When the British government laid out its vision of "broadband Britain," it was unlikely to have been counting on pornography as the crucial ingredient to turn the dream into reality.
But given past experience of what it takes to get consumers to buy new technologies, it might have known this would be the killer application to justify the billions of pounds it has accumulated so far in television license fees. Broadband technology, it seems, is paving the way for an explosion of porn on British TV.
Playboy Enterprises, for one, is a firm supporter of broadband, and has been busily preparing for action by the end of the year.
Driving its enthusiasm is the discovery that buy rates double when consumers have access to porn on broadband video-on-demand (VOD) services. This gives them the convenience of being able to access at any time a huge variety of adult TV material instantly and anonymously.
Playboy gleaned this information in trials with North American cable companies, including Cox Communications, which have built VOD technology, backed by huge computer file servers, into their broadband networks. Trialists are able to bypass embarrassing conversations at their local video store. The convenience of accessing a pool of porn and other content with a click or two on their remote controls is creating an impulse purchase dream.
"Adult entertainment is generally viewed as an impulse purchase and it's frequently abandoned if a program is halfway through," says Jeremy Yates, the deputy managing director of Playboy TV in the UK.
VOD systems store vast archives of material and, for a price, viewers with broadband lines can download any program at any time.
Broadband lines provide enough network capacity to facilitate a two-way relationship between each subscriber and the digital program archives on their networks. This creates the imperative of immediacy which has so far evaded those pay TV networks attempting to sell goods and services from retailers and banks through interactive TV.
For Playboy and other companies that sell adult entertainment, VOD and 3G mobile phones are a dream come true. Playboy has already parcelled up packages of programming to suit consumers' individual tastes in each region of the world, based on experience from selling porn on pay-per-view services. British consumers like girl/boy next door porn, unlike Americans, who prefer soft glamour. Continental Europeans usually opt for "first time" sex, according to Playboy, while Asians apparently like a whole raft of material from what Playboy's checklist describes as "naughty" fetishistic to "unattainable models."
The attractions of VOD to network operators are many: storage capacity on the powerful computer servers that drive VOD systems means that network operators can offer far bigger choice than has been available on either pay TV or in hotel pay-per-view systems; they can charge more for porn than for other paid-for programs in the UK -- US$7.10 compared with around US$4.26 for a non-porn film; and Playboy says it will keep less than 50 percent of the income while Hollywood studios normally take around 80 percent.
Some believe broadband porn won't be significant in Britain as long as censorship laws make it one of the tamest markets in the world for porn content. Demand in other countries where laws are considerably more relaxed, such as Germany, France and Sweden, is much higher, says Andy Birchall, head of On Demand Group, which manages a pay-per-view service for cable companies NTL and Telewest.