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December 03, 2000 05:48pm
Sexual Politics Have no Ifs, Ands or Butts
Source: Reuters/Variety
by: Peter Bart

(HOLLYWOOD, CA) -- OK, since politics is hopeless, let's try to figure out where this country is heading on a more interesting issue - sex.

Our politicians and opinion polls stridently tell us standards should be tightened in film and TV. We don't want all this smut intruding upon our pop culture.

Sure. That's why porn is booming on the Internet, why the covers of women's magazines are emblazoned with headlines about sex toys, and why our major cable systems have just started carrying hardcore channels. That's also why Showtime launched a promotional blitzkrieg last week to support its new series ``Queer as Folk, `` which intends to do for gay sex what HBO's ``Sex and the City'' has done for the straights.

Do you sense some ambiguity here?

Starting with de Toqueville, the pundits have been telling us that this is a nation of mixed messages, and the elections have certainly dramatized this phenomenon.

Voters, we are told, feel strongly about the issues, yet cannot decide between two boring, middle-aged white patricians who share a strong sense of familial entitlement. Presidential politics has become the opposite of so-called meritocracy -- it's a demeritocracy. So are we trending right or left? Again, mixed messages.

The political gridlock has spilled over into our pop culture. We have compliance officers at the studios policing marketing policies. A ``get tough'' message has been delivered to the ratings office. Sex is out. Only ``Grinch'' is a cinch.

Do people want to know what's suitable for children? Yes, but they also want to learn what's hot for adults.

Take cable: Five of the top eight major cable systems now carry the hardcore Hot Network, with AT&T signing on most recently, according to an update in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal. The Hot Network is the brainchild of Vivid Entertainment, which itself has become a hot company that plans to go public shortly.

Vivid's message is that people don't want all this ``T&A'' softcore stuff any more -- they want the real thing. Their success has influenced Playboy to augment its relatively tame Spice channels with Spice Platinum, which, ads suggest, ``will get exxxactly to the point.'' We get the message.

The Journal reminds us that Vivid has penetrated the $4 billion porn industry through savvy strategy. It gives cable operators an 80% cut of every dollar, compared with a 50-50 split on Hollywood films.

It's also unique in that it signs top talent to exclusive contracts, a throwback to the old Hollywood studio system. No one suggests that the ``Vivid Girls'' will remind anyone of Hepburn or Lombard, but they've given the company a certain branding.

Vivid's shows are formulaic -- people talk a little and then they have sex -- but it seems to work. On pay-per-view their shows are purchased at up to four times the rate of softcore.

Needless to say, this formula flies well in Europe as well. Vivid's shows are distributed in 40 countries overseas, with Vivendi's Canal Plus predictably ranking as a major pipeline.

But Europe has always been more open-minded about sex than the U.S. -- or at least than that loud-mouth Puritan sector of the U.S. Now American programmers are testing how far the envelope can be pushed.

The networks are transplanting so-called ``reality shows'' like ``Chains of Love'' to the U.S., while removing much of the sexual innuendo. Hence ``reality'' U.S.-style is about people struggling to survive without having much fun along the way.

``Queer as Folk,'' the new Showtime series, will try to take this a step forward. The much-hyped show will depict guys mating, kissing and getting it on -- albeit not as explicitly as Vivid might show it.

Surely the remarkable success of HBO's ``Sex and the City'' propelled Showtime on its expensive new adventure, but some believe Showtime's deep thinkers may be misguided.

Audiences, they reason, may be ready to accept hard-core action, but not gay action. They may embrace the Vivid Girls, but not the Vivid Boys. Listening to the ``Sex and the City'' girls on HBO talk about anal sex may be titillating for that audience, but actually observing it on ``Queer as Folk'' may prove a turnoff.

But then again, who knows? All that's certain is that social attitudes, like voting habits, are both ambiguous and unpredictable. That, indeed, may provide the strength of our pop culture, if also the weakness of our politics.

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