Let me begin by asking an obvious question:
Is there any apparent problem with PLAYBOY which should be addressed by change in the editorial content and design of the magazine?
I think the answer to this question is an emphatic, Yes, from both the readers' and the editors' point of view.
I think that from the editors' point of view, there are two important problems:
1. PLAYBOY (the magazine, not the brand) has been portrayed by the media for many years now as being tired, old, out of touch, irrelevant, "your father's magazine". You can't see any media commentary on PLAYBOY that doesn't touch on this, often as the main point of the piece. This is a bad image to have.
2. PLAYBOY is perceived in the industry as not hot: the audience is aging, and even though it has a large total circulation it doesn't move well at the newsstand. I believe the reasons for this are quite complicated, but the bottom line is a matter of revenue: advertisers go elsewhere with their ad dollars.
I think this is the impetus of the editors' moves to revitalize the magazine. They now want to promote the magazine to a younger audience, and just as importantly, to advertisers. Tied up with this is the measurable goal of increasing newsstand sales. No doubt there are also some more subtle reasons, but to me this is the bottom line: PLAYBOY sees the successful competition at the newsstand gaining on their total circulation and is jockeying for position to maintain its dominance. If it is to grow its circulation, win over advertisers, and survive in the long term, it must both appease its current audience and gain a new one.
From the readers' point of view, I see these problems:
1. The magazine has been virtually stagnant for decades in terms of both layout and content. Where is the evolution, vision, and growth that were so evident in the magazine for its first 15 years? Where is the adventurous, bold content? Pick up PLAYBOY today and you see a magazine that is in many respects identical to what it was 20 years ago; and in some features, 40 and more years ago. No wonder it has been perceived as tired.
2. There has been a slow, evident decline in the quality of the magazine over the past 2-3 decades; this is evident in both the editorial content and the artistic design of the magazine. Why doesn't PLAYBOY take a stand on important issues much anymore? The editorial focus has slowly narrowed such that now most features are about crime, sports, and show business personalities. Why are the covers formulaic and boring? They used to win awards and charm the viewer; today's covers are a primary signal of loss of pride in good content and attention to good design. Many see this situation as a great loss. Why have they troweled the gutters for pictorial subjects not even worthy of appearing in PLAYBOY (11/97's Suzen Johnson/Franky Panky, The Woman Who Sacked Kathie Lee's Husband being the most egregious example)? Such features do more to harm PLAYBOY's reputation than to enhance it.
3. The new, revitalized PLAYBOY has introduced as many problems as it has addressed—the editors can't seem to decide what audience they are addressing, and as a result the magazine looks conflicted and lacks coherence.
In what I have seen of the "new" PLAYBOY so far, I think the editors have been partially successful; but I think they are still blind to some important issues, and so not only do some of the same problems remain, but they have created new ones. I believe that PLAYBOY can successfully address these problems by making thoughtful changes in its choice of content and in its presentation of that content—but to me it is clear, there are no quick fixes or easy answers.
I would now like to ask, What problems do PLAYBOY's editors think they are addressing? I think Hugh Hefner expresses what he sees as a very significant issue in this excerpt from a TV interview on MSNBC's Scarborough Country, July 24, 2003:
SCARBOROUGH: Now, PLAYBOY remains the biggest player in the men's magazine market. And I'm going to show the audience these facts. With a circulation of more than three million a month, your closest competitor is Maxim, selling 2.5 million. And the classic men's magazines, GQ and Esquire, sell less than 1 million issues a month. And, again, Penthouse, which once thought they were going to take over your market share, is now reported to be on the verge of going under. What do you think it says about PLAYBOY's success and magazines like Maxim's success? What does that say about tastes in American culture, specifically men's tastes, as we go into the 21st century? HEFNER: Well, I think it's obvious for a lot of reasons that there is a certain dumbing down of society. We get our news and information now by sound bites, the briefest kinds of moments on television and radio and on the Internet. And I think the nature of things also is that the younger generation has a shorter attention span. You see that reflected not only in magazines like Maxim, but you also see it in changes that have taken place in PLAYBOY. In other words, readers, by and large, are not as given to a thoughtful, extended periods of time with fiction or nonfiction. I think we're bombarded now by so many different sources of information, that it's kind of pick and choose.
