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Nothing Bunny About It

Shares of Playboy (NYSE: PLA  ) hit a three-year low this morning, after the adult-entertainment titan posted disappointing fourth-quarter results.

Revenue clocked in flat at $85.9 million for the period. The company posted a loss of $0.03 a share, after earning $0.11 a share a year earlier. Asset-sale losses and favorable tax benefits distorted the bottom-line results, but even without these one-time items, the company still would have closed out the quarter in the red. Wall Street was expecting a profit of $0.05 a share on slightly higher revenue.

The company continues to lose money on its flagship magazine, but that's not a shock. For a while now, the company has run its Playboy magazine as a loss leader to keep its brand visible and globally expanding.

Playboy continues to make money on its licensing business, and that's not a shock, either. That segment's the one bright spot at Playboy, especially since it nurtures casino and retail concepts. Licensing revenue chimed in 18% higher during the quarter, generating nearly enough in operating profit to offset all of the company's corporate overhead.

Online and mobile growth remains flat -- a potential shock to any Playboy investors who figured that the Internet and media-rich cell phones would be the keys to high-margin productivity gains. They're not, and Playboy's not alone in that respect. Even the more explicit purveyors of titillation have been struggling online. Strip-club operator Rick's Cabaret (Nasdaq: RICK  ) reported improved results at its clubs yesterday, yet posted a year-over-year dip in Internet revenue. New Frontier Media (Nasdaq: NOOF  ) posted a 33% slide in Internet revenue during the same quarter.

Have we become prudish in cyberspace? I doubt it. But enterprising upstarts have taken Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) free YouTube video-sharing model and applied it to raunchier uploads. Despite slick production values, it's hard for the pros to compete against exhibitionist amateurs giving away free content.

Thankfully for Playboy, the company really has moved in a new direction. It's still holding a hot brand, rolling with a Playboy store concept, and inking casino deals worldwide. Smaller, scattered online rivals can't touch it there.

Sure, it hurts to see Playboy dip this low. The company hasn't met the lofty expectations it inspired when it was first recommended to Rule Breakers newsletter-service subscribers. However, the original thesis remains intact. Playboy is doing a better job than the market thinks in milking the most out of its historical brand.

Now where's the money, bunny?

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