My Final Words

Peggy Wilkins mozart@lib.uchicago.edu
Mon, 15 Mar 2004 19:27:15 -0600


>>>>> "Dan" == Dan Stiffler <calendar-girls@adelphia.net> writes:

    Dan> A year ago, I was hoping that the thin paper could be
    Dan> improved; now, I just want the centerfold quality back.

We never discussed the recent changes in the quality of the centerfold
here in this forum.  I am very very unhappy with the appearance of the
centerfolds for 12/03, 2/04, and 4/04; and somewhat unhappy with
10/03, 1/04, and 3/04.  Given the prominent role of the centerfold in
PLAYBOY's brand identity, I can't understand what's going on here.  I
wrote to Hugh Hefner with some of my concerns, and he did seriously
look at this issue with Gary Cole and Tom Staebler, but I'm sorry to
say that the improvement from 2/04 to 3/04 has been lost on 4/04.  I'm
with Dan in wanting the centerfold to return to the quality it had up
through November 2003; the centerfold is a significant contributor to
the visual impact of PLAYBOY.  Something is seriously wrong here, and
the photo staff seem inexplicably unable to see (or correct) the
problem.

    Dan> Both Wayda and Freytag have done outstanding work, and I am
    Dan> not pushing to replace either of them, only add to the mix.

I think this ties in to the change from large format to medium format
photography for the centerfold.  Photography Director Gary Cole calls
large format photography an "outdated format" and apparently there are
few photographers today who have any experience with it.  We probably
won't be seeing any new photographers who will be working in large
format.  Well, what is one to do to continue getting a high quality
centerfold image, then?  (Though the image format isn't the only
factor affecting this, to be sure.)

    Dan> Well, we had the 50th anniversary issue.  And now what do we
    Dan> have?  I expected a regular feature this year detailing
    Dan> PLAYBOY's rich 50-year history.  There will probably be some
    Dan> photos from these nightclub parties rotating around the
    Dan> country, but PLAYBOY really missed an opportunity with this
    Dan> one.

And they continue to miss it.  The April issue's "Beauty and the Beat"
feature on female DJ's doesn't even mention, much less feature, 50th
anniversary Playmate Colleen Shannon.  How could they miss this
obvious opportunity to capitalize on their own brand and cement the
loyalty of all the readers who admired Colleen?  The Dear Playboy
section has letters about Colleen, but they don't even bother to refer
readers to the new pictorial from there.  These new editors are in
some ways asleep at the wheel as much as the old set.

    Dan> As I said before, the Forum remains the political soul of
    Dan> PLAYBOY.  I am, however, disturbed by the general drift
    Dan> towards crime-sheet exposÚs.  Consider this last year: The DC
    Dan> sniper; The Last Score: When a Bank Heist Goes Bad; Phil
    Dan> Spector Murder Mystery; Cop Tease: How a Nubile Narc Busted a
    Dan> High School; Crime Scene Clean Up; OJ Simpson interview;
    Dan> Murder Rap: Who Killed Jam Master Jay?; Busting Robert Blake;
    Dan> Blood Hound: On the Trail with a Bounty Hunter.

    Dan> This is PLAYBOY?  Something is going on here and I don't like
    Dan> it.

    Dan> Actually, the Kaminsky-era PLAYBOY reminds me very much of
    Dan> those True Detective/Crime magazines that relish putting sex
    Dan> and violence together.

We have talked about how formulaic the covers have become: slap the
celebrity-du-jour in a solid-color-background studio, drape text down
both sides, no setting, no idea, that's it.  I think that the
editorial content of the new PLAYBOY has become similarly formulaic.
It's like the editors have decided what topics constitute something
interesting, and they keep doing those things again and again and
again.  The formula is, find a scandal or crime in the news,
investigate it, be sure to do this every month.  This represents a
great loss of editorial scope: they now have a very narrow idea of
what they think is interesting.  Apparently if it's not a scandal and
not in the news, it's not worth writing about.

I thought the 50th anniversary issue displayed a much better selection
of articles; there was some real scope in there, some good ideas, some
inspiring ideas.  But sadly it's the exception, not the rule.  They
seriously need to widen their editorial scope.  In its editorial
content PLAYBOY now focuses on crime, sports, and show business
figures, to the exclusion of nearly everything else.  (I'm not
including fashion and gadgets in this because I don't consider those
features to be articles.)

    Dan> In the last year, I thought the anniversary cover was
    Dan> tasteful.  All other covers have had the same boring layout.
    Dan> I have liked some better than others (the Starbucks cover was
    Dan> good, the Lauren Hill cover was rather nice, and the double
    Dan> Sable/Torrie covers were clever) but not a single cover this
    Dan> last year made me take notice.

    Dan> This may be the longest running complaint on the PML.  I
    Dan> don't know anyone who thinks PLAYBOY is doing the right thing
    Dan> with its covers.  Every time this subject comes up, we offer
    Dan> lots of suggestions to deal with newsstand concerns, but
    Dan> PLAYBOY just keeps turning out the same old formula.

    Dan> Very discouraging.
 
Do you suppose Maxim's editors have been listening in on our
complaints?  They did something very interesting with their February
2004 issue and put out two covers: one with lots of contents type for
newsstands, and a second, cleaner one with almost no contents type for
subscribers.  The issue was very cleverly themed with a space travel
motif that appeared both on the cover and throughout the issue;
PLAYBOY used to have that kind of thoughtful coherence, back when they
cared about such things.  Then came the March issue, issue number 75;
in the cover picture, the number "75" is the number of a hotel door in
the background.  This is the kind of creative thought that used to go
into PLAYBOY!  I am liking Maxim's covers much more than PLAYBOY
nowadays.

    Dan> ... What I now see happening in those first ten years
    Dan> is simply not happening anymore: an editorial team with a
    Dan> coherent vision ...

A coherent vision--any coherent vision--would help them a great deal.
The vision I see holding sway now has them on a continual chase after
what's popular.  This may be part of a strategy to grab newsstand
sales, but such a policy is quite limiting in the long term.  It means
there isn't time to develop pieces that are really well thought out
and well written, because they are so focused on the moment, what's
hot news now; and there is a pressure to get it out before it stops
being news.  The priority is to grab attention rather than to be
really good and high quality.  I'd like to see more of a mix of
thoughtful writing with the more current stuff; I'm not seeing that
now.  I'd like to see less of a reliance on the formula.  I tire of
seeing crime stories and scandals month after month; that needs a rest
at this point, to be sure.

More generally, I'd like to see the editorial scope of PLAYBOY widen
again.  They have a wide reader base, and they just may succeed in
narrowing their scope so much that a lot of that wide base may abandon
them.  There is something to be said for having a more broad appeal.

Peggy Wilkins
mozart@lib.uchicago.edu