It's not just for cable anymore. Pornography as plot device has pushed the sex industry onto mainstream networks as TV execs follow the money.
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published November 6, 2003
[Times art: Steve Madden]
Ask "gentleman pornographer" Clive McLean for the biggest sign that mainstream TV outlets are tapping the porn industry more than ever, and he won't talk about the time E! Entertainment Television's The Anna Nicole Show visited one of his photo shoots for Hustler magazine's Barely Legal imprint.
Or his appearance last year at the beginning of PBS' Frontline documentary on the trade, American Porn. Instead, he'll talk about the latest TV outlet to document his curiously domesticated work life.
American Movie Classics.
In The AMC Project: I Want to Be Clive McLean, independent filmmaker Peter Mattei shadows McLean, a veteran porn photographer and video director whose Barely Legal film and magazine series has reportedly earned $10-million for porn king Larry Flynt's Hustler empire. The film, airing at 10 p.m. Nov. 17, visits McLean's expansive California ranch and explores his near-30-year career on a cable network once known as a haven for old-school film icons such as Steve McQueen, Cary Grant and Lauren Bacall.
"I think they would have run a mile from this subject matter. . . . They wouldn't have touched it five or six years ago," said McLean of the network, which has recently recast itself as a showcase for edgy documentaries and films such as Halloween 2 and Alien Resurrection. "Because of (films) like Boogie Nights, HBO's Sex and the City and Real Sex . . . people realize (the subject is) a great source of entertainment."
And money. Because an industry that earns an estimated $10-billion annually has to have more than a few fans with Nielsen ratings boxes on their TVs and disposable income for advertisers' wares.
"I think it's proven that sex equals ratings. . . . So everybody's trying to find a unique way to package sex with some other vehicle and bring it to the public," said Adam Glasser, a porn director and actor better known as Seymore Butts. "It's part of the natural evolution of TV. Lines are continuously drawn in the sand, and those lines are continuously crossed."
Glasser's unconventional work and home life, which includes running a porn empire with his mother and cousin, has been turned into a successful reality show for Showtime, Family Business. Now beginning a second season with the premium cable network, Glasser is blunt about porn's appeal to more conventional TV programmers.
"It's all about money," he said, noting that Family Business' premiere this year - produced by the people behind CBS's Big Brother series - was the highest-rated nonspecial event in Showtime's history.
"Look at how Fox has built its brand on edgy programming featuring violence and sexual overtones. It just so happens my life is a perfect vehicle for some of that."
Beyond McLean's and Glasser's projects, the list of porn-related projects on mainstream TV is becoming extensive.
This season's high-profile project was Fox's new series from CSI producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Skin, starring Ron Silver as a Bob Guccione-style pornographer who is more ethical and a better family man than the district attorney trying to incarcerate him. However, it was plagued by bad ratings, and Fox canceled it after Monday's episode.
Porn star Ron Jeremy is filming the WB's reality show The Surreal Life 2, in which he lives in a house over 11 days with D-list celebrities that include former evangelist Tammy Faye (Bakker) Messner and rapper Vanilla Ice. Jeremy said the show's producers asked him to participate in the series after watching him on the game show Weakest Link.
"(Messner) tries to preach the Bible to everybody, but she has a real live-and-let-live attitude," said a sleep-deprived Jeremy, calling from the Surreal Life house last Thursday to assure there had been no fights between the Jewish porn star and the born-again Christian. "She's a honey."
While running as a candidate in California's gubernatorial recall election, porn star Mary Carey appeared on a host of mainstream media outlets, including The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Fox News Channel, CBS's The Early Show and Los Angeles WB affiliate KTLA, where she delivered a newscast weather report.
Carey is now scheduled to host a pay-per-view reality show in which 28 women will compete for a one-year contract as a porn actor.
HBO is filming a six-part documentary on the porn scene in California's San Fernando Valley, dubbed Pornucopia. Present and former porn stars Jenna Jameson, Traci Lords and Ginger Lynn Allen have their own E! True Hollywood Story episodes and gotten guest roles in mainstream TV shows including Mister Sterling, Profiler, Gilmore Girls and First Wave. And TV shows including Friends, Coupling, NYPD Blue, Law & Order, Nip/Tuck and Sex and the City have used jokes and story lines playing off the mainstream's growing familiarity with erotica and pornography.
TV's fascination with erotica is nothing new. Hugh Hefner starred in a TV show called Playboy After Dark in the late '60s.
But people on all sides of the issue agree that mainstream TV outlets are accessing porn-centered stars, subjects and series more than ever, seeing the sex industry as a new way to entice viewers.
"I just think people are fascinated with this," said Melody Fox, a writer on Fox's Skin. "If I tell people, "Oh, I just had lunch with Jenna Jameson,' everyone knows who she is. (Pornographers) say they're making billions of dollars in profit. Even if people don't think it's in the mainstream, there just aren't that many guys in raincoats."
But those who believe pornography is harmful fear that the rising tide of porn-related TV projects will ease viewers' acceptance of the source material, disguising its ill effects and spreading its usage.
Diana E.H. Russell, a social psychologist and professor at Mills College in California, has written extensively on studies showing how pornography teaches men to objectify women, increases their misconceptions about sex and encourages them to disregard women's needs to focus on their pleasure.
