For generations, Playboy's image has been "Entertainment for Men." Now, its TV network wants these men to watch their movies and shows with their wives and women friends.
The premium cable network, which celebrates its 30th anniversary next year, is starting "TV for 2," slightly steamy programming designed for women and men to experience together. The idea was unwrapped last weekend with the premiere of "Brooklyn Kinda Love," a reality series made by the producers of HBO's "Taxicab Confessions."
Playboy will soon surround "Brooklyn Kinda Love" with other shows in Friday and Saturday night blocks and, if things go really well, hopes to spin "TV for 2" into its own network, said Gary Rosenson, senior vice president and general manager of domestic TV for Playboy.
The success of "Sex and the City" was one development that made Playboy realize women could be attracted to sexy programming, as long as it was made with them in mind, he said.
Playboy's programming is generally a mix of shows that have some nudity, such as Playmate profiles, the "Shootout" competition of photographers and models vying to be in movies, "Naughty Amateur Home Videos" and the type of movies also commonly available on outlets such as Cinemax.
For more graphic or hard-core pornography, showing explicit sexual acts, the Internet has become the playground.
"Everyone has a triple-XXX theater in their homes, if they want to turn it on," said Sharon Lee, a culture trend analyst who did research for Playboy.
She conducted target groups of men, most of whom had stories of being caught checking out Internet porn by their wives or girlfriends. What they really wanted, she said, was more intimacy with their partners. Lee said she tested some of Playboy's new programming with couples, and 72 percent said watching the programs together was a catalyst for revving up their sex lives. Most said it promoted more openness and communication about sex.
"Brooklyn Kinda Love" features four couples, including one lesbian couple. They navigate several relationship issues, including one woman who communicated with an old boyfriend through Facebook while her current paramour slept, and a randy but annoying woman miffed that her boyfriend does not want sex three or four times a day. The sex scenes are often tangential, some shot with infrared cameras. The producers are Joe and Harry Glantz, who also make "The Defenders" for CBS.
"We want to see the honesty of what love and relationships look like, and I think that's what people want to see," Rosenson said.
Playboy believes women want shows that do not look cheesy, where the sex scenes are integral to the stories rather than the stories being thin veneers for sex scenes. They want to see bodies that look real, not surgically enhanced. No violence or debasement of women is a given.
Their challenge is persuading women to trust Playboy, with its "bunny" image and founder Hugh Hefner getting engaged to a Playmate 50 years his junior.
"Playboy has been using women as sex objects for generations," said Erin Matson, vice president of the National Organization for Women. "I think it's interesting and amazing after all this time that the series is basically acknowledging for Playboy that women have sexual lives; that we're people, too."
For the effort to work, longtime TV industry analyst Shari Anne Brill suggested a name change.
"Maybe the Playful Channel would be better," she said.
Rosenson said Playboy has a softer, better image among women than other outlets of sexual material. Playboy was surprised when its "Girls Next Door" series, about women in Hefner's mansion, had more women than men watching when it appeared on the E! Entertainment network in the 1990s. Still, Matson questioned whether many women made a distinction or simply think porn is porn.
"There's a certain age group of women who will be down on Playboy," said Lee the consultant, who referred to women in the "first wave of feminism."
The next "TV for 2" series to debut will be "Swing," in February. Each episode follows a new couple curious about those in the "swing" community who are veterans of the scene. Playboy's Rosenson said he was surprised to find that many couples go to swingers' resorts mainly as voyeurs.
"They are not there to swing or swap," he said. "They are there to be sexy with their own mates."
Other new shows in the works are "Sextreme Makeover," with experts who give couples guidance in spicing up their love life; "Celebrity Sex Tales," featuring personalities talking about their conquests, illustrated by animation; and "The Stash," about sexy clips that are hot on the Internet.
No scripted series are on board, but Rosenson said he eventually would like to try some. Playboy is available for purchase in 70 million homes, although the network does not reveal how many subscribers it has. After selling much of its material on a pay-per-view basis in the 1990s, it focuses now on subscriptions.