Thursday, October 21, 2010

Penthouse, Omni Publisher Bob Guccione Dies

Bob Guccione, creator and publisher of Penthouse and many other magazines, has died, notes MSNBC.

Out of the public eye for a number of years since losing control of his media empire (following a series of bad business decisions compounded by a changing media market – especially in the adult niche where he made most of his money – and government harassment), Guccione died in Plano, Texas, at the age of 79.

Guccione was a very controversial figure in society in general and publishing in particular. He started Penthouse magazine as a way to supplement his art career in England. The early years of the publication (as noted in this blog post of mine from a while back that continues to be one of my most-read posts – probably because a lot of people do searches on the magazine's name) were almost a comic affair, with the editor and a small handful of staffers trying to make the magazine and its impact look bigger than it was, working out of a small office and doing all the work themselves.

Of course, Penthouse grew dramatically, eventually reaching millions of copies in monthly sales and spawning a publishing empire that included everything from Omni and Longevity to Viva. The company also produced television programs, books, videos, web sites, comics, and more.

Viva was a 1970s attempt to do a magazine aimed at women, featuring somewhat nude men (less explicitly than Penthouse showed the women) along with health and political articles. It was a rather odd attempt; if you like Mickey Rourke and want to see him naked, then maybe you'll like the men in Viva. But Viva did bring to the publishing world something of greater value: its fashion editor, Anna Wintour, who would go on to great success at Vogue.

Throughout his career, Guccione careened from successes (such as Penthouse, or the early years of the science/science-fiction magazine Omni, which topped a million copies in monthly sales in the early 1980s before beginning a long decline) to failures (such as failed investments in casinos that were never built or in energy schemes that went nowhere). Along the way, he had the expected battles with feminists and the religious Right, winning some battles and losing others.

Though his core product, Penthouse, was not aimed at my demographic, that doesn't mean I'm unaware of his impact on the media world. I do not think Guccione is an icon in the way that Hugh Hefner is; Hefner changed the society instead of just riding a wave, and I think he set (and continues to set) a higher bar for thought and publishing. But Guccione made an impact by being willing to be brave and bold in his moves. Though far too many of Penthouse's articles were conspiracy-mucking, they could also be brave, such as when they took on Scientology. He also championed some of the top writers and editors in the country, such as Wintour, Ben Bova, Harlan Ellison, Carl Sagan, James A. Michener, Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Philip K. Dick, and so many more.

Whether one liked or disliked his publications, I think it's worth noting that it was possible for one man to conceive of and then build a media empire the way he wanted to do it, to publish the ideas and artists that he wanted to showcase, and even to make the mistakes that he wanted to do. Far from being a bean-counting MBA heading up a soul-less corporate publishing company, Guccione ran his empire from his heart. Again, Penthouse wasn't my cup of tea (though Omni was), but I hope we haven't lost the ability for someone to do the same thing.

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