Russell described a "continuum of pornography" in which material previously considered explicit is accepted by nonpornographic outlets, filtering images from hard-core adult products to less explicit "soft-core" brands such as Playboy and down to so-called "lad mags" such as Maxim and FHM.
"This is a sex-obsessed culture. . . . This all works to desensitize and normalize this material," she said. "It works as positive propaganda, (teaching men) that using women however they want to use them is okay. Whatever they want is okay in pornography. . . . People see it as all voluntary and, in some of these TV shows, quite cool."
That's a theory echoed by Melissa Caldwell, a researcher for the Parents Television Council, an advocacy group that has ardently opposed the spread of profanity and sexually oriented material on prime-time television.
"Twenty years ago, there may have been lots of consumers of pornography, but it wasn't discussed openly," said Caldwell, who contended that Hollywood is pushing a pro-porn agenda on a resistant public. "But when you have TV characters discussing it openly, and they don't seem to be perverts, it sends the message that there's no longer a stigma associated with it. People feel less uncomfortable about consuming these products . . . and pornography is highly addictive."
Caldwell also fears that mainstream depictions of pornography may downplay its dark side, including the industry's connections to organized crime, exploitation of the mostly female models and the way in which some people are driven to seek increasingly intense forms of the material over time.
The council targeted Skin for protest in particular, calling it "a cheap attempt to glorify the porn industry."
"This is the first instance I'm aware of, of any prime-time TV show focusing so closely on the pornography industry," said Caldwell, who added that the series' poor ratings is evidence the public rejected the concept.
"How many people, especially people in the entertainment industry, do you see getting upset about characters smoking? But they don't get upset if they're promiscuous, or work in the sex industry."
Fox, the Skin writer, said the series had hoped to play with the moral tension between a family man who works as a pornographer, noting that creator Jim Leonard hit on the idea while mulling a series idea about a vice cop who discovers his daughter is a prostitute.
But because the show was focusing on a romance between the teen daughter of Silver's pornographer and the son of the district attorney character, Fox said, viewers who were tuning in for an extensive behind-the-scenes glimpse of the adult film industry were going to be disappointed.
Why has porn become so accepted in mainstream entertainment? Experts cite three factors: cable TV pay-per-view erotica, home video rentals and the Internet.
All three sources offer a way to peruse such material in relative privacy - a survey by the trade publication Adult Video News pegged adult home video rentals at $2-billion - by displaying adult material on such mainstream devices as the home television and personal computer.
"It's more readily accessible . . . so everybody has access to the most current (material)," said Mark Kulkis, president of Kick A- Pictures and the architect of Carey's gubernatorial run. "It's hard to say something's obscene when you've got millions of people buying it and bringing it into their homes."
Kulkis hit on the idea of Carey's candidacy as a way to promote his company's most visible star. He quickly learned that mainstream news outlets were eager to feature Carey as an illustration of the absurdity of the recall contest, providing a deluge of free exposure.
"This was an opportunity for some dry, mainstream media to sex up their stories," said Kulkis, noting that a TV commercial he produced for Carey was shown for free on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live, Extra, Access Hollywood, CNN, Fox News Channel and many other mainstream outlets. "They can boost their viewership, but they don't have to compromise their journalistic values."
In these porn-friendly times, Glasser's Seymore Butts persona has also become a brand, with offers for TV guest appearances, a book contract, movie roles, music video directing gigs and a spot judging a TV talent contest under discussion.
"I'm taking meetings now with people - agents, managers, book publishers - who never would have met with me years ago," said Glasser, who is writing a book (working title: How a Nice Jewish Boy Became Seymore Butts) and developing an adult party planning company that would organize and staff bachelor parties and other adult-oriented social events across the nation. "Every opportunity is being presented to me."
But Jeremy wondered if there might not be a backlash in all this merging.
Sure, he has nabbed guest roles on network TV shows Just Shoot Me, NewsRadio and Nash Bridges. But at a time when an Oscar-nominated actor supposedly performed a real-life sex act on film (Chloe Sevigny in Vincent Gallo's widely panned film The Brown Bunny), will people still pay to see a guy nicknamed "The Hedgehog" strut his stuff in adult films?
"Basically, the public wants to see a higher grade of porn, so that's why these worlds are colliding," Jeremy said. "(The Brown Bunny) enabled every porn actress to look at their family and say, "Get off my back. If it's good enough for Chloe Sevigny, it's good enough for me.' "
And for those who say such mainstream crossover glorifies an exploitive industry?
"A lot of the products provide a service for people. . . . They're educational, entertaining and help (inspire) good sex," said Glasser, noting that female adult film actors can make thousands of dollars a week, an income level they would have trouble matching in a mainstream job. "I probably know of certain cases where women are exploited . . . but that can happen in any workplace."
For Jeremy, it's all about honesty. "They try to sneak sex into advertising; they try to sneak it into R-rated movies. . . . At least porn is honest," he said. "It's the most honestly labeled industry there is."
Such comments come as expected, if discouraging, news for psychologist Russell, who predicts that such cross-pollination will continue and increase.
"Imagine if there were just as many movies about criminals having great success and being highly respected. . . . It would undermine people's morality about stealing," she said. "That's what's happened with pornography . . . and it's a process that happens without people realizing it."