Christian dating web site BigChurch.com's motto is "Bringing people together in love and faith." A pointed quote from the Old Testament ("A man will leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." Gen. 2:24) precedes the site's Bible-verse search library. Further testimonial from a fresh-faced woman leaves little doubt as to the site's higher purpose: "I feel like my prayers of finding a respectable man have been answered! Thanks BigChurch!!"
So it may surprise users that BigChurch.com has a decidedly promiscuous corporate parent: Penthouse Media Group Inc. At a time when ever-raunchier Internet porn has made such mainstream mags as Penthouse and Playboy seem like throwbacks to more innocent times, these well-established brands have been trying to diversify and reinvent themselves. "If you're looking for adult content today, there are so many more places and many other ways to do that," says David Miller, an industry analyst and managing director at Los Angeles-based Sanders Morris Harris Group. "You can get it over the Internet for free."
Of that, adult media companies are painfully aware. In its first-quarter earnings report last week, Playboy Enterprises, Inc. reported declining revenue in nearly every division and an overall loss of $3.1 million. Betting on steady revenue from casinos, clothing and other products branded with its ubiquitous bunny icon, rather than from its media holdings, the company in recent years has recast itself as a lifestyle business. "Traditional print is a heritage business for us, and an important part of the brand. But realistically it's not a business that we see growing," says company spokesperson Martha Lindeman. "Today we are really a brand-management company."
The corporate parent of Penthouse—Playboy's raunchier newsstand rival, founded in 1965 by Bob Guccione—is taking a different tack. Bankrupt and racked with debt, Penthouse was acquired in 2004 by a group of investors led by entrepreneur Marc Bell. Bell's agenda for revitalizing the company evolved significantly last December when Penthouse acquired social-network behemoth Various, Inc. for $500 million in cash and stock. Operating well under the media radar compared with other social-networking companies like Facebook and MySpace, Various, headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif., has a deceptively broad and profitable reach. Its subsidiaries now include a number of online dating sites—from BigChurch.com to Bondage.com—that have signed up a combined 250 million members since they were founded and 1.2 million current subscribers who pay for content. Its biggest, AdultFriendFinder.com—which bills itself as "the world's largest adult sex and swingers site"—is one of the most highly trafficked Web sites in the world with more than 18 million members, the company says. Bell says in the coming months Penthouse Media Group will be renamed FriendFinder Networks, Inc., and he plans to take the company public by the end of the year. The Penthouse brand will be a well-known but admittedly smaller arm of the company. "Penthouse is just another Web site. We are in the social-networking business. We are not in the business of Penthouse," Bell says.
The company's strategy is to use its technology platform—and its well-established network of 600,000 online affiliates that link to its sites—to support a potentially unlimited number of sites catering to daters, friend seekers and adult-content consumers around the world. Dateless in Beijing? Try ChineseFriendFinder.com. Single and interested in a threesome in Omaha? AdultFriendFinder.com has plenty of couples looking for you, many of whom have uploaded erotic pictures of themselves.
So where does Penthouse fit in? Its name recognition can help cut through the Internet clutter. "Penthouse is a worldwide trademark and we see opportunity in combining our brands," Bell says. BigChurch.com, meet LikeMyNudePhoto .com. Opposites, it is said, attract.