July 11, 2001 01:08pm
Recent Stories Perpetuate Myths About Adult Industry
by: Emmanuelle Richard
I know from experience how hard it can be to report on the porn industry. Take the time, for example, when noted French director Pierre Woodman threatened to "gouge" my eyes out. Early on, I trusted too many things people said while looking me right in the eye, not realizing until later that many porn professionals actually believe their own lies.
Still, I ended up having some great experiences with remarkable, complicated persons such as French actor-director Christophe Clark [http://www.ChristopheClark.com], who would typically wind down after a tough day of sex by watching Jeopardy with his wife and going to bed by 9. These memories have come to mind over the past few months, as mainstream publications have tripped over themselves to run a rash of stories contrasting the allegedly booming porn business to the deflated Internet economy. Some of the articles have been excellent, but many created or perpetuated the very myths that continue to obscure an already opaque industry.
Now that news organization like the Los Angeles Times [http://LATimes.com/porn] and MSNBC [http://MSNBC.com] have established new porn beats, and everyone from The Guardian UK [http://guardian.co.uk] to The New York Times [http://NYT.com] are analyzing how the adult industry has survived the Internet bust, I thought it might be useful to list the four most commonly repeated myths about the sex business.
Myth 1: Porn is a $10 billion industry
"The $4 billion that Americans spend on video pornography is larger than the annual revenue accrued by either the NFL, the NBA or Major League Baseball. But that's literally not the half of it: the porn business is estimated to total between $10 billion and $14 billion annually in the United States when you toss in porn networks and pay-per-view movies on cable and satellite, Internet Web sites, in-room hotel movies, phone sex, sex toys and that archaic medium of my own occasionally misspent youth, magazines." "Naked Capitalists: There's No Business Like Porn Business," The New York Times Magazine, May 20, 2001
Is the porn business really worth that much? This cover story by Times senior writer and former theater critic Frank Rich triggered a latent, mostly online debate about the real size of the industry. Cyber porn reporter Luke Ford [http://LukeFord.com] ("Another Brash Web Columnist," OJR, July 9, 1998) wrote that "Rich did exactly what many journalists had done before: trotting out tired and unchecked numbers from a 1998 Forrester Research study [http://www.Forrester.com] ... and video sales stats from AVN" [http://AVN.com]. Adult Video News (AVN), the porn industry "bible," estimated last December that Americans spent $4 billion on adult video rentals in 2000, and that number has been widely quoted ever since.
http://Forbes.com "Top of the News" columnist Dan Ackman [http://dackman.homestead.com], for one, says that number is "baseless and widely inflated." In a point-by-point deconstruction of Rich's figures on May 25, Ackman cobbled together an estimate for the whole industry (including video, pay-per-view, Internet and magazines) at between $2.6 billion and $3.9 billion. "The idea that pornography is a $10 billion business is often credited to a study by Forrester Research. This figure gets repeated over and over. The only problem is that there is no such study," wrote Ackman, a lawyer-turned-journalist who had never previously covered porn. "In 1998, Forrester did publish a report on the online 'adult content' industry, which it pegged at $750 million to $1 billion in annual revenue. The $10 billion aggregate figure was unsourced and mentioned in passing." Ackman put the video segment at $500 million to $1.8 billion -- much less than AVN's $4 billion. "How Adult Video News gets this number is not clear. We asked Adult Video News' managing editor, Mike Ramone. 'I don't know the exact methodology,' he said, 'It's a pie chart.' Asked to break the figure down into sales versus rentals, a standard practice among those who cover the video industry, he said he didn't think it was available and suggested we call the editor-in-chief, who didn't return our calls."
