Pay Per Peep -- Viewers Who Shell Out The Bucks Can Watch Everything From Erotic Movies To Major Sports

If the sexy young woman's story were depicted in a magazine, it would arrive wrapped in brown paper. But this is television.

Open on an art gallery. The woman finds herself drawn to an abstract painting that, inexplicably, turns her on. She introduces herself to the painting's smoldering, well-chiseled creator. Before you can say Jackson Pollock, the couple is coupling.

In his studio. On the floor. On a piece of canvas. In a squishy puddle of what appears to be ultramarine-blue acrylic. When the artist asked, "Can I paint you?" he really meant it.

Cut to the canvas d'amore, now framed and hanging in the gallery. Another sexy young woman is contemplating it, wondering why it raises her body temperature.

Imagine "The Twilight Zone" meeting the erogenous zone, it has been noted, and you'll get an inkling of "Inside Out." The anthology series, now in its second season, is slick, expensive-looking, often amusing. Also, it does for naked breasts what "Starsky and Hutch" did for car chases. Accordingly, you won't see the show on the Big Three broadcast networks, or on Fox Broadcasting. Nor will you find it on HBO.

If you want to tune in and turn on to "Inside Out," first you've got to pony up. The show is telecast only on Playboy at Night, a "pay-per-view" (PPV, for short) service.

Pay per view is where, last week, you could watch Seattle SuperSonics home playoff games for the first time. This summer it's where you'll be able to buy commercial-free coverage of the Summer Olympics from Barcelona. The Judds crooned their farewell concert last December to a PPV audience. PPV has also been the place to catch prize fights and "Wrestlemania," and "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves" when your local video store was out. In the not-too-distant future, PPV might also show some Seattle Mariners games, pro football, a course on real-estate investing, and premieres of big-budget Hollywood films - before they open at the local multiplex.

For now, though, the boomingest segment of the fast-exploding $388 million PPV industry is erotic "tales of the unexpected," oriental massage how-tos, and movies with titles such as "Country Nurse" and "On Golden Blonde."

Call it pay-per-voyeurism.

"Our customers want to see a fairly regular dose of beautiful, glamorous women. Preferably unclothed," explains Michael Fleming, general manager of Playboy at Night. About 6.5 million cable homes can access the network, at a recommended price of $4.95 per evening.

Locally, Playboy at Night is the only niche PPV service available on the major cable systems. Viacom Cablevision offers it as either a monthly premium service or nightly through PPV; Summit Cablevision sells it as a monthly premium service. TCI does not offer the network.

Playboy at Night is the most polished player in the approximately two-year-old pay-for-T-and-A niche. It spends about $300,000 to produce each half-hour of "Inside Out," in partnership with Propaganda Films, the company best-known for its work with David Lynch on "Wild at Heart" and "Twin Peaks."

The network's other original programs - which make up 70 percent of its lineup - include erotic music videos, talk and magazine-style shows, instructional programs on massage, "intimate workout" and love-making, and video Playmates-of-the-month. Coming soon: A series of tax tips from a former IRS auditor who revealed her assets last year in Playboy magazine; a game show; and "Eden," a "Knots Landing"-style evening soap opera about the owner of an exotic tropical resort.

Two other networks, Spice and Action Pay Per View, round out the pay-per-voyeurism field. It's the highest-profit niche of PPV, one where revenues more than doubled last year, according to cable analyst Paul Kagan Associates.

All three networks target 18-to-49-year-old males. Industry experts say that's the audience most at ease with PPV technology, which typically requires a viewer to order by calling an automated phone service and punching in a code number.

"You can't see this stuff in theaters. A lot of video stores won't carry it. And in those that do, there's still the embarrassment factor of having to duck behind the curtain in the back room. Pay-per-view makes it very convenient and anonymous," says James English, in charge of programming for the non-erotic Viewer's Choice, the widest-reaching PPV network in the country.

Viewer's Choice shows major studio movies, concerts and sporting events to a potential audience of nearly 10 million homes - about half the number of all homes that can watch some sort of PPV program.

Spice is available in about 4.2 million homes nationally, but not to Washington state cable customers. Here's what we're missing, from April's schedule of Spice movies (most are originally X-rated films that have been re-cut for cable by removing shots of penetration and ejaculation): "On Golden Blonde," "Twin Peeks," "Talk Dirty to Me, Part VII" and "Search for Pink October." Between movies a Spice viewer could pass the time by watching a "featurette" on oil wrestling.

