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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Playboy Shows Signs of Withdrawal


Who knew sex was a bad business to be in? That's probably what they're thinking over at Playboy's New York City offices, which are to be closed and its staff either laid off or offered a position at the magazine's headquarters in Chicago.

Feminists and social conservatives might not want to uncork the champagne just yet, however. It turns out this decision is more about real estate than the public appetite for nekkid women. It's much more difficult to find paying occupants for unwanted office space in Chicago than it is in New York City, so the 54-year-old magazine is moving back to its home base. The company opened its New York City offices on Fifth Avenue in the early 1990s and didn't move editorial functions there until 2002. (See pictures of Hugh Hefner.)

The closure is part of a wider restructuring of the magazine, which is to be headed by former Maxim editor Jimmy Jellinek, who was previously in charge of Playboy's website. will be relaunched in February with an emphasis on "sight, sound and motion," including instructional videos, says Jellinek. (Yes, some of the instructional videos will be about sex. No, they will not be explicit.) The editors who remain at the magazine will be expected to devise stories for the website as well.

More worrying for those who still get a thrill out of the bunny ears is that Playboy's Super Bowl party has been canceled. The gala was widely regarded as football's equivalent of the Vanity Fair Oscar party. Last year's bash — for which tickets cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000 — was hosted by Grammy-winning hip-hop artist Common and featured a drop-in by Hugh Marston Hefner himself, along with his three obliging companions from E!'s The Girls Next Door and a herd of other Playmates. For those who preferred women with fewer opinions, there was a life-size Femlin model (note to Hef novitiates: Femlins are a hybrid of females and gremlins) atop a martini glass. There were drinks, celebs, giveaways — all in all, a classic one-two punch of nostalgia and naughtiness. (Read "10 Questions for Hugh Hefner.")

This duality is the strength and weakness of the magazine, which back in the '70s sold up to 7 million copies a month but has been losing money for years. In the third quarter of 2008 alone, the publishing sector of Playboy Enterprises Inc. lost $1.3 million. While Playboy is still the best-selling men's magazine (circ. 2.6 million), its market share has been eaten away by lad mags like FHM and Maxim. The publication is kept alive because apart from its historical importance to the Playboy brand, it is said to be much beloved by Hefner, who is still its editor in chief. But longtime Playboy Enterprises Inc. CEO and even longer time Hef daughter Christie Hefner will step down at the end of January, so change is inevitable. And Playboy Enterprises Inc. stock has been vulgar, dropping 90% in a year. The company has an entertainment arm in Los Angeles and licenses its name and bunny logo to anyone who'll pay, including a wine company in 2008, but is said to make most of its money from its less well-known, more hard-core enterprises such as Spice TV and, named for porn star Jenna Jameson. (See the top 10 magazine covers of 2008.)

The soon-to-be-defunct address on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue was perfect for the tone of classy depravity that the magazine tries to project and that made it acceptable to a more sophisticated type of reader who might otherwise be embarrassed to be associated with porn. This is not about the objectification of women, it said, it's about harmless fun. And some good journalism. But with the anonymity and impermanence of the Internet (no more telltale boxes of magazines under the bed), there's less appetite for Playboy's now almost coy-seeming nudity. A girlie magazine located on the strip of real estate once known as Ladies' Mile stopped being funny and became an anachronism that couldn't be sustained.

In one hopeful note, Los Angeles' Playboy Mansion, Shangri-la for so many 22-year-old males, seems safe for now. As one staffer puts it, "I can't imagine a scenario in which the mansion does not survive."

See pictures of pinup queen Bettie Page.