"If all the porn on the 'net were banned, the Internet would shut down save for one page, which would say 'Bring back all the porn.'" So goes the famous joke about adult content online, but the one group not laughing is the adult entertainment industry. The old maxim that "sex sells" is having a tough time of it at the moment, with the business in free fall thanks to the abundance of free porn available online. There's one hope in the form of a gadget though: The smartphone.
Historically, the sex industry has been more nimble footed than its dry and dusty media competitors—newspapers and magazines—by rapidly adopting new media. It's largely credited with the success of the VHS video format over rival Betamax, for example. And when the DVD came along, the sex movie producers quickly switched to make this their format of choice. The Internet, of course, was a transmission medium made in sex movie heaven, but the prevailing pressure towards free content has harmed the industry in the same way it has hurt other content producers such as the record companies.
Some figures suggest that adult content distribution companies have seen their revenues slide by 30% to 50%, and that adult performers have to take pay cuts and scramble for work as DVD sales are down, online revenues have drooped, and movie productions have been chucked in the can. Even the once-mighty Playboy has seen revenues slide each of the last seven quarters.
In this bleak economic climate, the industry, which at one point cheekily sought a government bailout, is betting on mobile devices like smartphones to help turn things around. Thanks to the iPhone, now selling in the millions, the consumer BlackBerry and competitor models, the smartphone is making portable high-quality movie media available to millions more consumers. It's not hard to imagine that the sex industry sees handsets as a fabulous new vehicle for selling its wares.
And thanks mostly to the iPhone's iTunes tie-up, consumers are getting used to paying in small amounts for over-the-air distributed content. These micropayments are a totally different business model than selling Web-site subscriptions or DVDs, but as we've noted, the adult industry is a very flexible creature.
The success of the mobile sex industry will, however, depend on two or three external factors. Firstly, Verizon and its other cell-phone-network competitors will have to rethink their attitude to banning explicit adult content over their 3G networks, something that the heady aroma of extra revenue on the wind might help with. As Verizon and other carriers face pressure to generate the kind of revenue Apple does with its App Store, one can imagine them softening their previously hard stance against adult content.
Secondly, Apple, as owner of the hottest smartphone on the block, will have to rethink its attitude to banning sexually explicit apps in the App Store. Much like the "bonus features" on DVDs, the sex industry could use dedicated iPhone apps as one way to boost consumer uptake.
Lastly, the consumer will have to decide if it's worth several $0.79 micropayment spends to appreciate a thrill from their fave porn star. If not, credit the Internet with bringing another once-strong business to its knees.