"We leave a little less to the imagination than our competition," says Spice's director of Western region affiliate sales, Daniel A. MacKenzie. "Customers don't want to spend $4 or $5 and have to guess the good parts."

Even Viewer's Choice and its closest mainstream competitor, Request Television, on occasion dip their toes into the window-steaming pool. This month, both networks will show the eighth edition of "The Bikini Open," a program dreamed up by the founder of Psychology Today magazine and built on bathing-suit contests.

The smallest of the niche networks, Action Pay Per View, expects to top the 3-million-subscriber mark next month. Alongside slam-bam flicks such as "Double Impact" and "Terminator 2," it mixes in such raciness as wet-T-shirt contests and movies like "The Swinging Cheerleaders" and "Country Nurse."

The naughty networks have flourished with little more than "over-the-fence" promotion - word-of-mouth between friends. Cable operators are reluctant to market the services aggressively, fearing the ire of some subscribers or conservative watchdog groups.

"The climate of the country isn't appropriate" for aggressive marketing, notes Tom Adams, a PPV analyst with Paul Kagan Associates. But, Adams adds, "one of the first things any new media is used for is this kind of programming."

So it was with home video; so it will probably be with the "virtual reality" technology that promises to bring fantasies to life. Today, the second-best selling MacIntosh CD-ROM program, according to the company that makes it, is a piece of interactive erotica called "Virtual Valerie."

High tech was lower in December 1977, when television viewers first could order and pay for individual programs. That's when the experimental interactive cable system called QUBE was launched in Columbus, Ohio.

QUBE's lineup on its 10 pay-per-view channels included Ohio State football games, "A Star is Born" and one channel devoted to adult movies. An early QUBE marketing executive says the soft-core films were among the system's most popular features.

"In Columbus, I recall, there were no adult theaters," says Ron Castell, now senior vice president of programming at Blockbuster Video. "We used to call it the foreplay channel."

For years, PPV remained little more than a curiosity. Even now, during an average day, only about 100,000 people place a PPV order. One network executive noted that PPV revenue is "a pimple" in the face of the video industry's annual $11 billion take for sales and rentals.

That blemish is growing faster, though. Since 1987, industry revenue has more than quadrupled, according to Paul Kagan Associates. This year, the company predicts, PPV's total take should top $600 million.

This summer's Olympics could help quicken the pace. NBC, which will also broadcast the Games on over-the-air TV, plans to spend about $40 million to promote the pay Olympics telecast - a first for PPV. Local cable companies will clear three channels for the 24-hour commercial-free coverage. Price tag to viewers: from $170 for a deluxe package that includes all 15 days and an "official pin set" to $29.95 for a single day of events (an option not offered by all local systems).

"It's a matter of people getting familiar with PPV, how to use it, where to get it," explains Bob Meyerowitz, producer of a weekly PPV concert series that last month featured pop sensation Marky Mark. "Unfortunately, we're somewhat encumbered with a bad name. It's like, a reporter is a nice thing to be; a `Pay-Per-Story' guy is not."

Besides its name, other factors holding back PPV are the approximately $100 per home it costs a local cable company to switch to "addressable" converters, and the strain on the wallet of watching a movie on PPV that may be available at the local video store for half the price, and probably soon will be playing on Showtime or HBO.

PPV could receive a major shot in the arm if, as several PPV executives believe, within the next year or so a movie studio will find it profitable to premiere a mass-market film on PPV instead of - or at the same time as - in cinemas.

Another reason to stay tuned: Coming in the next two to seven years to a bundle of cable wires near you is so-called "compression" technology that will squeeze several signals into the space that now can carry only one. Compression could exponentially expand the PPV universe to make possible more frequent start times (and cheaper prices) for hit movies, or a wider array of programs.

Already, PPV offerings have included the Metropolitan Opera and a Jack Nicklaus golf tutorial. Likely PPV prospects in the not-too-distant future, according to industry executives, include Broadway plays and lessons on everything from Chinese cooking to finance - "Things people might normally have to pay a few hundred dollars if they went to a hotel ballroom or signed up for a course," says Jeffrey Reiss, chairman of Request Television.

Some profit-hungry copycats will probably also slink into the spicy side of the business. But that niche may be destined to stay a niche.

"Sexual content and nudity is still culturally unacceptable to half or more of the population," says Playboy's Fleming, a cable industry veteran who helped launch Nickelodeon, the Movie Channel, MTV and Headline News.

"We deal with sex and sensuality as an important part of life. But for every one person I can find who agrees with my definition, I can find five who tell me I'm going to burn in hell."

Where they may or may not offer pay per view.