Mnookin had quite a
scoop yesterday: it looks like Penthouse is about to go under. Apparently
Friday’s paychecks were slashed by 75%, and the parent company’s long-precarious
finances have never looked worse. The latest issue of Penthouse could be the
last ever: something even owner and editor-in-chief Bob Guccione is not blind
to. He told the New York Times over a year ago that there is “no future
for adult business in mass market magazines.”
Mnookin says that
For years, Penthouse has been squeezed from both directions by the Scylla
and Charybdis of men’s entertainment. On the one side, the monster growth
of hard-core pornography on the Internet has meant that consumers no longer
need to suffer the embarrassment of receiving their mail in plain brown wrappers.
On the other side, the rise of laddie publications like Maxim and FHM has
meant there are publications that show a lot of skin without the stigma of
He’s undoubtedly right, but I think he misses something. Playboy and Penthouse
are unique among magazines in that they attempt to deliver everything a man
might want: smut, yes, but also (gasp!) interesting articles. The death of Penthouse
might not mean much by itself: it will rank quite a ways down the list of what
Matthew Rose calls
the "little scandals" of magazine closings, well below Talk
and Rosie. It is, however, symptomatic of a broader phenomenon: that of the
ghettoisation of intelligent journalism. If you want smut, you can still get
it; you’ll just get nothing else. If you want to read something smart, you’ll
have to work your way through the dry pages of the Atlantic, the New Yorker,
I went out yesterday afternoon and picked up the latest issues of Playboy and
Penthouse, as well as the smuttiest lad mag I could find: the UK’s Loaded. I
didn’t pick up Maxim or FHM, partly because I’ve already
written about Maxim, and partly because I really don’t think that Playboy
and Penthouse actually compete with the lad mags. The venerable duo live (or
lived) largely on subscriptions, while the hot newcomers are newsstand giants,
spending most of their effort on their cover lines. As Mnookin says, pornography
carries a stigma, not only with advertisers but also with the general public:
I can’t recall ever seeing someone reading Playboy or Penthouse at the local
coffee shop or on the subway.
And indeed, for all that Loaded probably features more bare breasts than Playboy
and Penthouse combined, it does so in a fun, relaxed way. Look at the covers
above: even though Playboy has poached James Kaminsky from Maxim to give it
some of the Felix Dennis magic, it still boasts astonishingly dull cover lines
like "New Millennium Sports Awards: Tyson’s Tattoo to Bush’s Pretzel".
(That’s not a story which would have appeared in the old Playboy, to be sure,
but it’s also not a story which is going to make anybody buy the magazine.)
Loaded, by contrast, has cover lines like "Win £1,000 Jeans"
to pique your interest, along with the promise of "27 clothes-free foreign
What Loaded doesn’t have is any long-form articles. The Playboy Interview is
famous, but the magazine also devotes five pages to Charles Rangel, the New
York congressman; it also has ten pages of fiction by T Coraghessan Boyle. To
top it all off, there’s another nine pages of proper narrative investigative
journalism about a drugs sting at a high school in Pennsylvania. It’s illustrated
with a full-page photo of a hot babe, but the story itself is not lascivious:
it’s easy to imagine it in the New Yorker.
Playboy, in other words, is keeping up its traditions: while the age-old story
about "I read it for the articles" might be as much of a fib as ever,
the idea is obviously still to keep the subscription renewals coming by giving
men some protein along with their dessert. After all, if all you want to do
is ogle babes, you don’t need to shell out cash any more: scantily-clad women
are everywhere these days, from the internet to the TV.
Playboy’s high-mindedness has meant that it’s kept its advertisers. There are
the booze and fags, of course, but also people like Toyota and Pioneer who would
never buy space in Penthouse. Why? Because where Loaded has breasts and Playboy has a small
amount of oh-so-tasteful full-frontal nudity, Penthouse is hard-core. Mnookin’s
choice of language is revealing:
Penthouse has gone ultra hard-core. These days, the extreme close-ups of
Penthouse’s pictorials seem more appropriate for a medical manual, and
the live-action sex scenes are as graphic as anything available.
The fact is, hard-core pornography – where you show sex acts –
is hard-core pornography. You might not like it, but Penthouse isn’t "ultra"
hard-core: it’s just made the decision that if it’s to compete with what’s available
for free on the internet, this is the stuff which it has to publish. Or maybe
the logic was a bit different: Playboy made lots of money by showing things
which other magazines wouldn’t, and then Hustler made lots of money by showing
things which Playboy wouldn’t, and now Penthouse is positioning itself at the
hardest end of the market, as the magazine which shows things all other household-name
magazines shy away from.
In doing so, however, it’s lost its respectability. Its cover doesn’t feature
a hot babe or two, in the way that Loaded or Penthouse do: it features a too-young
girl, with fluffy toys in her hair, with the implicit-to-readers (and delivered
upon) promise that pretty soon we’re going to see her spread-legged, wearing
knee-high black leather boots and little else, doing something which most of
us confine to the bathroom. If I were an advertiser, even if I liked that sort
of thing I’d keep my product well away from it: there’s simply no way that I
could benefit from the association.
Yet Penthouse is still different from most porno mags. For one thing, the production
values are very high; but more importantly, the magazine still attempts to be
about more than just sex. On the cover are four headlines, the first of which
is "Security shell game: Homeland terror war is Bush’s ultimate power trip"
and only one of which is purely sexual. Once again, there’s intelligent original
reporting here. Loaded’s slogan is "For men who should know better";
Playboy’s is "Entertainment for men"; but Penthouse’s is "The
magazine of sex, politics and protest". There’s a reasonably wide mix of
men’s magazine material, from rock climbing to a profile of wrestler Chris Jericho.
But the budget obviously isn’t there, and at this point – the very end
of Penthouse’s life-cycle – it all feels a little weak.
The demise of Penthouse is, surely, no biggy. It’s one of the slowest train
crashes in history: everybody saw this one coming ages ago, and it will come
as a surprise to nobody. But I wonder if Si Newhouse and Jann Wenner ought not
to pay a certain amount of attention. Magazines like Rolling Stone and GQ still
run expensive long-form narrative journalism, despite the fact that most people
don’t read it and that even those who do would probably still buy the magazine if
it wasn’t there. As US Weekly and Lucky increasingly dominate the newsstand,
how much longer can such material last?
Maxim and FHM are the Fox News to GQ’s CNN, and are clearly winning the ratings
war. And just as CNN is going Foxier, GQ is increasing its babe quotient. Is
the next step the elimination of the long stories which few people read?
Actually, I think there’s room for optimism on that front. Penthouse wasn’t
killed by overspending on editorial, it was killed by a lack of advertising.
Felix Dennis makes money from readers, but Si Newhouse makes money from advertisers.
There aren’t all that many of them, compared to the number of magazine readers,
but they’re much more important. Advertisers love being in prestigious publications,
and running long articles by Sebastian Junger or whoever is a very good way
of impressing onto advertisers just how prestigious you are.
But even if the death of Penthouse does not mean another nail in the coffin
of general-interest magazines, it’s still indicative of which way the wind is
blowing. GQ had a wonderful headstart on FHM and Maxim, but no one could afford
to start it up now, and if they did they would almost certainly fail. Every
magazine fails eventually, and when the likes of GQ go, there will be nothing
to replace them. Talk couldn’t do it; Radar won’t. High-end advertisers will
be stuck with Vogue and Vanity Fair, and serious journalism will be all but
banished from the glossies. It’s already happened in the UK, there’s no reason
why it shouldn’t happen here as well.