It's a theory I've heard many before from such sober sources as The New York Times, which termed porn "the low-slung engine of progress" when it comes to new media technologies. The Times piece, now several years old, was referring to X-rated interactive CD-ROMs, which have remained something of a limited market, but I was reminded of it by an announcement from Digital Playground, a company first known for interactive products, that it would soon market adult programming specifically intended for use with Apple's new iPhone.
Theoretically, this technological advance, contrary to the grad student's core argument, could sell itself on the benefit of being able to view porn in public — not a good idea and certainly not the primary application DP had in mind.
Although the porno-techno connection has always been somewhat fraught on both sides of the equation, lately it's become something of an enmeshed co-dependency, seen as menacing from either perspective.
Sony doesn't relish the idea of XXX Blu-ray discs and adult DVD manufacturers have come to regard the Internet as the biggest menace since Ed Meese. There's an awkward paradigm shift going on and you can practically hear the gears grinding, to use a somewhat technologically antiquated metaphor.
This has happened before in non-sex media, as I've pointed out in previous columns referring to the impact of broadcast TV on feature films. What began as brutal competition eventually evolved into synergy, and I believe the current stresses between physical product and Web-based business models will ultimately do the same.
The magic, stress-relieving elixir may well turn out to be a simple thing called licensing. It's working right now in the music business and its tonic effects are starting to appear in the more forward-thinking precincts of Porn Valley. It's time to stop thinking of what XXX producers make as "videos" and start thinking of them as "content." However obvious this assertion may seem, much of this business is having a hard time wrapping its mind around it.
Since the days when VCRs were the size of pianos and nearly as expensive, most of us have thought of the end-products of our labors as something purchased, however furtively, at a brick-and-mortar store and smuggled into the house to be carefully squirreled away for nocturnal viewing.
The prevailing view at the time I got into making dirty pictures was that the box containing them was more crucial to revenues than what was inside. Boxes got bigger and flashier and more expensive even as video products themselves largely abandoned production value in favor of speed and economy.
Even when the advent of the DVD spelled the doom of the big box, we remained stuck on the out-the-door sales number as the metric of success for the pictures we made. Companies that continue to justify or restrict production budgets on the basis of those figures are likely to eventually conclude that adult entertainment is simply too expensive to create at a profit no matter how hard the last nickel is squeezed.
But this is where our thinking about technology needs to advance beyond the question of how we make our products — whether or not to shoot them in hi-def, for example — to the way in which we define them as intellectual property. A movie is a movie is a movie, regardless of where and how it's viewed. Its dollar-value is ultimately determined by how many people pay to see it rather than the means by which they do so.
The wrenching conundrum presented by this none-to-profound truth is that, given the lower unit price an incorporeal bit-stream can command when compared to a disk in a clamshell, a whole lot more buyers have to line up to achieve the same return on investment.
OK, so the bad news is that a burnable download is still going to price out below a DVD. The good news, however, is that the potential points of purchase for the former are far more numerous than for the latter, and much cheaper to service. Real old-timers know just how much money there is in arcades, even it it's collected in quarters. In that sense, everything old is new again.
While I still maintain that DVDs are nowhere near extinction and will always remain an important part of the market mix for any sizable production company, high-speed Internet connections are producing an explosion in revenues for telecom providers and, as the technology for streaming video improves and the price of it drops, our dependence on the costly and cumbersome process of authoring, duping, packaging, storing and shipping DVDs will decrease.
The investment in creating content has already been downsized too far in my opinion, resulting in a loss of quality that alienates porn consumers, but the cost of delivering it to larger numbers of potential customers can and will shrink dramatically as the available means of distribution proliferate.
DP's iPhone play isn't just a typically smart move by a particularly smart outfit, it's a glimpse of a better tomorrow for the rest of us. Not only can we sell digital versions of our products off our own company-operated sites, we can move them through theoretically unlimited delivery channels all over the world without having pay a single UPS bill. We can upload them to hotel systems, virtual retail outlets, satellite nets, cell phone hubs and the expanding field hardcore cable operators. That's a lot of gross eyeballs (if you'll pardon the expression) we can reach if we stop clinging to physical product sales as the base of our bottom lines.
While digital delivery certainly exacerbates the problem of piracy, that risk is somewhat offset by the diminished legal hassles that accompany interstate shipment of finished pieces.
And the best part of the new technological paradigm is that it doesn't have to annihilate the previous one, anymore than TV annihilated feature films. We can still make those big shows and sell them on disc while using clips, streams, serials and niche titles to create brand identity for our companies and buzz for our more ambitious productions.
If we're going to stay in business, we need to learn to make new technologies work for us instead of against us. It's not as hard as it sounds.