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Hulu First Look: Vanguard’s Porn 2.0

November 9th, 2009 by Rebecca Harper Editor

Be among the first to see Vanguard’s Christof Putzel report on the future of the adult entertainment industry, “Porn 2.0” before its premiere on Current TV this Wednesday. In the piece, Putzel examines how the industry — which has always been at the forefront of Internet technology — is fostering new innovation in order to stay afloat at a time when fewer customers are paying for their pleasure. Hulu had the opportunity to speak to Putzel to speak about the report last week. You catch Vanguard on your TV set Wednesdays at 10/9c on Current TV. — Rebecca Harper (), Editor

Hulu: What sparked your interest in the relationship between porn and Internet technology?
Vanguard’s Christof Putzel:
If you use the Internet, it’s hard to ignore the existence of porn. It shows up in your inbox as spam, as links to your unrelated search inquiries. It’s everywhere. It’s no secret that pornography has been at the cutting edge of media for decades. Pornography is what we have to thank for some of the expansion at the early days of the Internet. So what I was interested in was, in this day and age when mainstream industries like the movie business and the music business are all struggling to figure out how to best utilize the internet and not keep losing their shirts, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how the porn industry was doing. It’s traditionally been one step ahead of mainstream businesses when it came to distribution formats.

What were some of the biggest surprises you encountered while working on this story?
I think that I was most surprised by just how much the adult industry is hurting as a whole. There’s a common misconception that anyone can make a dollar dabbling in Internet porn. While there might have been some truth to that 10 years ago, even the well-established companies are having trouble staying in business today. There’s just so much free pornography out there on the Internet, whether pirated or homemade. Many consumers just see the need to pay for it anymore. That’s kind of ironic, that the same technologies that helped push the industry forward — you know, things like cheap cameras and faster Internet connections — are today bringing it to its knees.

Did you find that you were shocked by any of the things that you saw?
Oh man, yeah. I was shocked by a lot of things when I visited Kink.com’s offices. I’m no prude, but the porn that Kink was producing was unlike anything that the darkest, most warped part of my conscious could come up with. Their business model is based on appealing to those with niche fetishes. So it can be a bit much to handle for an unfamiliar outsider, like myself. The company houses its offices and production studios inside the old San Francisco Armory building. When you walk through the hallways, it has this dungeon-castle type atmosphere. The first room that I was taken to was the blacksmith’s workshop, where they build all the cages and the props. When I walked in, the blacksmith was trying to figure out how to construct a device that could simultaneously send electric currents from a car battery to various parts of the female anatomy. That was just like, “Oh, just another day at the office” for them. And then I was escorted into a room that contained multiple shelves lined with various electronics: a KitchenAid cake mixer, a leaf blower, chainsaw; all modified to perform the task that their website implies. But perhaps the most surreal machine was a replica of the beloved Johnny 5 robot from Short Circuit. That movie stirs up fond childhood memories for me, it’s a 1988 classic. It kind of threw me a little bit when the robot followed me around the room.

Do you feel like you ever became more comfortable around all of it?
I think what was most shocking was just how normal I found everyone to be. You have this feeling that it’s gonna be like a kid in a candy store. It was actually just a lot of people working. I guess as someone who works in media production for a company that has a giant website and is into new media, I think I had a preconceived notion of the types of characters who would sink so low to take a job in an industry that’s widely considered to be at the bottom of the barrel. But every employee that I met appeared very cheerful, and genuinely ecstatic and grateful for the opportunity to work there. And they were smart. Many of them had turned down job offers at mainstream companies to have the opportunity for more creative freedom. The guys in the IT department really felt like they were on the cutting edge, Internet-wise. They felt that they were getting challenges and opportunities that they couldn’t get at other companies. I think that’s what I found most shocking. It kind of blew away my stereotypes.

As far as being desensitized, I think that no; it was still a pretty new experience for me to see people having sex right next to me. I think it was hard for me to become desensitized because, in both instances, when I went to Kink and when I went to Wicked, I actually went and interviewed and talked to them first, and got to know them a little bit. So then seeing them take their clothes off and have sex felt wrong in a way. I think that’s why it was a little hard to become desensitized.

Of course, you touch on this a bit, but how did the insiders feel about their jobs?
You know, that was another one that blew me away. The interns at Kink.com couldn’t be more ecstatic to be cleaning [props], hoping for the chance to be promoted to one day be producing or directing their own porn, or at least play a larger role in the production process. I think that was another part that was just so shocking. Everyone I met genuinely believed in what they were doing. The common perception is that there is a lot of abuse in the industry, and while I’m sure that still exists, the people that I encountered were definitely doing what they were doing because they wanted to be. I’d say people like TomKat [seen in the web extra] seems to absolutely love her job. The geeks in the IT departments, I think one of them said to me “We’re a company where you can fulfill not only all of your sexual fantasies, but all of your technological fantasies, as well.” That’s a geek thing to say, but he clearly likes it.

