Numero Uno

When Channel 1 Releasing followed up its purchase of the All World Video collection last year with the acquisition of the Catalina Video line, it became the world's largest gay video company. Many of the company's more than 2,000 titles are going to DVD for the first time, some of them having spent more than two decades in video-only format since their creation in the 1980s.

But Channel 1, which refers to itself often as C1R, isn't resting on those laurels. The firm has launched a new affiliate program in MPA-3, and the early returns on it are compelling.

"It's a really incredible buffer for trafficking," beams Rob Novinger, Managing Partner of Channel 1.

"We pay out webmasters directly, and this week, we're launching our new free product, 'Chi Chi LaRue's Live and Raw.' It's been around since 2003, and always was a product that we sold to webmasters, but we took it off the market for a while, because that industry was kind of going away. Now we're making it a free product for webmasters to use on their sites, to upsell video-on-demand [VOD]. The fact that it's a free webmaster upsell program sells the VOD, which right now probably is one of the most popular things you can upsell."

The new affiliate program and the free product come on the heels of last year's complete revamping of the C1R sites. Next step will be the re-launching of "Dirk Yates Live," which the five managing partners of Channel 1 think will be an enormous success.

"It's an amateur all-military theme, and it will be available about the time this article comes out," says Novinger. "Dirk Yates was one of the first to do the amateur all-military stuff. This new site will encompass about 20 year's worth of Dirk's movies, the old stuff and the new stuff, because he's still directing DVDs for us. These will be exclusive to the website."

The affiliates are responding well to the new tweaks, and the firm is enjoying quite a few new signups every week, according to Novinger.

"I think they'll be excited about this program," he adds. "They're definitely excited that we've changed our payout system to one that's really respected in the industry. People really didn't like our old affiliate program. They thought it was a little difficult to use, so we spent the past six months upgrading to this new system, which is very costly, but hopefully it will make the experience better, and the payouts better. We heard all kinds of flack from our webmasters on the NATS program, which was something we had been considering. So we took a more costly route, and went on this other avenue to avoid those issues. It's up and running right now, and we put out a press release on it a couple of weeks ago. We've already had a ton of signups because of it."

Of course, new programs and free content are important reasons why Channel 1 enjoys its continued dominance in the gay marketplace, but Novinger is positive that the real key lies in a human factor — Chi Chi LaRue.

"We have the biggest, loudest drag queen on the planet," Novinger says of his C1R partner. "He lives to travel. He loves to do personal appearances. He loves to deejay. Sometimes he performs."

LaRue's popularity and recognizability has mushroomed in recent months, thanks to his appearances on television shows like HBO's "Pornucopia," and in various documentaries on the adult industry. It's come to the point where the brash performer can't even check his bags in an airport — out of drag, of course — without being set upon by fans.

"I have a really good time, because I like meeting people," says LaRue. "I've met a lot of crazy people, because I'm on the road constantly. I probably make two to four personal appearances per month. I've become friends with a lot of other drag queen performers in other towns. There are a lot of freaky, fabulous people out there in the world."

LaRue mixes his road appearances with Channel 1's innovative "Star Search" program, in which he seeks the title performer for his next "Powertool" movie, to be released in the firm's Catalina line. This will be the third in the "Powertool" series, which launched Jeff Stryker's performing career when the first movie debuted decades ago.

"We've just put out the 25th anniversary edition of that title, and repackaged 'Powertool II,'" says Novinger. "Now we're getting ready to start production on 'Powertool III,' whenever Chi Chi finds the right model."

That may take some time, however, because LaRue is extremely particular about his checklist for the right performer.

"Lots of great guys are applying," LaRue explains, "but I want to find someone who combines all three elements for the part — a great body, a great face, and a great dick. It's hard to find guys with all three of those things.

"I meet applicants before the gig and after the gig. A lot of time, people don't want to stand in front of their home town and admit they want to be a porn star. They'd rather talk about it in private. I did find a really fabulous boy who wouldn't work for 'Powertool,' but he's coming out this month to do another movie for us. If I can find models while I'm on the road, then it's good."

The Channel 1 in-person search for models seems to be working as an effective public relations gambit, too, if not as a quick way to discover the right male lead for "Powertool III." According to Novinger, it was an idea that all of his partners embraced.

