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How the Spice Channel Beat the Censors and Changed Cable TV Forever

The incredible story of how the Spice Channel snuck porn onto your screen and paved the way for HBO and Showtime

One glorious day in the 1990s, a middle-school classmate instructed me to accompany him home when the dismissal bell rang. I told Nick I could only stay over for a few minutes, so whatever he needed to show me probably wouldn’t be worth the trip. But Nick was adamant that I go, his secret so severe it was as though humanity’s survival was at stake in his living room. 

When we arrived, he exclaimed that his illegal cable box suddenly sported a channel that showed people screwing. Nick turned on the TV, and we saw a woman disrobe. She then engaged in what we presumed was sex with a male performer. Her face contorting, she moaned repeatedly and, bent over, her breasts flailed in lockstep with the fleshy slaps of the soundtrack. “It’s like this all day on here,” Nick said, welcoming me alongside him, waist-deep in nirvana. “It’s called the Spice Channel.”

Though no penises penetrated any vaginas on screen, our minds filled in the blanks as best they could. For teenage me, who also had an illegal cable box at home, the stuff on Spice was a gift. 

Available in some U.S. markets as early as 1992, the Spice Channel aired heavily edited porn movies across the entire broadcast day. Viewers witnessed no fucking (of pussies or asses). Stretches of oral sex featured head bobs of both men and women shot from the side, with limbs, hair and set pieces blocking the camera lens of their respective genitals. Still, Spice was an upgrade in explicitness over the Playboy Channel, a station that aired some soft-core porn, but primarily offered more vanilla content — clips of Playmates or adult film stars engaging in artistic, nude dance, as well as sex advice from Dr. Ruth and mainstream erotic thriller films. 

Why, though, could the Spice Channel go no further? That is, why were porn consumers who paid for a monthly subscription to the network or a cable descrambler in the 1990s deprived of actual sex on its airwaves?

“At the time, the Justice Department was arguing that anything that clearly showed penetration was obscene,” says Robert Corn-Revere, a noted First Amendment lawyer. “The standard at the time was sort of in transition, not so much what the law was — the legal tacit — but what was considered to be the community standard.” 

Before both Spice and the Playboy Channel aired soft-core porn, paid cable stations in the 1980s, such as HBO, Cinemax and Showtime, aired sexually-charged films and TV shows that boasted a certain kind of explicitness. “Basically you got to see titties,” says Jonathan Morgan, a prolific adult film performer and director turned talent agent, who began his career in 1990. “It was extremely campy; people weren’t actually having sex, because it always involved the guy wearing a sock, and the girl wearing some kind of skin-toned panty. [Spice] was taking it to a whole different level.”

The fact that cable TV offered movies with curse words, much less bare female breasts, was jarring for some viewers back then. Up to that point, their viewing habits had only been reared by broadcast networks that aired over FCC-regulated public airwaves. In the landmark case HBO v. FCC, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia found in 1977 that subscription-based cable stations like HBO weren’t subject to the same government regulations as those public airwaves, which could be picked up by anyone over an antenna. To this day, because cable’s in-home viewers have willingly paid to see the content, the FCC has no right to pitch a regulatory tent in the space. 

Still, the 1980s saw several cases in which legislative bodies sought ways to censor cable channels, including a 1982 case out of Utah, HBO v. Wilkinson, and Cruz v. Ferre, heard in Miami in 1983. In both, state and city governments, respectively, charged that cable stations were broadcasting indecent or obscene material, which to some appeared pornographic in nature or just had extraordinarily foul language that apparently crossed a line. Time after time, judges sided with the TV stations and providers, saying that viewers who objected to the material should go ahead and cut their cable.