In rushing to cover an interesting new subject, journalists have left their skepticism at the door, Ackman suggests: "Many have claimed [the porn industry] is large and profitable, especially on the Internet. Many of the claims are cut from whole cloth, but are accepted without question by the legitimate press. ... Certainly, self-interested statements by pornographers merit a second look." AVN executives lashed back May 31, defending their figures as "absolutely correct," and suggesting, "people who sit and throw stones and do absolutely no research ... should not be taken seriously." In an interview, AVN Editor Mike Ramone charged that Forbes.com ran a story a few days before Ackman's piece quoting an equity analyst as putting the size of the porn industry at $11 billion. "Ackman had no objectivity, and was out to do a smear piece on AVN in an attempt to save face after being scooped by a major competitor, The New York Times Magazine," Ramone said by e-mail. Ackman acknowledged Ramone was correct to point out Forbes.com's inconsistency. "I couldn't swear the number I produced there is right, because no one knows, but I think it's a reasonable estimate," he said in an interview. Ackman got the idea for his article after thinking the Rich piece "sounded kind of very phony," he said. When he saw Rich was citing Variety [http://Variety.com] as a source for the $10 billion number, he was even more suspicious. "I was surprised to learn that Variety reported on porn. ... I found out very quickly that they don't, and yet Frank Rich cited them as a source, which was nonsense because he knew that the number he used came from Adult Video News." The debate spilled over to eYada.com's Lovebytes [http://eYada.com] show, in which veteran actor and porn personality Bill Margold told Ackman: "In an industry predicated on screwing, you're going to get f*****. You honestly expect us to tell the truth about what we're making?" To which Ackman replied: "I expect people to lie to Frank Rich but I expect Frank Rich to exercise a little scrutiny and skepticism."
In an interview, Rich says he stands by his figures. "The genesis of my story is the realization that [porn] is a bigger business than what people tend to think," he explained. Rich said he worked on the story off and on for four months, and that his year of experience covering show business taught him to always be skeptical of sales numbers. "I did a tremendous amount of reporting on this," he says. "I used the Forrester Research figure, and there were larger figures that appeared in the Chicago Tribune [http://ChicagoTribune.com], the Economist [http://Economist.com]. I didn't talk to rival research outlets but I talked on background to a prominent research firm I can't name, and I went to companies involved in mass distribution of the products. I'm pretty comfortable with this figure."
Other journalists familiar with the industry say Ackman, in fact, nailed it pretty well. "It's the kind of piece I wanted to do," says David Whelan, an editor for American Demographics [http://www.Demographics.com], who once pursued putting together an infographic on the real size of the porn industry when he worked for Inside [http://Inside.com]. "When we realized we couldn't find reliable numbers we just canned the whole idea."
So, how big is porn? Tom Rhinelander, an analyst at Forrester Research, says he doesn't know whether the $10 billion figure misattributed to his company is true. "Since that study a few years ago, we just haven't revisited the numbers, we haven't updated it and we don't plan to from the supply side," he says. "I don't think anybody really knows," says Gerard Van der Leun, director of Penthouse [http://Penthouse.com]. "If you talk about the whole industry, from Penthouse.com to a small foot-fetish site - how you go around and make a real figure on that is beyond me. [Ackman] needs to smoke the clue-bong as much as anybody."
Gus Mastrapa, entertainment editor for Hustler, whose Hustler Video Guide competes with AVN, says he doesn't think sales are as high as the industry claims: "They're kind of following the example of Hollywood, that exaggerates budgets of films, grosses. It's called creative accounting, whatever they call it. It's exaggerations or downright lies." Even if reliable numbers were hard to come by, it would stand to reason that if porn were so lucrative, the industry would be crawling with rich people. Anecdotally, at least, that's not the case.
"They are not multi-zillionaires," said legendary 48-year-old actor Ron Jeremy [http://RonJeremy.com]. The owners of video companies like VCA [http://VCApictures.com], Leisure Time and Vivid [http://Vivid.com] might make seven figures, and a handful of Internet-porn queens might make a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, but the rest of the pack is merely comfortable, he said. "Maybe some girls own their own home, or bought condos and live off the rent money. Maybe their mortgage is over, maybe they got a nice car."