Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

television

-- television -- we are here, we are here, we are here!tv.

The segmentation and segregation of television content continues apace. Sort of.

The inevitability of a gay TV channel (MediaLife, April 12, 2004)

Despite all the ballyhoo in Washington about cleaning up the airwaves of sexually themed programming, it seems inevitable that a gay cable TV channel will be making its debut. The only question is when.

The answer appears to be, sooner than we may think.

Yesterday, here! TV, currently a pay-per-view provider of gay-themed content to satellite subscribers, said it plans to launch a channel on Oct. 1 offering gay-themed programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including original movies and series. The service will still be pay per view and offered to satellite customers via either a monthly subscription or four-hour programming blocks. But with primetime flooded with gay-themed TV shows ... it would seem the next logical step would be a gay-themed network offered to cable subscribers as a premium channel. Indeed, Viacom, which two years ago played with the idea of a gay launch, is broaching that idea again, with MTV Networks chairman and chief executive Tom Freston currently working on the plan. Here! TV may launch sooner, but Viacom would undoubtedly have bigger distribution and more money behind it.

One wonders why Viacom doesn't just buy here!tv, or at least make a major investment in it, if they're so hot to trot for the market segment. Either that, or buy PrideVision of Canada, although here!tv would seem to make more sense. here!tv is already doing a lot of preproduction on series, they have access to and licenses with all sorts of content providers in ways that will probably lock Viacom out of a great many things. (For that matter, PrideVision Canada may be locked out as well -- here!tv's agreement with TLA Video, especially, will be problematic for both, as TLA Releasing has recently emerged as a producing and distribution powerhouse in this particular niche.) What would make the most corporate sense would be for Viacom to buy both here!tv and PrideVision, unify them into one big wazoo gay television lump, and then go forward with all the power of an existing subscriber base and Viacom's commercial might (recently witness as they bludgeoned DISH satellite into more or less accepting their terms to keep stations they needed and stations they didn't want).

Corporate positioning aside, you still have to wonder if this is a good idea. If the channel had existed a few years earlier -- let's just call it The Big Gay Channel or TBGC -- that means that "Will and Grace" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and the other shows cited would likely never have made it to networks or basic cable, because the nets could have just shunted them off the TBGC. The same sort of thing has happened with minority projects on television generally; UPN has been seen, rightly or wrongly, as more friendly to black-oriented projects, resulting in their Monday night black comedy block. Outside of UPN, shows with primarily black casts can be seen in precisely two places that I'm aware of: one new show coming on ABC's TGIF lineup, "The Big House", and "Soul Food" on Showtime, which is coming to an end after this season. BET does surprisingly little dramatic or comedic development. From the heady heydays of The Cosby Show and The Jeffersons, which were generally popular with both black and white audiences, we've created shows which are now primarily seen only by black audiences. You can argue that the fractioning of the audience has been good in that it allows blacks to see those shows of interest in that way, but it also allows nonblacks to more easily avoid them. Some places still don't get UPN; lots of people don't buy Showtime access and wouldn't go near BET if you paid them. Say what you like about the quality and content, but The Cosby Show and the few other network offerings featuring minorites of its period were somewhat harder to avoid -- and judging by the ratings, not many people wanted to avoid them. As far as Hispanics go, historically, the situation has been far worse -- there really wasn't much in comedy or drama in the past focusing on Hispanics. Showtime broadcast "Resurrection Boulevard" for two or three seasons, but that was very recent -- Resurrection Boulevard went off the air only last season. Currently, there's PBS' American Family (which seems to be going into some deep waters this season, dealing with the war being assiduously avoided by most other shows) and ... and ... well.

Although it's far easier to avoid the gay themed content on television these days -- there are many more alternatives available in any given timeslot -- they're located in places that mean that if they do somehow catch people's attention, if they do somehow get that "buzz" going, they're more likely actually to be seen. You can argue about the value of the series, you can argue about the people and characters in them, but there is a certain familiarity value to simply having them present, surrounded by other nongay series that people will watch as well.

There are other concerns about TBGC or some equivalent thereof, independent of where on the dial the content is located. To date, most productions have depicted gays primarily, if not purely, as well-off white males. Even if they may be the lion's share, as determined by survey responses (and those surveys likely have some serious methodological issues -- it's more probable that they're the people comfortable actually responding to the surveys), well-off white males aren't the be-all and end-all of gays. There are lesbians, for one thing. (No, really, I'm assured they're out there.) Showtime has produced, to date, about the only series dealing with lesbians at all, "The L Word" (that said, the season finale was one of the most wretchedly bad things I've seen in ages -- but that's another issue), as well as the periodically invisible lesbian couple in "Queer as Folk", but you would be hard pressed to find much else. Gays and lesbians of color have, as far as I'm aware, been limited to Jai from "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and Jennifer Beals' Bette on "The L Word", and, again, little else. There's a very real chance that TBGC will wind up being even more focused on well-off white gay males, to the near-exclusion of everyone else.

Well. In any event, it will be interesting to see which of the three options winds up being the most broadly viewed in the US. here!tv has the advantage of content licenses and a modest existing subscriber base, PrideVision has the advantage of a very modest existing subscriber base, and Viacom has the advantage of being The Big Bad Boy on the Block with lots and lots and lots of money.

Never bet against the Big Bad Boy.

Posted by iain at 01:42 PM in category television