Later that decade and into the early 1990s, the Playboy Channel upped the ante, intermingling soft-core porn with titillating game shows and other content. Then, a man named Mark Graff, then president of Graff Pay-per-View, a broadcasting company he founded in 1987, started the Spice Channel in an effort to compete with Playboy. To get a leg up, he asked porn production companies to prop their performers’ legs up, so as to hide sexual penetration in their hardcore films, and hopefully, steer clear of lawsuits. The approach prompted a series of (borderline exploitative) changes on porn movie sets.

“We used to call it ‘the Elbows and Knees Channel.’ [That] was the joke when we’d shoot the stuff,” says adult film director Jim Powers. Cinematographers had to appease the Spice Channel’s no-genital, no-penetration requirements, passed down through the studio heads who were eager to take advantage of a new distribution pathway — and revenue stream — on cable. Powers liked to work efficiently, filming “real,” penetrative sex in tandem with what would become the soft-core versions. To do so, he employed multiple, strategic camera angles, and positioned body parts and props in the shot to block the genitals from the lens. “People were fucking, and you’d get the shot from the back, and in the foreground, there’d be a vase,” Powers explains. “And you’re at home as a kid going, ‘Why the fuck is that vase there? You’re blocking the hardcore, hello!’”

Some directors chose to film an entire scene as soft, reset everything — the set, makeup, costumes, etc. — and start over to film the hardcore version. Depending on the director, the on-set sex filmed while getting soft-core footage might not have actually featured penetration at all — or even an erect penis. (Soft was shot first because it required less energy on the part of the performers than the hard takes.) 

Jake Jacobs, who’s been a camera operator on adult film sets since 1984, says that tactic of shooting all soft-core footage then all hard-core was beneficial for the post-production editors. When piecing together a Spice Channel-ready flick, they wouldn’t have to deal with a single frame featuring those naughty genitals. But the editors were about the only people appreciative of the protocol, which made it more apparent to everyone on set that they were doing double duty. “Our work only increased with [Spice], but it wasn’t ever reflected in our pay,” Jacobs tells me. “The only ones who ever benefited from that were the companies,” Spice and the production studios.

Another adult film director turned talent agent, Bud Lee, says that, like both Powers and Morgan, he eschewed such an approach to filming because he looked out for his crew, and found that he got the best performances by shooting only penetrative sex. “There’s more emotions in a woman’s face and body when she’s actually having sex than when she’s acting like she’s having sex,” Lee explains. “So you capture more realism and more sensuality on her face when she’s actually getting penetrated.” Additional cameras filmed the fucking from softcore-friendly angles.

Porn performer and producer Brittany Andrews, who began her career in the mid-1990s, says “softcore doesn’t really exist anymore,” but she used to embrace such shoots for myriad reasons. During them, for instance, she didn’t have to “deal with dick issues” (for example, getting hard and cumming at the right time) and the “ego of the male performers.” “All of that is so fucking time-consuming,” she tells me.

The general soft-core experience from a production standpoint was also more creative. Along with the inventive camera angles that blocked the penetration from view, there were more elaborate storylines, costumes and sets. Sex scenes in the Spice Channel movies were shorter than those of the hardcore versions because there simply was less good footage to pull from. But for a movie to make it onto the network, it had to creep into feature-length territory, running at least 75 minutes, which generated a need for better-developed scripts.

But despite of all the adult film crews’ uncompensated-for efforts to turn down the intensity of what cable subscribers saw versus what was included on VHS tapes or in porn theaters, legal troubles still arrived. In 1994, within six months of Spice being made available in Southern California cities Oxnard and Thousand Oaks, more than a dozen citizens there filed complaints with local legislators over insufficiently scrambled channel signals. “What really concerns me is, from what I understand, a good number of junior high kids know about it,” one of the complainants told the L.A. Times. (Though I lived in New York, she might as well have been talking about me.) “That’s scary. Twelve-year-old boys definitely don’t need to think that is how things are.”

