Bye-bye, VHS – Porn Industry Dumps old Format

For those of you who don’t regularly scour the adult entertainment industry website AVN.com, a curious thing is taking place: one by one, all of the major production companies are ditching the old VHS format in favor of DVDs.

This sounds like a no-brainer. DVDs have all of the advantages of VHS, but none of the disadvantages. But this switch is ironic, considering it was the lowly VHS that took adult entertainment from a marginalized, seedy business and turned it into a $10 billion a year industry, an industry that is rapidly becoming mainstream despite the current political climate.

Back in the 1970s, as chronicled in the hit film Boogie Nights, adult films were produced by a handful of production companies in Southern California who kept regular stables of performers, and generally adopted a structure based on the more traditional Hollywood system.

Films were designed as feature-length stories with plots and sets and dialog, mostly to cater to the “redeeming cultural value” test that many states used to determine obscenity. These movies were largely shown only in cities large enough to support a real XXX theater, or in cheap drive-in theaters.

Local obscenity laws made distribution a dicey thing at best, and the entire venture was fraught with potential legal action and possible financial ruin. Feature-length films cost money, a lot of money – a camera crew and post-production for a porn flick cost about as much as they would for a traditional movie. It was a harsh world, and only a handful of professionals were able to make it big – and then not that big. It wasn’t until Deep Throat premiered in the early 1970s that adult films even entered the popular culture.

As the Sexual Revolution took force in American society, the industry began taking more chances with their fare, and a few – a very few – of the movies of the late 1970s began to gain some critical respect outside of the industry. And then another revolution took place: the Videotape revolution. Cheaper VCRs began to hit the market, coming down from $1000.00+ to under $400.00 – an important price point in American culture – and shortly there were thousands of the things flying off the shelves.

Likewise, the personal Video Camera came of age, reaching a level of technical simplification that allowed a layman to use one without specialized training. By 1981 you could tape your wedding, the birth of your child, her first birthday – and possibly her conception.

For a few turbulent years it looked like the end of the Adult Film industry as it had been known. Between the cocaine epidemic, the AIDS/HIV epidemic, and the conservative family values of the Reagan Administration, the world of adult films was under siege. When anyone could be a porn star, it was difficult to be a pro.

Indeed, there wasn’t really even an “amateur” category in the adult film lexicon until the 1980s – the costs of entry into the business were just too high for couples to “roll their own”. As those costs fell, however, the industry jumped from just a few dozen tiny companies to hundreds of wildcat porn outfits with thousands of amateur performers virtually overnight.

But by about 1983 things had stabilized, and the industry got a new lease on life with the sale and rental of hundreds of porn titles to the new Video Rental industry. By 1985 the Porn Star had returned, but with audiences of millions instead of thousands.

Every Christmas the number of VCRs in the country doubled, and the sex-hungry public eagerly snatched up everything from reprinted classic 1970s features to “shot in a day” explicit tapes featuring a single sexual variation. And while over-all quality may have fell, the sales numbers were staggering. Millions of tapes were sold every year.

By the fall of the Berlin Wall, the stigma of a couple taping their own sexual shenanigans for later enjoyment had not only lost its social stigma in most circles, it had become blas�©. It was commonly considered a protected freedom between consenting adults that society had embraced as part of the sexual openness demanded by the AIDS epidemic, as well as a more matter-of-fact attitude towards sexual expression empowered by birth control, feminism, and general relaxed attitudes.

The practice had even become part of Urban Legend, with tales of homemade tapes being accidentally returned to video stores, and incompletely erased tapes popping up scenes of Mom and Dad Doing It after the kids’ shows came to a premature end.

But what technology Giveth, it Taketh Away, and porn is no exception. While the VHS juggernaut made it profitable to do porn again, a little known geeky outgrowth of the Defense Department – DARPA, the superweapon department of the Pentagon – had been quietly encouraging the growth of a nifty little set of protocols that allowed computers to talk to each other – the backbone of the Internet as we know it.

Originally, it was created as a way for the military, private science, and major universities to communicate, designed to be decentralized to avoid getting shut down should a nuclear war occur. Of course, the other uses of the Internet became quickly apparent.

By 1995, the World Wide Web and E-commerce had been born, and sales of home computers began to rival sales of cheap VCRs. Leading the way in this march towards electronic business were computer manufacturers, major multinational corporations – and porn web sites. The Adult Film industry at first took little notice of this.

