'Surreal Life': Porn crosses over to media mainstream

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Ron Jeremy, the legendary star of some 1,700 hard-core porn films over the last two decades, steeps in the hot tub of a sweeping hilltop Los Angeles mansion, glass of merlot in hand, flanked by a dozen gorgeous babes in tiny bikinis. It's a full-on party atmosphere where giggles fill the air and eyes constantly roam. It's ripe with possibility.

It might sound like the setup for Mr. Jeremy's latest adul-entertainment vehicle, available on pay-per-view or a video store near you, but it isn't. It's "The Surreal Life," an unscripted show airing on the WB, one of the first network broadcasters to hire a porn star as a major player in a prime-time show.

Also starring in the series, a fly-on-the-wall look at six has-been celebs and pop cult figures bunking in a house together: televangelist Tammy Faye Messner.

For Jeremy, his inclusion in the series is a stroke of casting brilliance and a chance for him to be seen by the broadest possible audience outside his adult entertainment roots and beyond the relative success he's had in mainstream movies and music videos. "No doubt there's a shock value to it," he said. "What's the biggest contrast you can get to a Bible-carrying evangelist? A porn star."

porno-ize it

Jeremy is the latest, but by no means, only porn star to grab attention in the mainstream media. He is part of what some trend mavens say is the new "porno-ized" America, which seems to be enthralled with people who were once marginalized in a business that has always been the black sheep of entertainment.

"It's a way to prove your liberalness to not be freaked out by porn," said Marian Salzman, chief strategy officer at Euro RSCG Worldwide. "People are decidedly more open now."

Signs to that effect are everywhere. Jenna Jameson, a Vivid Video veteran and budding franchise, looms large over Times Square in a 48-foot-high billboard. She has an autobiography, "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star," set for a spring release. She's hosted TV shows on E!, where she's been the subject of a highly rated "E! True Hollywood Story," been featured on "Entertainment Tonight" and in magazine stories too numerous to count. Her fellow Vivid cohorts also have book deals and an unscripted TV show from Emmy-winning production company World of Wonder hitting the air in Britain soon. The U.S. will follow.

A documentary on "Deep Throat," the groundbreaking Linda Lovelace movie of the `70s, is in the works, with Hollywood heavyweight Brian Grazer producing. Mary Carey, a Vivid star, ran for governor of California during the recall election of fall 2003 that put action movie maven Arnold Schwarzenegger in office. Though it didn't succeed, a prime-time drama called "Skin" hit Fox's schedule this season with a porn king as one of the main characters.

HBO is planning a six-part documentary on the adult entertainment industry called "Pornucopia: Going Down in the Valley," and rival Showtime starts the second season of its porn-centric series, "Family Business" with star character, Seymore Butts. There's a nod to porn chic in the makeup, styling and fashion of such pop stars as Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, not to mention Paris Hilton's X-rated videotaped romp.

Jeremy's "Surreal Life" Jan. 11 premier drew 5.3 million viewers, the highest rating in that day and time period in The WB's 10-year history. It was also the highest-rated show ever on the WB in that time period among adults 18-34 and 18-49-prime advertiser demographics.

still barriers

Marketers are beginning to take notice, though even porn pioneer and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt says there are barriers for brand endorsements. "I'm sure General Motors wouldn't have a porn star trying to sell their cars like Dinah Shore did years ago," Mr. Flynt said. "The culture has changed, but the product has to be right."

Though the figures are difficult to verify, adult entertainment could be pulling in anywhere from $8 billion to $11 billion a year, which, at the high end, would make it bigger than Hollywood's feature film business. Trade magazine Adult Video News reported that sales and rentals of adult videos alone racked up $4 billion last year.

"There's a kinky allure, a strange glamorous association with that world," said Judith Regan, whose Harper Collins Regan Books division is publishing Ms. Jameson's book and other Vivid tomes. "It's considered tawdry, but it's still titillating. It's been elevated in terms of its status."

There are a number of reasons for the proliferation of porn and its practitioners in mainstream media, with technology and competition perhaps leading the pack. When porn went from a sex-shop-only phenomenon to being available at the corner video store, on pay-per-view, and on the Internet, it became accessible, anonymous and, perhaps, palatable to more consumers than ever.

"The face of the consumer has changed," said Rhett Speros, a trend analyst at brand consulting firm, Buzztone, New York. "It's no longer that old guy in the trench coat in the `60s that your parents told you to run from."

The competitive edge could be pushing TV, movies and marketers to entrench themselves more deeply in the still-often seedy world. TV networks must try much harder to lure audiences in the 500-plus channel universe, where other entertainment options like DVDs, the Internet, video games and feature films abound.

"There's still enough of a taboo left that it's rascally and funny," said Bob Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "TV is dropping its pants and saying a naughty word to get attention."

Despite their propensity to include porn stars on casts or in featured segments, TV executives were surprisingly mum on those decisions. Requests for comments from a range of network and cable channels were turned down, across-the-board.

The marketing community, to a lesser degree than mainstream media, has started inching toward a pornographic embrace. Trend guru Faith Popcorn, who founded Brain Reserve marketing consulting firm, recently said porn is the norm, consumers are desensitized, and advertisers will have to continue to push the envelope to get their messages through.

pony up

Old-school sneaker brand Pony used Ms. Jameson prominently, along with other Vivid Girls, in its ad campaign last year. The brand, at the time, was owned by Hollywood talent management company, The Firm, whose VP-global marketing Come Chantrel shepherded the campaign.

"Porn is where hip hop was 10-15 years ago," Mr. Chantrel said. "It's very rock and roll. There's a rebellious, edgy attitude to it."

Howard Stern and a now-50-year-old Playboy used to have that attitude, but are now considered tame and domesticated. Porn may be the final Wild West frontier, Mr. Chantrel said, which can be harnessed by some brands but not others. For Pony, which counts men 18 to 25 among its best customers, it was organic.

"The most important thing is credibility," Mr. Chantrel said. "If you understand what's appealing about that world, the subtleties of that culture, then you can use it. If you don't, you'll look ridiculous."

Categories like fashion, alcohol and cosmetics can trade on an edgy tone, and they're the most likely to be first in incorporating porn stars and sensibilities into their marketing. For other brands, it's a matter of who wants to jump off the diving board first.

"Most clients say, `This is not the time to be an innovator,"' said Buzztone's Mr. Speros. "They would rather intrigue than shock."

Ms. Salzman said that, for all their acceptance, porn stars still have baggage that makes them less attractive to recommend as brand ambassadors. "I'm looking for a clean slate because I want the brand personality to shine through," Ms. Salzman said. "But if you really want to break the rules and push a brand, a porn star might not be the worst way to go."

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