The question over the quality of cable adult entertainment stations’ scrambling technology made its way to the Supreme Court in 1999. There, Corn-Revere argued on behalf of Playboy Entertainment, which was pitted against the U.S. federal government. Three years earlier, the Clinton administration had signed the Telecommunications Act into law. One of its provisions, in Section 505, said that cable companies were required to effectively scramble or block channels “primarily dedicated to sexually-oriented programming.” If they didn’t, those stations could only be broadcast between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., when children were less likely to be watching. Playboy sued the government, and won in a lower court, but the case wound up in the Supreme Court on appeal.

After a 5-4 decision in 2000, the majority-voting Supreme Court justices said that Section 505 violated Playboy’s First Amendment rights. They agreed with Playboy, too, that a less-restrictive alternative regulation — outlined in Section 504 of the same act, which said a cable operator could “[u]pon request by a cable service subscriber … fully scramble or otherwise fully block” an adult-entertainment station —  was sufficient.

The Court’s decision was a blow to more conservative figures who wished to see stricter definitions of “obscene” and “indecent” material integrated into government regulations. In the short-term, it was a win for the Spice Channel as much as it was for Playboy. It also arguably helped pave the way for XXX-rated content, with genital penetration on display, to end up on cable and satellite stations as well. “I believe, but cannot know, that the changes resulted from a combination of factors — including public preferences, technology changes and an increasingly favorable legal environment,” Corn-Revere tells me, referring to the uptick in explicitness of TV-aired porn thereafter. “It really wasn’t until the Playboy case that it was fully established that the broadcasting indecency laws weren’t going to be applied, in some way, to cable.”

More hardcore options started to come around on cable and satellite in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including the Spice Channel offshoot “Spice Hot,” which all but rendered the original Spice Channel obsolete. “Whenever you give somebody something, they’ll feast on it and then, after a while, they’ll say, ‘Okay, we feasted on this, what else ya got?’” Morgan says of viewers. “Like anything, they wanted to see more and soon what they wanted to see was out of the realm of what softcore was.”

The logical conclusion of this, he adds, is that “what 10 years ago was taboo, today is common.”

That’s due in large part to the hard-core porn deluge available online, desensitizing media consumers even further than they were by Spice in the mid-1990s. Widespread online porn was made possible with help from Reno v. ACLU, the Supreme Court case that struck down portions of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, protecting the worldwide web under the First Amendment in the same ways as traditional media.

Playboy Entertainment purchased the Spice Networks in 1998 for $95 million, or $151 million in today’s money. Spice properties were later gobbled up by the Manwin company, which changed its name to MindGeek in 2013, and now holds a virtual porn monopoly, running many of your favorite porn tube sites and other outlets.

Though the original Spice Channel to some degree may have been what Brittany Andrews calls relative “a blip” in the porn history books, not really relevant for much more than a half-dozen years, its impact on the industry was outsized. Porn starlets, who regularly danced the nationwide strip club circuit on the side, became literal household names, drawing bigger crowds around pole-outfitted stages. In all likelihood, upon watching soft-core cuts of films on Spice, any number of viewers went out to video stores and bought the hard-core versions, too. With the added revenue being pumped in, the industry produced higher quality films that were more effectively marketed. 

“It gave all of us the feeling that we’d become more mainstream, and we were accepted, that what we do is valid,” says Jacobs, the camera operator.

“Everything was glamorous, getting more corporate,” adds longtime adult film star Nina Hartley. “The 1990s were in between the clumsy, fun, home-movie 1980s and the super-, super-digitized 2000s and 2010s. And so, they were getting more sophisticated in the packaging, the smoothness, the polish; they were making it more acceptable to ‘wifey’ and to regular people, not just ‘perverts.’”

The Spice Channel was definitely acceptable to me. It helped forge my sexuality, as I’m still way into the lingerie and spiky shoes I saw over and over again on Spice (I know, I know). In fact, perhaps the most personally arousing images from those, in retrospect, not-so-graphic movies were the ones that came onscreen before the “sex.”

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