"The star search is something that companies used to do a long time ago, but it hasn't been done recently," he says. "The Internet has made a lot of studios used to people coming to them, sending in their photos and videos. But a lot of times, you can't get the perfect person that way. With Chi Chi being on the road all the time, doing all these smaller cities, he really comes into contact with so many people."

Chi Chi's road show also allows him to spread his gospel, urging gay filmmakers to stop making bareback movies, and follow Channel 1's lead. Since its inception C1R has made it a creed to produce condoms-only movies.

"I've been talking about safer sex since I got into the business," says LaRue. "I hope that, by example, our company is having an effect on some of the other companies. But there are rumblings in the industry that a certain major company may start doing bareback, and I hope that's not true."

To reach a wider audience with his message, LaRue recently made a public service video, which can be viewed on the site.

"It's causing quite a stir," says Novinger. "We are all in agreement on condom-only movies, and we think it's just crazy that some companies are still making bareback movies. We will not ever make barebacking content.

"The gay market has split into two separate businesses, because the bareback thing has divided the industry. Bareback provides an easy entrance into the business for new companies, but the older, more stable companies can afford not to do something that is so irresponsible. The bareback thing also separates the gay market from the straight market, because AIDS testing just doesn't work at all in the gay industry. I know Sharon Mitchell [Director of the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation] tells us that we need to test, but quite frankly, according to my doctor, there's a two-week latency period where it may not even show up. You can be infected and still go in for a test and show a negative.

"We don't have the ability to take these guys, test them twice, and hold them in some sort of quarantine until we're ready to make the movie. The result is that you have to match positive people with positive people who are willing to do that, and any doctor will tell you that's not something they advise doing. So we just take the easy way, doing condom-only movies. We've had performers who are retired now, thanking Chi Chi for always using condoms in his movies, because they're still negative. That's what we believe every gay man should do in his personal life, so why not just do it on the video?"

The complexities of AIDS testing isn't the only thing that separates the gay and straight markets, according to Novinger. After 10 years of distributing DVDs — Channel 1 is the only gay company that distributes its own products — he's noticed some important aspects that are peculiar to the gay customer.

"More than any other industry, the gay consumer will pay more for quality," he says. "The straight industry is definitely more disposable, where customers want more for less money. In the gay market, there's a larger group of people who will pay for a more expensive product, and that's how we set ourselves apart from the competition. We give them DVDs in beautiful, four-paneled boxes that also contain a book and a calendar. That way, we make it a whole experience, instead of just throwing a disk into a black emery case that costs us 35 cents.

"The DVD market is getting tougher, and anybody who tells you it hasn't is totally full of shit. But for us, it's gone down less, because we make a point to do something interesting, whether it's the location, or who's performing, or the packaging of the movie. You've got to be creative, rather than just let the business fly. Even our cheaper product now is going into these clear jewel DVD cases, which really makes the product look sharp. It's just a little extra, so when somebody takes it home, they think they would probably buy this product again."

And as to why the gay consumer is more particular about what he buys, Novinger believes he has the answer to that, too.

"They're bitchy queens," he says. "They're definitely more fussy and particular, whereas a straight guy is more happy to get something out of the $9.99 bin. The old gay porn industry ran on the vibe of, 'Sell them something once, and move on.' You can't do that anymore. You have to make sure that when they get the product home, you hit a home run. That way, you get them to buy another product from you."

These lessons were learned slowly over the last decade, after Channel 1 launched in the late 1990s. The company began when Novinger, LaRue, and two friends decided they needed a major change in their lives.

"My boyfriend and I were tired of what we were doing at the time," Novinger recalls, "and we knew Chi Chi and Jefferson Hitchcock, who worked at VCA for many years, and does some of the best box art in the industry. We gathered all these people together, and decided to do our own thing instead of working for other people. The timing was perfect, because Chi Chi wasn't happy with anything he was doing.

"We started slowly. In the beginning, we only had five titles, and the whole company was just four people. Now there are five business partners, including Tony Rios, who handles all the Internet aspects, and we have 25 people working in our office now."

It's no surprise that Channel 1 has grown so dramatically, according to Novinger, because of the areas stressed most by its partners.

"We have really great directors, and our products are high quality," he says. "Our box art is not comparable to anyone else's. We really strive for quality. Chi Chi always has been very adamant about that."