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May 10, 2001 08:35pm
Demise of Sex Chat Web Site Points to Frigid Times
Source: TheStandard.com
by: Elinor Abreu

The digital equivalent of Hugh Hefner's 1969 "Playboy After Dark" TV cocktail hour is about to have its plug pulled.

San Francisco-based Bianca's Smut Shack is scheduled to shut down Friday unless its operators can find additional funding. Founders of the Web site have been negotiating with parent Nerve magazine, which offers erotic images and articles, for weeks to try to keep Bianca online.

"We're still talking," David Thau, a founder of Bianca's, said in a brief interview Thursday. Later, in a statement posted to the Web site, Thau said: "It looks like we're close to an agreement that will keep Bianca's going." In the meantime, the Web site was moved to a new "bandwidth provider," where the site will reside for a few days as the company tries to get a deal in place.

Bianca.com has offered people a site to post homepages and personal ads, as well as chit-chat about sex since February 1994. Forums, with names such as "Pillow Talk Lounge," "Altar Room" and "Closet," allow for freewheeling discussion and role-play similar to what the founders reportedly enjoyed with friends in a Chicago apartment they lived in prior to 1994.

The popularity of the virtual smut shack community quickly spilled out into the real world and some of the parties the group hosts have become legendary for their raunchiness. Bianca's campsite at the Burning Man arts festival, which features scores of beds and couches and servers handing out grilled cheese sandwiches, is one of the most popular gathering spots at the annual event.

The offline activities, which are promoted online, are sure to continue regardless of what happens to the commercial Web site.

Bianca's faces the same problem scores of content and community sites face. While it has proven popular with users, advertisers haven't been as enthusiastic. It relies solely on the revenues generated by its $29.95 per year membership fee and the company can't afford employees' salaries or the $9,000 it costs each month to cover its bandwidth.

The paradox of Bianca's is that sex in general, and pornography in particular, is one of the few categories of content sites that had been able to make money. But even that appears to be changing.

"The category is fighting for the same thing [advertising dollars] even Time magazine is, and that is in a soft advertising market," said Patrick Keane, senior analyst at market research firm Jupiter Media Metrix.

The fact that most people would rather look at nude photos than read about erotic activities also works against Bianca, which primarily houses stories and anecdotes. Community-oriented Web sites, including struggling TheGlobe.com and TalkCity.com, have failed to pay off, Keane noted.

Heavyweights will still shine. Playboy, which gets 1.4 million unique visitors per month compared with Bianca's 460,000 unique visitors in March, reports that its e-commerce and subscription revenues are offsetting sluggish ad sales. But even Playboy.com can't turn a profit; it lost $5 million last quarter even as revenues rose 17 percent, the company said this week.

Nerve acquired Bianca.com in 1999, a year after Zapata, an energy-producer-turned-fish-processor founded by George W. Bush Sr., attempted to buy it. Texas-based Zapata planned to create a portal out of a bunch of Web sites, but then backed out when the market went south.

If Bianca's survives, it won't be the first time it has overcome a significant business challenge. Tandy sued Bianca's in 1997 to try to get the Web site from using the Smut Shack name, arguing that it was too similar to its Radio Shack brand. The case was settled out of court.

If the site shuts down, Bianca fans will mourn more than the passing of just a Web site. "The sense of community that comprises Bianca, online and off, is much more about love, art, spirit and open conversation than it is about sex," said community member James Home in an e-mail interview. "The closure of Bianca's is the closure of the very first place on the Web that successfully provided an environment for that. I don't think you can dismiss its passing without also dismissing the importance of improving our sexual understanding of ourselves."

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