AVNONLINE COLUMN 200601 - HOMEPAGE - Once Bitten: The burden of history is a bitch.

When the promise of Internet porn profits first appeared on the horizon more than a decade ago, it seemed only logical that the adult video industry would have taken the Web by storm. After all, with years of business experience, vast stockpiles of existing content, and the money to make it happen, who else was better poised to saturate and dominate the burgeoning new market?

Surely no other industry could have been more attuned to the potential of a new technology that – like home video – would offer even more privacy to consumers of a product that is, for the most part, a solo sport.

However, when the first online train left the station, video companies were almost completely absent from the passenger list. There were some exceptions, like the visionary Timlake brothers, who had already foreseen the trend in amateur content with Homegrown Video, and were quick to parlay their prescience into online commerce. Yet the curious absence of practically every major video player from the ensuing gold rush created a vacuum that a new breed of entrepreneur eagerly filled, resulting in a disparity between the two industries that still reverberates to this day.

How could such an obvious opportunity have been so flagrantly ignored? Was it hubris? Ignorance? Fear? Complacency? All of the above? The answer is as complex as the human psyche, but primarily rooted in a trait with which the soon-to-be Web moguls seemed to be fortuitously unburdened: a sense of history.

The early ’90s was not necessarily a good period for the Big Boys of porn. Business was booming, but so were the war drums in Washington, D.C. Despite the inauguration of the porn-friendly Clinton administration, the overzealousness of the previous Republican regimes had already long been greasing the wheels for indictment and prosecution. The ensuing trials proved extremely costly—even for those who managed to avoid settlements, fines, and/or incarceration.

When the smoke cleared, many in the video industry came to a renewed understanding that running a successful adult company was not synonymous with reckless abandon, at least as far as the First Amendment was concerned. They were businesspeople, not activists, and with their personal freedom and financial comfort at stake, it was hard not to err on the side of caution. Consequently, the very idea of venturing into the Wild West of cyberspace – where there were neither safeguards against minors viewing adult material, nor systems in place to prohibit piracy – seemed to them nothing less than foolhardy.

This same sense of self-preservation also created a void in certain content that some video mavericks and many Web opportunists were quick to fill. Websites soon heralded the very sexual acts that struck fear into the heart of any court-fearing video executive.

Fisting? No problem. Water sports? Grab your raincoat. Rough sex? Break out the Bactine. Having already been through the obscenity gauntlet, the video industry waited for the hammer to fall on the callow and reckless upstarts who ignored “the rules.” Many are still waiting.

Prosecution was not the only historical hang-up to trouble the video industry. Technology can be a fickle mistress, as the showdown between VHS and the superior Betamax so aptly demonstrated. Then there were subsequent pretenders to the video throne, most notably the Laserdisc, which sucked money down a deep, dark hole. If such false starts gave the industry pause to embrace the DVD format, you can imagine how much credence they gave the home computer as the new portal of porn.

Looking back, their doubts seem understandable when one considers the technology available at the time. Connecting to the Net was a sketchy exercise at best, download times were intolerable, screen resolution of images was less than adequate, and the very notion of watching streaming video seemed as feasible as man’s colonization of the sun. Who in God’s name would sit at a computer and wank to poor-quality porn images when they can watch the real thing on VHS? As it turned out, the answer was just about everyone with a computer and modem. That was a concept many of the old guard simply could not believe—much less embrace.

That incredulity has waned over the years, but so has the window of opportunity that presented itself at the dawn of Web porn. Without question, the number of video producers willing to expand their business horizons online has steadily increased. Nevertheless, if you listen very carefully on any quiet morning in the San Fernando Valley, you can still hear the unmistakable sound of a hundred pornographers kicking themselves in the balls as soon as they get out of bed.