Welcome to the Voyeurdome
They rolled up in stretch limousines and chromed-out Hummers, tinted windows reflecting the neighborhood's discount furniture stores, auto-body shops, and abandoned shopping carts. The party a $150,000 bash would be off the hook, they had been told. So dozens of porn industry bigwigs in town for last summer's Internext Convention in Fort Lauderdale came to this rundown corner of Miami, unsure of what to expect.
For some the night's trajectory would lead to South Beach. The trip from their high-rise hotels to this ghetto redoubt was a curiosity-driven detour, an expedition into the heart of what had been billed as ground zero for the future of adult entertainment. They wanted to see the porn revolution first-hand.
Partygoers were ushered down pink carpets to a walled-in gravel lot remade as a libido-soaked tropical wonderland: pillow-filled white cabanas, pulsing electronica, strippers writhing on poles, well-stocked bars, and the highlight of the evening live sex shows.
It was the grand coming-out for "the HBO of porn." A start-up Website and licensed television broadcaster with gigantic ambitions, Pink TV would "bridge the gap between mainstream and adult," in the words of its 27-year-old president. Company officials promised they would revolutionize the multibillion-dollar porn business not only with the most high-tech interactive programming but also a full menu of slickly produced original content everything from a game show called Match That Snatch to a fetish design show loosely similar to TLC's Trading Spaces, a news hour called The Fucking News, a voyeur program, and a reality series shot in a working brothel all with hard-core sex and all destined for American living rooms via satellite television. It would be the only hard-core porn channel modeled on the traditional broadcast television format, with a lineup of almost entirely original programming.
More than a dozen investors, including Miami bankers and real estate dealers, had put up $10 million to launch the network. Pink TV had secured broadcasting licenses under the name Heat TV in sixteen European markets with a combined 20 million viewers, and planned to begin launching channels by December 2006. The footage was there tens of thousands of hours' worth. Film crews had been shooting for two years in a nondescript, somewhat cramped Miami warehouse a block-and-a-half from an elementary school. A Prague office coordinated shooting in Eastern Europe, Spain, and Portugal.
So that night last August, there was an air of giddy optimism. With drinks and smokes in hand, guests wandered the lot and toured the adjacent warehouse, the only hard-core porn broadcast television studio on the continent, they were told. While nude lap dancers tended to VIPs, actors reenacted scenes from Pink TV original films such as The Slave Breeder, the diary of a sex slave; and Into the Mist, "the world's first BDSM [bondage, domination, and sadomasochism] hard-core soap opera," according to its tagline. All but one of the minidramas ended with live sex.
A plasma screen showed loops of bodacious women in scraps of camouflage, the "Pink Army," marching over a field of stuffed bunnies a not-too-subtle threat to Playboy TV, the gold standard in adult television broadcasting.
Some wondered if such a lavish promotional party was the best use of funds for a startup run by people with little or no adult entertainment experience. Could an idea like Pink TV work outside Los Angeles, the breadbasket of American porn? Was it even legal to do what they were doing in that warehouse?
On paper, Pink TV represents a new stage in the evolution of Miami's rapidly developing porn industry. Local Websites such as bangbros.com and milfhunter.com pioneered so-called gonzo reality porn, a wildly popular format with scenes shot at recognizable locations around the city. Pink TV promises to take things a giant leap beyond via original films, live shows, big budgets (by porn standards), acting coaches (seriously), proprietary interactive technology for the Web, satellite television, iPods, and cell phones. Jan Verleur, the spiky-haired entrepreneurial wunderkind at the helm, is quick to cite as inspiration Bill Gates's book The Road Ahead. In it Gates predicts that computers, TV sets, and other technologies will merge into a single "information appliance."
Experienced hands from Telemundo and HBO have signed on to produce Pink TV's all-original content unique in the online porn world for its high production value, and almost unheard of in the satellite television porn world for its reliance on in-house programming. Although Playboy TV has plenty of original shows, it offers nothing in the hard-core department. Playboy subsidiary Spice TV and other such networks carry hard-core but mostly license content from elsewhere.
