From The Playboy Channel to Porn Tubes: A Televisual Approach to Pornographic Media
Luke Stadel, Northwestern University
In my article, "Cable, Pornography, and the Reinvention of
Television, 1982-1989,” I argue that the availability of pornography on cable
television, specifically through the small number of niche porn-only channels
that emerged in the early 1980s, resulted in a broader cultural redefinition of
the television apparatus as a sexual technology.
In this brief follow-up piece, I want to consider how my article, which makes
an argument bounded by the parameters of a short-lived historical moment in
which pornography figured centrally in regulatory debates over the meaning of
television as a fact of American life, might be useful in understanding
contemporary developments in sex media, specifically the recent phenomenon of
the porn tube. Although porn tubes have emerged within a media environment
characterized by relatively new technologies like laptop computers,
smartphones, and high-speed wireless internet and are subject to a relatively
liberal set of regulations as allowed by the Communications Decency Act of 1996,
I want to suggest that we can still understand the porn tube as a televisual
protocol for engagement with pornographic media. By this, I mean to argue that
we can understand the porn tube not as a radically new method for the
consumption of pornography, but rather as a fulfillment of a certain mode of
engagement with sex media that combines the functions of both cable television
and the VCR to create a technological apparatus that remains grounded in the notions
of domesticity, the everyday, and liveness that have historically defined
television as a medium.
Figure 1: Pornhub site traffic during Super Bowl XLVIII, showing an inverse relationship between porn tube usage and television ratings.
connection between porn tubes and television, specifically as forms of everyday
domestic media practice, is saliently represented in a recent anecdote offered
by Pornhub, a popular porn tube site. In a blog post that was widely cited in mainstream
press, Pornhub offered a breakdown of its site traffic before, during, and
after the Super Bowl, an event that is annually the single most-watched
television program in America, if not the entire world (see Figure 1). According
to the blog entry, overall site traffic prior to the game was down 6%, and
plunged as much as 30% during the game (with a drop exceeding 50% in both
Seattle and Denver, the two cities represented in the game [see Figure 2]), a
number that would rebound to a 4% postgame spike in the hours following the
event’s conclusion. While the shift in porn
viewing habits to accommodate a major television event is noteworthy enough in
relation to my hypothesis, the extent to which to which television ratings for
the game function in almost direct correspondence with Pornhub’s overall site
traffic shows an intensely complementary relationship between watching porn and
watching television. During the second half, as dominant performance by Seattle
began to turn into a rout, television viewers began to turn off their
television sets and turn on their porn tubes. From 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., the
football game lost 20% of its domestic audience, while over the same span, Pornhub
picked back up nearly 10% of its normal traffic.
As the television audience plummeted from a peak of roughly 105 million viewers
to a mere 32 million by 10 p.m., when the game neared its anti-climactic
conclusion, Pornhub saw traffic recover entirely, with a slight uptick over
normal traffic at 10 p.m. becoming a nearly 10% increase by 11 p.m. This
relationship between television and porn tubes is in keeping with a trend noted
elsewhere by Pornhub, a clear correspondence between major world events (e.g.
the capture of Osama Bin Laden by US military forces), for which television
remains the most popular news source, and porn tube usage.
As American audiences turn toward television news sources during major moments
of public interest, they turn away not only from other channels, but also away
from porn tubes.
Figure 2: Geographic and temporal fluctuation in porn viewership during Super Bowl XLVIII.
What this suggests to me is that,
far from existing as an exceptional form of media practice, the consumption of
pornography is much like the consumption of television, in that it takes place
as part of a normal routine for most users. Indeed, what Pornhub’s data from
the event suggests is that, rather than occurring as part of an individual and
thus highly idiosyncratic form of sexual practice, porn tubes have helped
manifest the idea of an "audience” for pornography, one that is not unlike the
audience for television, specifically in its regularity and grounding within
the rhythms of the home. In this way, porn tubes have mimicked the assumption
of the mantle of televisuality by YouTube, which William Uricchio has
identified as "a transitional model to next generation television,” due to its adherence
to and modification of historical practices of television usage.
Figure 3: Screen capture of Pornhub homepage, demonstrating the televisual interface of the porn tube.
