut for DVD will inevitably contract when onetime and/or viewer-specific choices become the predominant delivery mode.

If you're in the DVD duplicating business, now is probably a good time to look at diversification, to understate the matter.

However, if you're in the business of creating content, this change at the other end of the consumption chain doesn't really change your primary task much. You still need to create hot, attractive images to turn on an audience with which your particular products resonate. You may be selling those products as story-driven long-forms, or you may be back to the loop thing I suggested last time. Either way, if what you make serves the primary objective of an exciting viewing experience, you'll be able to sell it straight into the buyer's TV set just as you would have sold it on Beta in the first generation of VCR.

But sell it by wire you will, sooner or later. That's the message inside The Boxx: think tokens.