The adult-video category has been a catalyst for virtually every transactional and technological development in the home-entertainment space, from videocassette players in the 1970s to pay-per-view in the 1980s to the proliferation of video-on-demand and Internet video in the 1990s and 2000s.
Yet when it comes to high-definition television, cable's linear and video-on-demand adult services have been a step behind other programming categories. While virtually all widely distributed general-entertainment and news-based cable networks now offer HDTV feeds, adult-programming offerings in the format are not nearly as fruitful on cable-network lineups.
Executives from adult-targeted networks say limited channel bandwidth and a lack of demand has slowed the rollout of linear adult HDTV channels and kept the number of HD VOD offerings at bay.
Yet executives say quality HD adult programming can provide distributors a competitive advantage over the growing popularity of adult video content on the Web.
"Distributors are looking to differentiate relative to the free online options, and HD could be one of those differentiators to the online experience if it's done right," said Playboy TV senior vice president Gary Rosenson.
Currently few adult-themed linear channels are available to consumers: Hustler TV offers an HD version of its main channel, which it launched this past October. Playboy TV's on-demand channel, Spice Xcess, and New Frontier Media's Penthouse TV also offer HD versions, while several smaller porn content distributors package HD on-demand titles to cable operators for distribution.
But most linear network and on-demand product from adult distributors is still offered in standard definition.
Hustler TV president Michael Klein said operators have been slow to dedicate the bandwidth necessary to offer adult HD content. The Hustler HD service is about half of the company's affiliated operator systems, although he would not provide specific distribution numbers.
"It's taken some time [to launch] and for some operators, it's a bandwidth issue," said Klein. "But we're seeing more of those that are doing it."
Indeed, cable's largest VOD distributor, Comcast, does not offer any of its adult-oriented on-demand programming in HD, according to MSO officials.
There's adequate adult HD content in the marketplace: Klein said that Hustler films all of its original content in HD, and 90% of content it licenses from studios is in true high-definition, and not upconverted from standard definition.
"We have been shooting content from our own studios ourselves in HD for years, knowing that eventually there would be a growing market for it in broadcast and Internet," he said.
Playboy, which offers the premium subscription Playboy TV service as well as several linear and VOD networks under the Spice brand, has been filming all of its content in HD for nearly a decade. "I don't think we'll have any shortage of HD titles to send when there is the expansion of server capacity to do so," said Rosenson.
But while adult distributors are ready to offer adult programming in HD, some industry observers question whether there's a huge pent-up consumer demand to see such content in vivid, HD clarity.
The VOD adult category is expected to generate nearly $1.2 billion in 2010, up from $1.1 billion in 2009, according to Kagan Associates, despite a dearth of HD titles.
Video porn is also thriving on the Web: More than 4 million adult-oriented Internet Web sites offer video and images that are very low in quality and are shot often on personal camcorders.
"Adult content is often what leads the introduction of new technology, but HD is one that it hasn't led, which makes you question whether HD is conducive [to adult content] this time through," said Bruce Leichtman, president of new-media research company Leichtman Research Group. "Eventually you'll have to be in HD, but one has to question whether there a demand for it, and the indication seems to be no."
Playboy's Rosenson said the demand for HD content will build once more content is available. Current standard-definition VOD adult offerings, as well as Web porn, offers consumers a variety of titles and adult genres. Once distributors have enough bandwidth to allow for the same variety of choice in an HD format, then the consumers will begin to flock to the technology.
"[Consumers] are going to go to where the most variety and genres are, and right now that's in standard definition - time will fix that when distributors offer more adult options in HD," he said. "Today, if [consumers] can go to the video store that has 10,000 titles versus the video store that has 100 titles in HD, they're going to go to the one that offers what they were looking for."
There's also the issue of whether the clarity and sharpness of HD technology takes away from the viewing experience of adult content by exposing physical imperfections on actors and actresses appearing in adult movies and features.
While acknowledging the unique challenges high-definition technology presents to the video porn category, Hustler's Klein believes watching adult content in HD provides a more pleasurable experience for consumers with HD-ready TV sets.
"Better quality is better quality, whether it's adult or mainstream programming," he said. "You may have to shoot it in a different light and make sure that the makeup is just right so has no imperfections -- but I think even adult viewers want to see higher quality content."
Klein is so convinced that consumers of adult content will adapt to visually stimulating video that the company has commissioned the production of its first 3D adult movie, This Ain't Avatar XXX -- an erotic takeoff on the hugely successful 3D film Avatar -- set to debut later this year. The movie is part of a Hustler TV series of popular porno spoofs based on well-known TV and movie franchises such as Gilligan's Island, Star Trek, Happy Days and The Munsters.
"It's probably one of the most expensive movies we've shot but we'll have an HD, standard and 3D version," said Klein.