There could be bumps along Pink TV's road, however. Miami U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta has called pornography not just child porn, but all porn a top priority for his office. While Acosta's anti-nudie crusade came as a surprise to many in the local industry, few Miamians remain unaware of their city's growing role as an adult entertainment capital rivaling Los Angeles. "They're like sister cities of porn," said Playboy TV spokesman Matt Kalinowski. This past June, Miami hosted, for the first time, a porn industry convention. Held at the Miami Beach Convention Center, Exxxotica, the largest such gathering in the Eastern U.S., featured skin-flick luminaries Ron Jeremy, Jenna Jameson, and Tera Patrick.
Pink TV is riding the wave, Verleur said. "There's a lot of shifting from [Los Angeles] to Miami." Production companies tired of studio monopolies are leaving Southern California, more top porn stars are visiting South Florida for business, and the area is full of attractive, multiethnic women, Verleur explained. So far South Florida has been a "welcoming region" for porn, Verleur said. "I think adult companies are happy to go anywhere where they're left alone."
It begins before you even open the door to the 16,000-square-foot Pink TV compound. A camera hovering over the entryway broadcasts your image to pinktv.com. Once you're inside, a ridiculously attractive blond receptionist asks you to sign a waiver accepting the somewhat Orwellian conditions: You will be monitored constantly; whatever you do or say will be sent out live to Web surfers around the world via 48 cameras and 40 microphones lodged throughout the warehouse in places both obvious and not so. Even the office staff and Verleur himself have cameras trained on their workplaces. ("But you can surf porn here," one employee said by way of compensation.) It's all in keeping with one of Pink TV's main objectives: interactive voyeurdom.
Of course, it's difficult to imagine why any Web surfer would bother to click on the lobby or office camera windows when he could click on the "naked lounge" or the "declothing room," the "shower," or even the "naked gym." Twelve hours a day, seven days a week (soon to be 24/7), this microcosmic community is populated with five to fifteen naked women mostly leggy blonds at any given time.
"You get desensitized to it," Verleur said as he led a recent tour of his prized warehouse. Chattering constantly about the promise of interactive porn and the three million dollars he has sunk into the Pink TV "compound," Verleur smoked Marlboro Lights and occasionally adjusted his square-frame glasses. He began the tour in his second-floor office/lounge stocked with a full bar, leather couches, crystal cigar ashtrays, and topnotch stereo equipment. A window in the floor looks down into an expansive shower stall often occupied by at least one bathing beauty.
Although they weren't afraid to put on promotional live sex shows in German cities during the recent World Cup, Pink TV officials expressed more than a little nervousness when a New Times reporter visited on two recent occasions. There were nondisclosure agreements to sign (none of the 30-odd employees, other than Verleur and vice president Dan Recio, could be named, and the warehouse's location could not be revealed). Also there would be no photographing of the two massive bathroom bins filled with dozens of clean and dirty (labeled accordingly) purple, blue, clear, plastic, smooth, ribbed, curved, straight, with-balls, without-balls, vaginal, and anal dildos.
For all the business-minded secrecy, Verleur and his staff come across as low-key guys you might expect to find watching Monday Night Football at the corner dive. Holding his cigarette behind his back, Verleur told the operator of the control room a bank of fifteen flat-screen TV sets with views from the warehouse's dozens of cameras to call up a voyeur girl on one of the monitors. "Say hello to New Times," the control room operator said into his headset. "Hello," she mouthed, spreading her legs wide in greeting. Moments later, after attention had shifted to another screen, the girl yawned widely.
