The phrase “reality series” is probably not quite apt for a TV show that centers on the musky dream world Hugh Hefner still inhabits half a century after the launch of Playboy magazine. But The Girls Next Door, which started last month on E! (Sundays, 9 p.m. ET), does indeed take the unscripted approach to life at the Playboy mansion in Los Angeles, which Hef shares with three blonde gal pals: Kendra Wilkinson, 20; Holly Madison, 25; and Bridget Marquardt, 31. The Girls debut scored a 1.06 households rating in metered markets and had 662,000 total viewers for its most recent episode—well over E!'s prime time average of 404,000. That performance, along with cultural indicators such as a summer episode of HBO's Entourage devoted to a party at the mansion, is evidence that Hefner himself remains his empire's best emissary, even as he approaches 80. B&C's Michael Malone (who, as it happens, once worked at Playboy.com), spoke with Hefner about the new series, the state of free expression today, and how the man keeps on going.
How did The Girls Next Door come to be?
It began with a good friend, Kevin Burns. Kevin is an Emmy Award-winning documentarian, and I met him when he did an A&E biography on me several years ago called “American Playboy.” Kevin approached me about it. We'd turned down a whole lot of reality shows over the last two or three years, but because it was Kevin and because the focus was the girls and not me, it just seemed like something that would be fun to do. And it was!
Which reality shows do you watch?
I've seen a number of them, but I don't really watch any. We watched Amazing Race for a little while because Playmate and close friend Victoria Fuller and her husband Jon were on it.
What's your favorite TV program?
Sex and the City and The Sopranos.
Why have the program be more about the girls and less about you?
First and foremost, because I really don't have time for it. Unlike most people who do reality shows, I have a full-time life, personal and professional. And there was the notion of intrusion. I also felt that there was tremendous additional appeal to a show about life at the Playboy mansion as seen through the eyes of the women. We know we're going to get a big male audience, but if you focus on the women, you have a real chance of hooking [female viewers] as well.
You've always been a vocal First Amendment advocate. How do you assess the state of the First Amendment today?
By and large, it's in pretty good shape, despite the powers that be that happen to be in government. Obviously, the federal government is not a friend of the First Amendment, and that's sad, but that's the way it is from time to time.
With some people convinced that society is going to hell—drugs and sex on TV, etc.—how do you reconcile promoting free sex and free speech with this notion people have of declining moral values?
What kind of world do you want to live in? Do you want to live in a theocracy or a democracy? Freedom is dangerous. The idea of a democracy is dangerous. It requires people to take moral responsibility for their lives. It also happens to be the absolute best way to live your life. There are many, many roads to Mecca and many appropriate and moral ways to live.
The concept of porn is everywhere—people joking about porn on sitcoms, porn stars writing books, etc. How and when did porn go mainstream?
With the arrival of videotape in the 1970s, it took porn from the movie theaters into the home, and then after that was the Internet. No matter what some people might like to accomplish, the reality is that the genie is out of the bottle and can't be put back in. The technology, for good or ill, is out there. I think we're the better for it.
Some were surprised when Playboy Enterprises acquired the Spice porn channel. When did that deal become attractive?
At the point where we noticed Time Warner and General Motors and everybody else was getting into the business. When porn truly did become mainstream and you could find it in every hotel, where every cable company was running an adult channel, it became obvious that that end of the business was going in that direction. And I've never had any problems with sexual imagery. It's just a matter of context and taste.
Do you feel there's too much sex on TV?
No. During adult-viewing times, I think there's nothing wrong with any kind of sex. There may be too much violence.
Rappers, athletes and actors all want to hang out with you. How do you explain your popularity?
That's been a revelation. After more than half a century, how are the brand and my personal life so hot again? It's a phenomenon. It probably has to do with a whole generation growing up in a more conservative time, during the '80s and '90s, and they hear the echoes of my life and Playboy from the '60s and '70s. And they want to feel connected to it.
Viagra or Cialis?
Viagra. I tried the others and went back to Viagra.
A few years ago, you had seven or eight girlfriends, and now you have three. Are you slowing down?
I'm emphasizing quality over quantity!