A few companies ventured into the electronic format – Penthouse launched an expensive and unprofitable service in the early 1990s – but few saw the potential. During that time the content available on adult sites was restricted to small galleries of sexually explicit photos, as the technology for full video was just not easily available or cost effective.

Besides, the video tape business was booming, and the number of bona fide Adult Film superstars was rising rapidly – who needed to mess around with computers?

Something else happened to Porn: specialization. While in the 1970s it was hard to find porn of any type, the VHS revolution suddenly made specialty porn a viable market.

As the public began to explore their sexuality through the magic of videotape, they also discovered a wealth of new kinks and fantasies: anal sex, oral sex, interracial, group sex, “mature” performers, amateur performers, outdoors sex, sex with condoms, sex without condoms, Asian, foreign, gonzo, leather, latex, bondage, discipline, and “water sports” – and if you have to ask, you don’t need to know.

Gay porn similarly found a huge niche, as gay men and lesbians exercised their rights by demanding quality erotica to suit their tastes. The Adult section of the video store went from one or two shelves to whole cases, as the number and variety of sexual variation was played out on the video screen. Everyone was able to find their own kinky piece of heaven.

Unfortunately, that included pedophiles and others whose tastes in erotica ran perpendicular to even the kinkiest of the “mainstream porn” community. The same technology that allowed couples to tape their lovemaking also allowed abusers to tape their own crimes and distribute them.

When such objectionable material as rape, bestiality, and kiddie porn began to be traded over the Internet, public outcry was such that the Children’s Protection Act of 1993 was passed into law, mandating that every performer in commercially available Adult movies in America have a verifiable proof of age on file with a Custodian of Records, and that the actual production date of the movie be published.

This law, while welcomed by the legitimate Adult film industry, was not without problems; performer Traci Lords, who was one of the late 1980s hottest pornstars, had lied about her age by three years when she first entered the business.

Without realizing it, millions of people who owned her popular tapes were holding “kiddie porn”, and the video companies she worked for were under the threat of prosecution if they continued to distribute her early work. It didn’t hurt Traci, much, as she went on to transition into mainstream TV and movies – a rare occurrence in the industry.

It was also during this time that a new format came along, promising to mimic the low costs and usability of the Compact Disk: the Digital Video Disk. Many porn companies were reluctant to sign on this new technology, having been burned by lost formats such as Betamax and LaserDisks.

But by 1997 the number of DVD players started to grow rapidly, as the price came down to affordable levels. By 2001 the writing was on the wall: retailers and consumers alike preferred the shiny disks, and suddenly the little black boxes that made so much money were archaic.

So now we see the result of the innovation. VHS is being abandoned in favor of DVD. For most established Adult Film companies this is a bittersweet parting, as the advantages of DVDs, while compelling, are also more problematic than VHS tapes.

While it was technically possible to duplicate a VHS tape in your home, depriving the copywrite holder of a sale, the number of people who did this was relatively small. It took hours to accomplish, and even the most ambitious video pirate could only do a few tapes at a time. Copywrite infringement could be handled by the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies, and it was relatively easy to track the culprits through their supply chain.

With DVDs, however, the copy process is measured in minutes, and electronic safeguards can be overcome by an Internet-connected subculture of computer geeks who swap porn files as much – if not more – as music or mainstream movies.

The industry doesn’t even have the recourse that the Music and Movie industries do – there are few judges who want to take the cases, and the structure of the Internet makes it difficult, if not impossible, to identify and prosecute the pirates. Unlike the great video pirates of the 1990s, the new generation of copywrite infringers is highly decentralized, anonymous, and mostly uninterested in actually making a profit from their work.

In the meantime, the big producers will focus their efforts on selling as many DVDs as they can before technology once again steamrolls them into a new format and changes the industry all over again. DVDs do have many advantages, and one of them is they are cheap, cheaper than VHS tapes.

But even the DVD is likely doomed in the long run. As much as the disks are superior over the black boxes, the medium of the Internet, with high-speed access and more sophisticated delivery devices, promises to make Video On Demand (VOD) the dominant form of porn within a decade. Already major producers are experimenting with it, and hundreds of “mom and pop” websites are taking advantage of this lucrative new market.

Bye bye, VHS. We’ll miss you.

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