First stop on the Pink TV tour: the "private session" rooms, shoeboxlike themed spaces (Heaven, Hell, geisha, Morocco, beach) where models will someday soon act out the fantasies of members who bid for the privilege of watching. Styrofoam doubles as stone in the "dungeon," while the "playroom," decorated with outsize alphabet building blocks, is creepy in a JonBenet Ramsey kind of way.
The naked gym is just that: a few stationary bikes and Nautilus machines mounted with tiny cameras. Verleur exchanges pleasantries with the heavily tattooed, buck-naked woman stretching out on the floor, and mentions he plans to build a "naked kitchen" as well.
And then there's the lounge: a pink-to-the-hilt living room furnished with a bed, couch, and makeup table. This is where the Pink TV women generally hang out a kind of sorority-house-meets-frisky-nudist-colony. As Verleur stepped into the room, three women were lying on the bed, giggling and maneuvering a vibrator. "We're kind of doing something," said a brunet with "Pookie" tattooed on her hip.
This is the kind of loose, clothes-off party atmosphere Verleur wants to cultivate around his brand. Log in via your computer or in the future with your TV-set-connected keyboard and join the party, the thinking goes. Pink TV stands apart, Verleur said, because of its unmatched interactivity, its personal touch. To demonstrate the point, Verleur described a recent party, a.k.a. whipped-cream squeal-fest, some of the voyeur girls threw, via the Internet, for a regular chatroom customer in Ireland.
Beyond Pink TV's voyeur world is the more traditional meat-and-potatoes business of shooting porn scenes. That's where the main studio comes in. On another visit to the warehouse, your intrepid correspondent looked on while a Barbie-doll-come-to-life tottered around in high heels, a postage-stamp-size skirt, and nothing else. "You wanna touch my boobies?" she asked with a microphone in hand. (Journalistic curiosity kicked in.) She was the host of Pink TV Live, an anything-goes talk show, leading her two-man camera crew around the warehouse for a behind-the-scenes look at the operation.
"Oh my God, look at that thing. It's not even hard." The Pink TV Live hostess had run into the male star on set for a sex scene to be uploaded to the Website. The well-endowed thespian-of-sorts couldn't chat long, though. He had to plan the scene's logistics with the cameraman and the director. Where should he stand for the blowjob, he asked.
"We're going to start off ... " the director said, pointing to the skinny-as-a-rail blond costar, "you're going to be masturbating first, then blowjob. Then, from there, he's going to eat you out."
"Oral for me first? Okay, I'll be right here," the male star said reassuringly. But the woman wanted to know when to take off her top.
"During the first position?" she asked flatly as she straddled her costar, holding his "talent" in her right hand.
Single scenes like this one, destined for the pinktv.com "content" section, footage unrelated to original shows or movies, will soon be superfluous, Verleur said. The Website is "just an appetizer," a way of generating interest in what will become a constellation of TV channels that will feature original programming on par with any major network. "HBO, they keep pushing the envelope toward erotic," Verleur said. "We want to push adult toward mainstream."
Born in Holland, Verleur grew up in Pennsylvania, graduating from high school at age fifteen and dropping out of college as a seventeen-year-old sophomore to focus full-time on making money. Sitting on the plush leather couch in his office's lounge, Verleur recalled being bored with school, moving from prelaw to marketing and then computer science, while spending most of his time as a door-to-door knife salesman. His aptitude for sales he convinced all of his mother's affluent, noncooking friends to buy knife sets was such that he quickly moved up the ranks. As an area manager with several salesmen under him, the teenage Verleur was grossing $15,000 per week.
There had been a string of jobs since Chrysler salesman, Web IT consultant, India outsourcing consultant but, Verleur said, he left each position out of boredom. He wanted to create something. "For me it's not about the money; it's about building an empire."
In 2003, two years after moving to Florida, Verleur put up two million dollars in savings almost every cent he had as seed money for Pink TV. He didn't know much about porn and knew less about broadcasting, but he knew about programming and he knew how to sell an idea. "Most of my day is not spent checking whether this girl or that is hot or not; it's error-checking code," Verleur said. Porn was a massive, money-filled industry the only segment of the online economy to consistently make money and no one was doing what Pink TV would do.
