Chairman-CEO Christie Hefner's plans for growth at Playboy depend heavily on extending the flagship magazine's franchise into electronic entertainment. PLAYBOY'S FORTUNES TIED TO THE BUNNY ENTERTAINMENT TAKES CENTER STAGE FOR THE FUTURE

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Facing a mature market at home and scrambling to expand its franchises in Europe and Asia, Playboy Enterprises is betting its future on entertainment, with a small but influential bunny at the core of its plan.

With its flagship magazine continuing to struggle, however, and its entertainment gamble still two years away from a payoff, Wall Street analysts are getting a little restless about the 40-year-old company's short-term prospects.

"Playboy has had tremendous appeal to asset investors who have a long time horizon," said David Leibowitz, managing director of Burnham Securities, New York. "But unlocking the assets is not going to come overnight."

And from a Wall Street perspective, certainly not soon enough. Chicago-based Playboy posted an operating loss of $14.2 million on revenues of $219 million in the fiscal year ended June 30.

The biggest bleeder of red ink was the entertainment wing, with a loss of $7.3 million. Last week, the unit released a workout video it hopes will help reverse that trend-the "O.J. Simpson Minimum Maintenance Fitness for Men." The tape was made before Mr. Simpson was arrested in the deaths of his ex-wife and a friend.

But the longer-term strategy focuses on extending the Playboy brand at home and abroad, where the company is putting its name on everything from sunglasses to condoms and introducing local versions of Playboy. So far the magazine is in 16 countries.

In the U.S., Playboy has been expanding its movie production, with four movies due for release as home videos in 1995. The movies also will play on cable network Playboy TV.

Ironically, the catalog unit, selling videos of popular movies, produced the greatest revenue gain last year, up 23%.

"Our corporate mission is to become the pre-eminent supplier of branded entertainment for adults internationally," said Chairman-CEO Christie Hefner.

Playboy has also extended its name into the new-media area, producing "Playboy Interviews" on CD-ROM and building a home page on the Internet.

Despite its sputterings, the engine that keeps everything running remains the flagship magazine, with a circulation that's flat at 3,421,496. In the last fiscal year, Playboy revenues increased only 1% to $104 million, while operating profit plunged 50% to $4 million.

Some media observers say the monthly's dim prospects, as much as a failure to grow Playboy's print holdings, prompted the July defection of Playboy President-Publisher Michael Perlis to Conde Nast Publications.

In the early 1990s, the company scrapped a strategy to expand by buying and starting magazines. Some say that was the decision of founder and Chairman Emeritus Hugh Hefner, who remains editor in chief of the magazine and controls 70% of the company's common stock. Former insiders say he still exerts much control over long-term planning.

According to an executive who was closely involved with the project, it was Hef who three years ago spiked a plan to launch general interest men's magazine Men's Life, fearing "it would be competition to Playboy."

Ms. Hefner said she didn't want to go ahead with the project, either. "Hef hasn't interfered in anything I wanted to do, but he is definitely the editor in chief of the magazine ... Given that Men's Life eventually ended up with Rupert Murdoch and he killed it after only one issue, it looks like it was the right move."

Others wonder if Playboy missed its chance to expand.

"I'm not sure if Playboy missed an opportunity or not. Obviously there is a strong market out there for what Men's Health is all about," said Men's Health Publisher Jeff Morgan, a former Playboy ad executive.

Through September, Men's Health's ad pages rose 43.3% to 309.9-a sharp contrast to Playboy's 10.3% tumble to 433.3 pages.

Plans to launch lifestyle magazine Max in a joint venture with Italian publisher Rizzoli fizzled about the same time. The joint venture that did fly, an in-hotel entertainment guide, flopped.

Playboy's biggest headache remains its inability to land automotive ad schedules.

"The biggest category they should attract is Detroit [automakers] and they can't get any advertising there," said Martin Walker, president of New York-based media consultancy Walker Communications.

Counters Ms. Hefner, "Maybe you should be asking marketing departments for the automakers why they are staying out of the most successful men's magazine around."

The task of re-energizing ad sales falls to former New York Publisher Richard Kinsler, who replaced Mr. Perlis as publisher, but not president, in late August.

In fairness to Playboy, other men's titles have struggled this year. Ad pages at GQ dropped 9.4% through September to 949.5, while Esquire's tumbled 15.9% to 500.59.

"I think we are going to get Playboy to play in the same league as other men's magazines," Mr. Kinsler said. "The magazine has to be explained, nurtured, promoted."

In other words, the bunny must be fed.

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