I Was Just Flipping Channels...

No one watches it. Everyone has seen it. How does softcore porn stay on TV?

Who watches softcore? Who, besides arching-and-writhing expert Zalman King (9 1/2 Weeks, Red Shoe Diaries) will cop to making it? Why is it on TV? To clarify: By "softcore" I mean cable series devoted to close encounters of the repetitive kind, not hardcore porn with the erections and ejaculations excised. We're talking Showtime's Compromising Situations; Women: Stories of Passion; and anything after midnight on Cinemax, warmly regarded as "Skinemax" by cognoscenti.

Adult programming seems to be cable's dirty little secret, except not all that dirty and not all that little: It's the hard-working older brother who subsidizes Oz and original documentaries. At least, judging from the networks' typical comments to the media, that appears to be the case. (Even the channels' Web sites brush these shows under the rug while beckoning you to gaze adoringly at all the daring and award-winning stuff.) As soon as I mentioned "late-night weekend programming" to Showtime and Cinemax, both PR offices shunted me off to assistant-to-the-assistant Siberia, where no one can hear you scream.

But there's actually a knotty conundrum here. The archetypal softcore viewer is the teenage boy too nervous to lay down the cash for Playboy and in too public a place (e.g., his living room) to turn the sound up. (The only piece of American Pie that honestly recalled my underdeveloped teendom was the protagonist's opening glimpse of a breast scrambled on pay cable.) That secrecy may explain these shows' rudimentary plot lines--you're not intended to hear the dialogue--as well as their lingering aura of furtive naughtiness. By far the majority of Usenet posts alluding to Showtime's Red Shoe Diaries begin with the disclaimer: "I was just flipping channels when..."

Yet to the extent that this material has managed to slink so consistently along the bottom of the schedule, surely its longevity is owed to pockets deeper than the inexhaustible libido of teenage boys. Red Shoe by itself thrived for six years, with David Duchovny generously staying aboard as narrator even after his star took off. King, Duchovny told one interviewer, functioned as his Zen master: "Zalman gave me a lot of confidence....He told me to be still and trust that even in stillness something is going on." (For those millions hungering to see David in the flesh, the truth will be out there on an April 9 rerun at 11:00 p.m. on Showtime, cable channel 46 in Minneapolis, 50 in St. Paul, when the man himself gets into the Red Shoes act.)

The Roger Corman of softcore, Zalman King (a.k.a. Lefkovitz) escaped from early-Sixties TV and B-movie purgatory (his first credits included a guest shot on Land of the Lost) to join his wife in turning out reams of glossily interchangeable dreamstuff. Just as his first forays into erotica primed the pump that would swamp cable, King has jumped straight into 21st-century synergy. His upcoming Chromium Blue on Showtime beds down with direct marketers via a Web site that allows viewers to share the fantasy by purchasing all the furnishings and accouterments of love. (Imagine the enhanced DVD, where you can stop any scene and obtain your desire with the convenience of 1-click.) But King's viewers probably aren't the adventurous sex-positives who read Yellow Silk, watch HBO's democratically raunchy Real Sex, or visit nerve.com. For them, softcore is far too tame, well-scrubbed, hung up on regressive Playboy-esque fantasies of "taste"--and lamentably white-bread, both racially and sexually.

So to repeat, who exactly is being addressed by these programs? In a world where sexual display has become the newest DIY industry (visit www.janesguide.com for an encyclopedic catalog of the self-starters of nude e-commerce), why would anyone pay for genteel writhing when they can page through full-color photographs indexed by race, fetish, and quantity of performers? An annotated time-and-motion study of a recent episode of the new Cinemax fleshfest Passion Cove (11:00 p.m. Saturdays, cable channel 52 in Minneapolis, 51 in St. Paul) may offer some clues to these questions.

11:45 p.m.: Curvy, sexy credits herald the "After Dark" portion of the schedule, which features both "strong sexual content" and "sexual situations"; this episode's cast includes all of four actors. Worth noting is that, judging by the names sprawled across the credits, softcore is either less embarrassing than hardcore or still graced by some vestige of its Euro-chic Seventies height (remember Emmanuelle?). Female porn stars prefer the piss-elegance of stripper noms de coucher--Porsche Lynn, Kylie Ireland--while the men opt for comically well-hung monikers that do the erecting for them--T.T. Boy, Dave Hardman. Here, all is heartland Americana brushed with someone's idea of class: Loridawn Messuri, Caroline Ambrose, Catalina Larranga. The guys, meanwhile, sound like high school football coaches: Dave Roth, Joey Vie.

The promos promise "erotic entanglements...at a beautiful beach resort." Said "beautiful beach resort" resembles a midprice B&B much more than any luxury hotel, which suggests someone here should watch more Zalman King and plug into our contemporary erotic calculus: sex + high-end consumption = megabandwidth.

Anyway, student photographer and two friends drive up to shoot pictures of a model for a portfolio that could make or break his career. To add spice, she's a former high school girlfriend whom he hasn't seen in a decade or so. Camera shots are entirely conventional; this could be a credit-card ad.

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