Often worried and often at his desk until late at night, Verleur is an unlikely fit for the role of porn mogul. Among the signed photos of nude adult stars such as Nina Hartley that adorn his office is a framed card from President George W. Bush, congratulating the Pink TV honcho on his wedding day. (Verleur would rather not talk about it.) His wife, a stay-at-home mom who never visits the studio, is "not too happy" with her husband's career choice and less enthusiastic about having Verleur spend much of his time at Pink TV's office in the Czech Republic, half a world away from their two young children.
The pace at Pink TV is relatively mellow these days as things ramp up for the anticipated channel launches. Only 900 members have signed on to the Website at a monthly subscription rate of $30 a significantly higher fee than average. That, too, is part of the plan, Verleur insisted, a five-year roadmap to "take over the world with an army of naked women." In fact he considers it gravy to have any members at this point. Most of the company's resources have been devoted to cranking out content including, most recently, preproduction on a comedic reality show where women compete to get a Pink TV contract, doing "all kinds of wacky missions" in the process; "a swinger drama series" to be shot in Prague; and a "sexual thriller" to be shot on yachts and in mansions around Miami.
Although plans for a Dish Network channel are on hold until 2007 or 2008 Verleur is consulting with a television distribution firm about the U.S. regulatory process Pink TV, or Heat TV as it is called in Europe, is already available on pay-per-view channels in seven million homes throughout France and Germany. "In the meantime," Verleur wrote in a recent e-mail, "we will be perfecting our broadcast offerings in the more forgiving European market. Many of the European platforms that we are working with are either owned by major U.S. providers or have close ties with them, so the transition back to the states shouldn't be a problem." A Dish Network spokeswoman declined to confirm whether the company is negotiating with Pink TV, citing company policy not to discuss contract talks.
Verleur holds a broadcasting license with the Bureau Voor De Televisie in the Netherlands, allowing him to broadcast hard-core porn to every European nation that allows it (all but a few). Working with 27 different cable and satellite providers, including Premier in Germany, Sky Italia, Belgacom, TeleGeneve, and Net Bonn, Verleur plans to begin launching subscription-based channels, rather than just pay-per-view services, later this year in a scheme that will eventually beam Heat TV to sixteen nations with combined viewership of more than 20 million. In the U.S., Pink TV will be available in hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms by the end of the year. Providers in discussions with Pink TV have contracts with hotel chains from Holiday Inn to Ritz-Carlton, Radisson to Hilton.
According to Verleur, some of the hotel room setups will include technology, developed by another company, allowing viewers to bid on "private sessions" or chat online with porn stars. Did you like The Joy Virus (the story of a mad scientist whose potion causes people to reach orgasm every two hours "or they die")? Get on the keyboard and chat with the flick's lead. This, Verleur says, is the future of television and will be the secret of success for Pink TV "the only network that lets you meet the stars." The plan is to make all Pink TV channels interactive, eventually using proprietary technology that Verleur claims is ready to go. You'll be able to choose a camera angle during a voyeur program or click on a product window during a show to buy the Ben Wa balls the hostess is giggling about.
The idea for now, unlike most business models in the porn world, is retention over volume. Verleur doesn't bother with affiliate programs the system by which other sites link to yours in exchange for a commission. Instead Pink TV has been targeting loyal members of other porn sites, exchanging content production services with site administrators for their members' contact information. Verleur is confident the law of statistics will be generous to him. "If I get a three percent conversion, I may have to go with the Ferrari instead of the Bentley," he joked.
But Verleur might have good reason to plan for the pricier Bentley. Pink TV's focus on interactivity, combined with its high production budgets up to $50,000 for one movie, an amount on par with Los Angeles's biggest porn studios put the company in a "unique position," according to Alec Helmy, publisher of the online version of industry magazine XBiz. "There is really no equivalent to what Pink TV is doing," said Ken Knox, associate editor of AVN Online. "The only thing you can compare them to is Playboy TV, but they have a much bigger agenda."
