Who makes the profit?

Pornography Part One: Low costs and high cover prices mean big money. Alex Spillius surveys the soft porn market
he soft porn industry in the UK is substantial. How substantial exactly is rather difficult to pin down, chiefly because its producers are far less profligate with sales figures than their products are with naked women. None the less, it is safe to say that for purveyors it is a nice big earner, and that there's a great deal of it about: in magazines and videos, on satellite TV and the Internet.

This will probably have gone unnoticed by you. Pornography, both soft and hard, tends to have a small, loyal, very largely male audience, while the rest of the population appears able to stimulate itself without artificial aid. Indeed, the industry works to a rule of thumb that just 6-8 per cent of the male population will indulge regularly.

As every schoolboy knows, the most popular form of pornography is the dirty mag. A straw poll of my local newsagents confirmed the hunch of retail experts that this unglorified sector of British publishing accounts for 10-15 per cent of all journal revenue, with a value of pounds 100m-pounds 150m, probably putting it fourth behind women's weeklies, monthlies and TV listings. But, of the major publishers, only Northern & Shell released a circulation figure, claiming 1.5 million magazines a month. Suffice to say that the "adult magazine" sector has helped make Paul Raymond, the Gold brothers Ralph and David, and David Sullivan among the richest 150 people in the country, and made a lot of money for Northern & Shell and Galaxy Publications, the other main publisher, not to mention a fast buck for a host of smaller competitors.

In spite of a 32 per cent drop over five years in the monthly circulation of Fiesta (the only title officially audited) to 162,000, and a fall in the readership (based on questionnaires) of UK Penthouse from 546,000 to 215,000 in the same period, N&S and Galaxy contend they shifted more magazines than ever last year. Low costs and high cover prices appear to be the secret. To prosper they say that, like newspapers, they have had to diversify and modernise. Titillation has become specific: magazines are tailored to peccadilloes. Hence titles such as Big Ones, 69, Asian Babes, 40+, and so on, and "specials" such as Best of Big Ones and Summer 69. This could either be seen as vigorous, imaginative publishing or an indication of an industry in the last, post-orgasmic throes of profit.

Like other industries, the adult market has been swift to exploit the deregulation of telecommunications. Magazines are packed with adverts for telephone sex lines that judging by my brief experience must provide excellent returns. I encountered the familiar obstacles of modern automated communication as a sultry, recorded voice invited me to: "Press 1 for XXX, press 2 for XXXX..."Or: "Press 5 and then using your keypad enter your credit card number." After four minutes of silence, at pounds 1.30 per minute, it seemed wise to hang up.

It might seem user-anonymity would make Internet porn a great attraction to those inclined: a survey by the University of Lancaster last year concluded that 75 per cent of Internet traffic headed for pornographic web sites. But the threat of new technology to the top shelf is thought to be some way down the information superhighway, for the same reasons that the on- line "revolution" in everyday life has failed to materialise: magazines are more portable than computers, computer hardware is expensive, and in the time taken to download a nude woman on the Internet, several Electric Blue videos could be viewed.

Videos remain an industry staple, whether rented, bought with a top-shelf mag, or something stronger ordered by mail from Holland. The unmarked cassette may however prove vulnerable to the greatest recent development in the business: satellite and cable. Three legal, "adult" channels are available to subscribers with films revelling in such titles as Penetrator, Never Say Never, and Members Only, Part 5. There are 250,000 to 300,000 subscribers - about 7 per cent of the 3.5 million homes with satellite or cable. The programming is, within its natural limitations, varied: Playboy TV offers slick American fare, the Fantasy Channel a mixture of home-grown talent and Viz humour.

The Adult Channel, whose output is somewhere between the two others, has actually been on air for four years but kept a very low profile. This indicates the success not only of the Independent Television Commission's policy of ring-fencing adult material from children or those who would abhor it, by time-zoning and encryption, but also the great indifference of non-subscribers. As the ITC's Guy Phelps comments: "Some people probably don't have strong views on this at all."

Hard-core porn is another matter. The Government view appears to be that a man watching blatant sex at home at night with a box of tissues by his side represents the thin end of a wedge. Accordingly, the Department of National Heritage has proscribed three hard-core channels - Red Hot Dutch, TV Erotica and Rendez-Vous - which were marketed in Britain directly, though their signals derived from Scandinavia. All services avoided material featuring violence, children or animals. Undoubtedly others will emerge, with the necessary smart cards and decoders available from the back pages of satellite listings magazines. Hardcore is there for those willing to spend considerable time and money in its sweaty pursuit.

In the highly unlikely event of liberalisation, it is improbable that large numbers would subscribe. The most common complaint from Adult Channel customers is that the content is too tame, suggesting those who sign up to soft porn now would merely switch to stronger material. "Once people had seen a month or two of explicit sex they would have had enough for a year or so," says Chris Yates, chief executive of the Adult Channel.

The novelty would wear off and the market settle down as it has in other European states - a familiar pattern with adult material. A few years ago four raunchy magazines aimed at women were launched, but now only one survives, For Women, selling a modest 70,000 copies a month and featuring less nudity than before. Women seem to have adopted Noel Coward's view of the subject: "I don't think pornography is very harmful, but it is terribly, terribly boring."