Pornhub, often in a tongue-in-cheek
way, perpetually frames its typical user as a solitary (presumably male)
masturbator, yet the site also espouses a strong communitarian impulse, not
unlike that of other social media. As much as its audience is framed as
domestic and everyday, and thus implicitly family-structured, it is also
defined by a collective identity grounded in the effect of simultaneity or
liveness facilitated by specific choices about how the site looks and works. The
header on Pornhub’s main page touts the "Pornhub Network,” comprised of a
number of sites, such as RedTube, Tube8, KeezMovies, and XTube, as well as gay
analogs for each site (See Figure 3). Clicking the "categories” tab leads the
user to a page not unlike a television onscreen channel guide, with a variety
of niche interests (e.g. squirt, MILF, hentai, anal, female friendly) available
for browsing the site’s vast and ever-growing archive. Although, like YouTube,
the content of the site is primarily prerecorded media, liveness is featured as
a major appeal of the porn tube, with live performances, both by solo
performers and groups of individuals, at scheduled times being advertised on
the main banner of the load screen.
Right below this headers, and above the section of the most recently uploaded
videos, users are given a small sampling of "porn videos being watched,”
suggesting the appeal of being part of a live audience, even if the content
itself is prerecorded. Furthermore, a whole separate section of the site is
dedicated to amateur webcam channels, where users can pay by the minute to
access live sex performers on an around-the-clock basis (see Figure 4). In
serving as a 24/7 free-flowing fount of hardcore pornography, the porn tube has
ironically come to function much in the way that opponents of pornography
incorrectly accused cable television of doing in the 1980s, as I note in the
penultimate section of my article.
Figure 4: Screen capture of Pornhub Live homepage.
aim of this brief essay has largely been to extrapolate how the transformation
of the televisual experience produced by the introduction of cableporn in the
1980s has continued to inflect our contemporary media environment, I want to
conclude by noting a larger take-away from the case studies I have presented in
both the article and this blog entry: the need to consider pornography as a not
simply a textual phenomenon but also a technological phenomenon. Scholars like
Rachel P. Maines and Jonathan Coopersmith, whom I cite in the article, have
contributed productively to discussions of the effects that technology has on
human sexuality, yet media scholars have been hesitant speak of pornography in
terms of medium specificity, with all moving-image based pornography frequently
being subject to analysis as instantiations of the phenomenon of cinema. Work like
Jacob Smith’s study of blue discs and Peter Alilunas’ recent dissertation on
the history of adult video represent an important move toward considering
questions of medium specificity in academic discussions of pornography.
However, while sound studies and format theory have begun to influence
discussions of pornography and sex media, television has still largely remained
outside the equation. It is my hope that this post and the article it
accompanies will contribute to a growing acknowledgement of the importance of
critical studies of television and other related media as technologies not only
in the subdiscipline of porn studies, but within field of cinema and media
studies as a whole.
Thanks to the participants at the University of Michigan’s
"Sex, Media, Reception” conference, who provided a helpful forum for me to toy
with some of the ideas advanced in this post. I would like to add an additional
word of thanks to the many editors and proofreaders who oversaw the progression
of the Cinema Journal article from
start to finish. Your labor was an invaluable contribution to the finished
 Luke Stadel, "Cable,
Pornography, and the Reinvention of Television, 1982-1989” Cinema Journal 53.3 (Spring 2014): 52-75.
 "Pornhub Traffic Change
During Super Bowl XLVIII,” Pornhub.com, http://www.pornhub.com/insights/pornhub-super-bowl/
(Accessed 4 March 201).
 Daniel Fienberg, "TV
Ratings: Seahawks' Super Bowl XLVIII rout helps FOX rout Sunday night,”
(Accessed 4 March 2014).
 "Pornhub Traffic Driven by
Worldwide Events,” Pornhub.com, http://www.pornhub.com/insights/pornhub-traffic-trends-world-events/
(Accessed 4 March 2014). On the continued viability of television as a news
outlet, especially in comparison to the web, see Toby Miller, "TV is Dead,” CST
Online, http://cstonline.tv/tv-is-dead-2 (Accessed 7 March 2014).
 William Uricchio, "The
Future of a Medium Once Known as Television,” in The YouTube Reader, eds. Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau
(Stockholm: National Library of Sweden, 2009), 37.
 Brazzers, a major online
pay-based porn site, pioneered this practice, as they began streaming live porn
shows as early as 2009. See the Brazzers Live homepage, http://www.brazzers.com/liveshow/.
 Jacob Smith, "Erotic
Performance on Record” in Vocal Tracks (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2008); Peter Alilunas, "Smutty Little Movies:
The Creation and Regulation of Adult Video, 1976-1986,” (PhD diss., University
of Michigan, 2013).