Avert Your Eyes!
High-definition porn has arrived. That's bad news for HDTV.
Anyone who caught yesterday's Patriots triumph on a high-definition television can attest to the technology's upside. An HDTV's ultrasharp pictures are a boon when it comes to spying the precise contours of Joe Andruzzi's gnarled fingers. But that degree of clarity isn't necessarily a plus when watching less spontaneous fare. Viewers who think that, say, CSI star Eric Szmanda is a paragon of male perfection might not like the HDTV shock of realizing that—horrors!—the heartthrob sports layers of orange makeup, not to mention a dermatological blemish or two.
If HDTV is sharp enough to reveal a G-rated entertainer's humanity, the technology's harsh gaze must be all the worse for those who make their livings in the nude. So when DirecTV announced last week that it would be broadcasting pay-per-view adult movies in HDTV, starting last night after the Super Bowl, one had to wonder whether the company's decision-makers actually bothered to watch some samples. A big part of the allure of porn—at least the relatively highbrow variety that DirecTV shows—is that the participants appear to share few of our species' physical foibles, thanks to clever lighting, makeup, and surgery. Your spouse may suffer from a dearth of gym time or the occasional bout of acne, but Kobe Tai's on-screen personas are always in tip-top shape. (Caveat clicker: Kobe Tai's home page is relatively tame, but it contains links to much raunchier sites.)
DirecTV is obviously familiar with porn's track record as a driver of nascent technologies. The adult industry's decision to embrace VHS in the early 1980s, for example, helped kill Sony's Betamax, despite the latter format's superior quality. The infant Internet grew quickly thanks to erotic chat rooms and bulletin boards to the chagrin of AOL, which sought to sell the online world as family-friendly. Since fewer than 6 percent of American living rooms boast HDTV sets and many of the most popular network shows (e.g., The Simple Life) still don't use HD cameras,the industry understands that viewers need a nudge to join the revolution.
But it's doubtful that HD porn will nudge viewers in the right direction. The HDTV microscope could kill the fantasy that the adult industry peddles. Hollywood is already learning this lesson the hard way: HDTV has revealed that some glamorous stars look a lot more pedestrian than we've been led to believe. And the makeup tricks that protect the aging and less-than-perfect are easy to spot in HDTV. When technology pundit Phillip Swann first saw the Charlie's Angels movie in HDTV, he was taken aback by Cameron Diaz's appearance. "Diaz looks like a different person," he marveled in the pages of Television Week, noting that her face has been ravaged by acne over the years. "She's still very pretty. But to be very frank, I doubt that she would make People's 'Most Beautiful' list."
Of course, as long as they've got some bedroom skills, adult performers needn't be absolute world-beaters in the looks department, so they tend to be a lot less lovely than your average Hollywood star. In addition, they end up revealing a lot more nooks and crannies than their mainstream peers, which means many more physical flaws can wind up on-screen. That's no big deal for peddlers of lowbrow or amateur smut, in which bad bodies are the norm. But keep in mind that DirecTV will be broadcasting films from two sources, Playboy and the Spice Channel, both of which pride themselves on being vendors of classy porn. The action on Spice is tame compared to what you might find at the local XXX store, and the stars typically sport toned, pneumatic bodies without visible shortcomings. If Cameron Diaz's otherworldly reputation can't survive HDTV intact, what chance does the Spice Channel's talent have? And will HDTV customers readily fork over $14.99 per three-hour movie block once they realize that the naughty sorority sister their order conjures up has amateurish implants, and the lucky TV repairman's skin redefines the word "leathery"?
HDTV isn't impossible to fool, and porn producers can surely figure out some ways to beat the technology's realism. To better conceal whatever facial or follicular quirks Jennifer Aniston might possess, Friends painted its primary set in light purple—the resulting aura supposedly gives the cast a healthy glow, even in HDTV. And makeup artists are already experimenting with airbrushes, misting their clients' faces with thin glazes that don't look too pancakey.
All of these tricks cost money, however, and the adult industry is notoriously stingy about raising its production costs. DirecTV may be right to bet on HDTV's eventual success, but it's unlikely that adult movies will hasten that future. Even if the average price of an HD-ready set dips below $1,000 some day, porn connoisseurs may still prefer their thrills the old-fashioned way—with the gritty details obscured by strategic lighting and makeup. When it comes to televised porn, technological ignorance may be bliss.