What also became very clear was that, to stay afloat these days in the adult entertainment industry, you’ve got to work really hard at it, and you’ve got to really want to stay afloat — because otherwise, you’ll go under. I think that a lot of the characters from back in the day that might have been sluggish to get online and stuck in their ways, or technically just not very bright, I think they’re being weeded out.

Can you touch on some of the innovations from porn that are now present in mainstream Internet technology?
E-commerce. The first pioneers of e-commerce were in the adult industry, pushing further what kind of credit card transaction could take place over the Internet. Affiliate marketing was pioneered and embraced by porn online and quickly became a system basically every mainstream company that advertises on the web uses. Kink certainly was the first one to be doing multiple galleries of photos, high-speed streaming video. At the time I interviewed them, Kink.com was the only company who had figured out how to stream high definition live on the web. It’s fascinating to see these guys in the basement building the technology out of wood and spare parts, and figuring out how to do it. I thought that was very telling.

How is the rise of Internet porn affected the more established porn companies?
It’s affected them tremendously. The technology has kind of caught up with itself. The same technology that pushed the industry forward is now killing its profits. It’s doing that mainly through privacy, where people are just ripping off DVDs and putting them online through tube sites and bit torrent sites. The genre’s changed, where people like gonzo and amateur porn, which is incredibly cheaply produced and it’s very short. Now people just want to see two or three minutes of porn and, you know, get it over with, and aren’t necessarily sitting down in their living rooms with a DVD that they just bought to watch a whole storyline unfold. A lot of people were predicting, like all the format wars — BetaMax vs. VHS, DVD — whatever porn chose would win. A lot of people were predicting that Blu-Ray and the HD DVD war would be decided by porn. And it wasn’t. The theory of why it wasn’t was because the Internet had been involved this time. People want to watch porn in privacy, on their laptops or on their iPhones. They don’t necessarily need the high-def value and surround sound that the living room would require.

Last year, the biggest-selling porn DVD wasn’t from any big porn companies, it was Paris Hilton. She’s what they call the “accidental porn star”. That’s giving these big companies a serious run for their money and putting a lot of them under. Now the challenge that they’re facing is how do they continue to innovate? How do they provide a service people will pay for? Essentially, it’s what everyone else is trying to figure out — journalism, Hulu. Everyone’s trying to figure out how to make a dollar off of this. Some of the more innovative companies are trying to provide experiences that can’t be pirated, being more interactive, creating communities, doing things live. I think you see at the conference, there’s an on-demand service that syncs with a machine you can attach to yourself and watch things in sync. That’s an experience you won’t be able to pirate. That’s what’s coming next. I think that, like everyone else, they’re just scratching the surface.

What was that experience like?
I was kind of so flabbergasted at the time that something like this existed. But you know, yeah, I got where they were going, definitely. … I don’t know if that’s the future, but it’s very telling of what they discovered that they need to provide in order to survive.

Changing gears a bit, what will you be covering next on Vanguard?
Right now I’m editing a piece about cocaine trafficking in Europe and the growth of the Nigerian mafia. Cocaine use in Europe is at an all-time high, and in order for South America to meet the demand, they have started trafficking cocaine in high volumes through West Africa for geographical and proximity issues. It’s creating quite a stir. It’s called “The Cocaine Mafia.”

What have been some of your favorite assignments for Vanguard?
I think we have the greatest job in the world. We travel around, getting to meet people and understand situations that most people would probably even know. I think that going to Mogadishu was certainly probably one of the most intense reporting experiences I’ve ever had. We went there with our own private militia of 16 armed guards and were some of the first Western journalists to report from there in 15 years. I’d say that it was a petrifying but amazing experience. Definitely one of my favorites.

I’ll be that the porn piece seemed kind of safe after some of your other assignments.
You know, it did. I think Vanguard has covered a lot of doom and gloom. I covered Africa multiple times; disease, drugs, death, destruction, war, fighting, and honestly, I need to lighten it up a little for myself. So that’s kind of why I chose this story. I needed something a little lighter, just to take a break. I think that this season needs to be broken up a little bit and provide people a little something different. If you use the Internet, it’s almost part of your everyday life.

Have you had any scary experiences in general, stuff we could share with our users?
There’s a great scene in Mogadishu. There are two great moments in that story: one when we’re first entering Mogadishu for the first time and we’re basically stopped at gunpoint, and we think we’re about to be executed. There was another moment where we were trying to hide up on a hill while filming the largest public prayer gathering in a mosque in 15 years. We’re hiding up on the hill when everybody, the thousands of people below us, turned and faced west to begin praying and we realized that we were to the west and everyone was staring right up at us. I think the line in the piece was, “If there was ever any secret that two white guys were hanging out in Mogadishu, that cat was now out of the bag.”

I went and interviewed these skinheads in Russia and I ended up in the middle of the woods in this training camp. I was really trying to understand what was behind these guys’ motivations. When I discovered that this guy I was talking to was genuinely ecstatic watching himself beating people up, it was my first realization that I was interviewing a psychopath. That was pretty scary.

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