I think this statement amounts to a diagnosis, on Hugh Hefner's part, of what ails PLAYBOY. He directly states that this point of view has resulted in changes in the magazine. I think that the statements that society has "dumbed down" and that people won't spend time reading are potentially very unfortunate beliefs for someone who produces a print publication, especially one of PLAYBOY's traditional quality.
I will not deny that there is some truth in this view. Clearly society has changed; clearly there is a type of information overload and a surfeit of alternatives for entertainment and for coming by information that has affected people's willingness to buy and spend time reading print publications. However—if this view of a dumbed-down America is completely true, we should all despair because not only is the collapse of our civilization inevitable (this is a matter of ultimate truth), it is also imminent; run for the hills.
I don't buy into the notion that the new generation has a short attention span and won't spend time reading. Consider two of the biggest media successes in many years: the Harry Potter series of novels and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Every Harry Potter novel, aimed at young people but read by many more, has been a number one bestseller, including the latest edition which weighs in at a hefty 870 pages. The Lord of the Rings movies are well over 3 hours each and not only do people sit through them without intermissions, but these movies have encouraged reprint sales of the original books. This does not suggest that mainstream America can't sit still; it suggests that they only await truly engaging presentations before they will sit still. Find something to capture the imagination and you have their undivided and loyal attention; the seeming slowness evaporates.
I would like to present a different point of view, my own diagnosis for what ails PLAYBOY. I believe this shift in view is significant because one's beliefs, one's point of view, very much matter. Change the editors' point of view and you change how they decide to change PLAYBOY.
My thesis is this:
It is not useful to place the cause of PLAYBOY's problems on the outside of PLAYBOY. PLAYBOY's editors must accept and acknowledge that they are themselves responsible for the state PLAYBOY is in: it is the cumulative result of editorial decisions made over a long period of time. PLAYBOY is not merely the victim of societal changes, it is an active author of its own decline.
This shift is potentially powerful in a practical sense, for it has this effect:
To see themselves as the source of their current situation empowers them to take a more active role in everything they do. It is inherently passive to see oneself as a victim of outside circumstances, and such a view causes one to become reactive and defensive rather than proactive and creative.
Why is a reactive stance bad? Because it misses opportunities to do something better, to make a unique impact. This is because one's energy tends to be focused on reacting to the outside rather than on something more creative and positive. I would rather see PLAYBOY's editors push out originality, creativity, excitement—truly rethink what they are doing and why—rather than reacting to and reflecting what goes on around them. PLAYBOY is at its best when it originates its own content in its own way, according to what pleases its editors; it is at its worst when it presents content as a reaction to some perceived threat.
I think the evidence of PLAYBOY's reactive stance is that much of the renewed PLAYBOY looks more mainstream, more like other magazines, rather than having the unique identity they had in their stronger days. While uniqueness isn't necessarily the only way to be strong, it does carve out one's niche, and both strengthens one's identity and offers more opportunties to strike a resonance with one's audience. I don't see this happening today; instead, there is a lot of imitation going on; a lot of worrying about the competition; and a lot of missed opportunity.
Hefner essentially said in the Scarborough's Country quote that PLAYBOY needs to adjust itself to today's society. I remember another recent interview where he said (to paraphrase), We do the best we can with the magazine in today's world. Again, the context is how society has changed, and PLAYBOY is forced to react. To me, he is offering what amounts to excuses in these interviews: excuses for declining quality, excuses for a lack of real understanding. By casting the magazine as a reactive victim in changing times, PLAYBOY's editors aren't responsible for less than stellar content, or for not living up to their own vision of what the magazine should be; they resign themselves to a pessimistic view of the state of the world and their role in it. I can't see this view as anything less than a tremendous lost opportunity.
Now is the time to let go of the view of PLAYBOY as a victim of a changed and changing world.
Anytime is a good time for a magazine like PLAYBOY, because the concept for the magazine is great, valid, and timeless. It is time to edit the magazine again like you believe this.