Pink TV has its work cut out. In the U.S., Playboy TV and the company's Spice channel are available to more than 142 million cable and satellite viewers, according to Playboy's Website. The networks' reach extends to more than 70 countries throughout Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Playboy TV spokesman Matt Kalinowski declined to comment about the network's production costs or plans for interactivity and said he hadn't heard of Pink TV.
Playboy TV? "Try watching it," Verleur quipped, his smirk uncontrollable. The shows are "boring" and unoriginal, Verleur said of his competition, nothing like the MTV-HBO-porn hybrid Pink TV aspires to.
Pink TV itself is far from perfect, said Lezley Zen, a big-name porn actress whose tenure as Pink TV's franchise starlet lasted all of three months. The dark-haired, pouty-lipped 32-year-old veteran of flicks such as Cheating Housewives #2 and Deep Throat This #4 left behind work with major porn studios Vivid and Wicked to come to Miami. For the mother of two, Pink TV seemed like a promising idea and a first step toward getting out of porn acting.
The plan, Zen said recently, was to do some scene work, put Pink TV on the porn map, and then become an executive at the company. The two sides agreed to terms, Zen claimed, but never signed the $6000-per-month contract because of various unresolved questions and scheduling issues. Soon there was a disagreement over Zen's involvement with the Pink TV booth at a Los Angeles porn convention. Then there were the arrangements for moving Zen's furniture, dogs, and cars to Florida, which she said her new employers botched badly, forcing her to fly back to California and arrange the move herself at great cost.
Two days after returning to Miami, Zen went to work on Into the Mist, Pink TV's BDSM soap opera. Despite the high production costs about $50,000 per episode, according to Verleur "It was the corniest, craziest thing I've ever seen," Zen said of the experience. The set was an eclectic house "maybe 2000 square feet" filled with bric-a-brac. "I've shot boy/girl gonzo in better locations," she snorted. Refusing to wear the TJ Maxx costumes her costars donned, Zen rented high-end dominatrix gear, on her own dime, from a friend in the business.
Unfortunately Zen's high-price leatherwear didn't do much for the plot. In a memorable early scene from Episode 1, Zen, playing Victoria Rutherford, the ruthless mistress of Rutherford Manor, becomes incensed at her servant boy, Willy, for spilling soup on her lap. In front of her houseguests two young women who wrongly believe they've been hired as nannies Rutherford forces Willy to remove his pants and then proceeds to paddle his bare save for the strap of his black thong behind. An excerpt:
Willy: Ms. Victoria, please, not so rough.
Victoria Rutherford: Show the girls how it's done, so when it's their turn, they'll know how to take it. (The girls exchange looks of frightened shock.) Spread those legs nice and wide.
Willy: They don't go any wider.
Rutherford: You like that, don't you?
Willy: No, it's ... ow. Please, Ms. Victoria. I think my butt's bleeding.
Rutherford: No, it's not. I promise. (A few moments later, Rutherford begins to spank Willy in rhythm with her lines.) You will not (spank) spill things (spank) on me (spank) at dinner (spank).
(After the spanking, the still pants-less Willy leads the girls to the bedroom they will share. As a piano tinkles in the background, Willy points out the pillows and blankets and suggests the girls get a good night's rest. Willy then walks away, the camera following his rear end in a tight closeup. "Did you see that butt?" one of the girls asks in a rhetorical deadpan.)
When Into the Mist wrapped, Zen was told she would need to do several sex scenes for pinktv.com. Zen refused, saying her contract stipulated only one such scene a month in addition to her duties as hostess of Pink TV Live, the yet-to-launch talk show, and work in the "private session" rooms. Shortly afterward, Zen said, Pink TV simply stopped paying her.
She still seethes over the experience and is considering suing. "He ruined my life," she said of Verleur.
Zen isn't the only one who claims to have been caught in a bind with Pink TV. Jenny Hendrix, a Los Angeles-based starlet, signed on with Verleur shortly after Zen did. Hendrix was nineteen at the time and optimistic that Pink TV would be her ticket to bigger things. It quickly became clear, Hendrix said, that the operation had major cracks.
Pink TV executives were overly focused on making a name for the company, Hendrix said, throwing lavish parties and inviting investors to sit in on shoots to create the illusion that the warehouse studio was more active than it really was. Contracts were often misleading, model release forms an essential part of the business were out-of-date, and money flow was questionable, Hendrix said. When it came time to cash her fourth paycheck, Hendrix learned there no longer was an account to draw upon. Hendrix said she eventually recouped some of the money, but the experience left a bad taste in her mouth. "They don't have their shit together," she said.
Verleur acknowledged that Pink TV had bounced checks during "hard times" in 2005, but emphasized that all debts were paid "even if it took an extra week here and there." Pink TV's pay rate is among the highest in the industry, Verleur said, and models can rely on stable weekly work as opposed to the one-off scene work that is porn's bread and butter.
Verleur saved his barbs for Zen, implying that her hire had been a mistake and that she had a reputation for getting herself fired. "I think a lot of L.A. companies thought we were crazy doing anything with her," Verleur wrote in a recent e-mail. Zen was given $20,000 for relocation costs, according to Verleur, who said he was unaware of any further details of the move. As for contract confusion, Verleur evinced surprise. "Zen's contract was never binding, because after endless back-and-forth negotiation, we could never come to a final agreement." Therefore, Verleur said, Zen worked on a strictly "per-project basis."
Zen shot back, saying she had never been fired by a porn company and that she was known simply for being "headstrong." As far as the contract, she said she had understood it to be an oral agreement. "I would not move across the country for a project-by-project job."
Beyond the boobs and drama, the sex and recriminations, Pink TV is a business like any other. Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" soothes on-hold phone callers to the warehouse studio. The receptionist chats amiably about her recent string of bad luck. Techies sweat in the whirring server room and stare blankly at the control room monitors. The voyeur lounge on a recent weekday night could have doubled as a Prozac ad. The height of action in the lounge that night: two naked women lying on their stomachs and tapping on their laptops (each has a computer to chat with customers online). A vaguely Native American-looking raven-haired woman with perky buns manned a laptop on the bed while a laconic blond lay on her back as she read The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom. Later they sat down to eat take-out steak and beans, occasionally making small talk or dawdling on their keyboards. A ceiling camera recorded every detail of the meal. Then the girls left the room for a spell. The chatroom buzzed briefly before going quiet:
Joaquin: damn all the girls are gone
Darrell81: is anyone there
As captain of the Pink TV ship, Verleur is constantly dreaming of distant, unconquered lands. He has pulled out unlikely successes before (Pink TV's investors wouldn't have trusted him otherwise), and he seems surrounded by true believers if there can be such a thing in the porn world on a profit-sharing plan. "Pink TV is a life investment for my staff and I," Verleur wrote recently. "We are a young, driven force of people who work sixteen-hour days, sacrifice nearly all personal life, and live, eat, and breathe Pink TV." Soon, Verleur said, he expects to buy out the adjacent warehouse and expand the Pink TV complex by about 10,000 square feet, building an outdoor deck and Jacuzzi as well as a gated parking lot.
Last summer, when he wasn't in backroom meetings, Verleur made the rounds at Pink TV's sprawling Internext bacchanal, seeing to it that everyone was having a good time. But he couldn't control the weather, and a few hours into the party, it began to rain. The gravel lot turned muddy, and the white tents stained. Soon guests were scampering for their cars, Pink TV just another dark warehouse in their rearview mirrors.
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