Gay TV Networks: Boom or Bust?
LGBTs of a certain age were downright euphoric a few years ago when a variety of media titans floated the notion of creating an all-gay television network. Those who came of age when most TV queers occupied the center Hollywood square, took dictation for Mr. Drysdale while reigning in the Clampetts, or swished and suffered their way through momentary visibility in movies of the week and sitcoms envisioned a bold new programming landscape where the gay community would be accurately represented. When it finally happened -- twice -- the elation of having a seat at the table was soon tempered by a nasty case of buyer's remorse.
But before we commence the deconstructive bitching, first things first: it's pretty amazing that we have two gay networks offering LGBT-themed fare twenty four hours a day -- some of it very, very good (at their best when offering news and documentary programming that showcases the reality and complexity of being gay; at their worst when serving up the same stereotypes perpetrated for decades by mainstream culture).
Shortcomings aside, the consistent visibility provided by LOGO and here! is vastly preferable to having nothing at all (although the current generation might casually disregard the significance of their achievement -- a backhanded compliment that testifies to the fact that young people growing up today can see themselves represented in places other than in front of a screen). That said, though, we're just spoiled enough to take the existence of LOGO and here! for granted.
Pictured: Cast members of Dante's Cove
Meet The Networks!
LOGO, which debuted three years ago this month, is part of the MTV Networks (whose niche market properties include VH1 and Spike). LOGO was "conceived a general entertainment brand for LGBT people who can see their stories told to them authentically, anywhere they want it." according to Steven Fisher, LOGO’s VP of Communications & Public Affairs. Currently available as part of a basic cable package, LOGO "launched with three advertisers; now we have upwards of 140." As the first (and currently the only) ad-supported LGBT network, LOGO is a "multi-platform brand" that offers a federation of websites serving niches within the LGBT niche (downelink.net is a social networking site that "appeals to LGBT people of color" 365gay.com serves news junkies, afterelton.com does for gays what afterellen.com does for lesbians).
On TV, the LOGO programming schedule draws on a mix of short films and videos, a news partnership with CBS, acquired feature films and well-done documentaries as well as original programming such as "The Big Gay Sketch Show" and the recent First Annual NewNextNow Awards (which was pithy and funny and a respectable first effort -- but not as consistently outrageous as you’d expect given the amount of homosexuals involved). Although they’re skittish on providing statistics as to how many access them primarily through their Internet presence, Fisher says the TV channel currently reaches thirty-three million homes and appeals mainly to the 25 to 49 year old demographic.
A privately owned company founded in 2002 as a video on demand and pay per view service, here! is currently available to fifty million digital homes. Founded by Steve Jarchow and Paul Colichman, here! is a sister entity to the mainstream film company Regent Entertainment ("Gods and Monsters" and "The Brotherhood" series). Josh Rosenzweig, Vice President, Corporate Communications and Marketing for here! Networks explains that here! grew out of Colichman’s presence and activism within the gay community -- as well as an interest in niche programming complemented by Regent’s " large film library and licensing titles."
A premium service like HBO and Showtime, here! distinguishes itself from LOGO by offering its films unedited, uncensored and without commercial breaks. As a result, Rosenzweig describes here!’s unique marketing challenge: "We still have to go out and convince people to subscribe. They launched this way because Paul wanted to be very accurate in his representation of gay and lesbian stories; uncensored, true representations and much more matured skewered entertainment he could not do that if he had to answer to advertisers." As a result, the programming profile of here! draws heavily on Regent’s own library of film as well as licensing older titles.
Rosenzweig: "We buy new films at festivals, and we have an original production department that does scripted and non-scripted shows." Those shows include the anthology series ’The DL Chronicles,’ ’Paradise Falls’ (co-produced with a Canadian company) and ’John Waters Presents Movies That Corrupt You’; a thirteen-part series of films they started off simple and went to the extreme."
Pictured: The cast of "The Big Gay Sketch Show"
Pros and Pundits Speak Out
It’s a common refrain heard during the course of researching this article: "My overall response to these two channels is disappointment." says Larry Gross (Professor and Director, School of Communication, USC Annenburg): "I had discussions with various people during the fairly lengthy process that led up to LOGO -- which was discussed off and on between Viacom, Showtime, MTV and various corporations. One of the discussions I remember at the early stages was if it should be run as a premium or basic channel with commercial sponsors."
Gross, who believes that both networks fall short in their potential to "give attention and sharp edged focus to issues important to the LGBT communities that are not found in mainstream media" believes LOGO made the wrong decision by going with an advertising base: "They don’t have the freedom demonstrated by Showtime with ’Queer as Folk’ and ’The L Word.’ There’s nothing I’ve seen in the way of original programming that is anywhere near the level of writing and production quality represented by those shows."
A more optimistic tone is struck by freelance entertainment writer Jim Colucci: "I’m choosing to be pretty hopeful; they both show some good signs." Colucci, whose work has appeared in TV Guide and The Advocate and whose books include "Will & Grace: Fabulously Uncensored" and "The Q Guide to The Golden Girls," admits to sharing the frustration felt by many in the gay community when both networks debuted: "Everybody was so happy to hear these networks were about to start, but disappointed at how slow it proceeded.
Yet progress has been steady, as Colucci points out in his assessment of the LOGO series "The Big Gay Sketch Show": "In season one, it was partly funny; but I’ve heard from people involved in the show that they were kind of held back with that conservatism. But in season two, the show took a huge leap in terms of the quality of its humor specific to its audience."
Still, the fact that LOGO appears on basic cable makes for occasional if necessary censorship that compromises both the integrity and the quality of their product. "here! is interesting. They’re a pay service and don’t have to worry about the broadcast standards LOGO does." says Colucci, who cites LOGO’s heavily edited version of "Showgirls" ("a pleasure to watch") as a surreal event that elevates the film to a whole new level of camp.
But what good is uncut, uncensored expression when it’s too difficult or expensive to access? Gross, who subscribes to here! out of both professional obligation and old fashioned curiosity, admits that he does not "find myself watching it often. It’s an on-demand maze to get to it, and once I find it and scroll through its menu, I don’t find myself watching anything."
Rosenzweig acknowledges the frustration that here! is sometimes difficult to navigate or find: "People are just becoming familiar with the on-demand space. For us, our challenge is constantly educating people about where we are and how we get us. Comedian Michele Balan, (pictured.)who has appeared on LOGO’s "OUTlaugh" and NBC’s "Last Comic Standing," says that "As far as here! goes, it’s a pay channel, so I don’t get it. I don’t think I’ve attached myself to any program they have that I’d pay for at this point."
Balan, who says here! would be better off as a regular channel, believes that more people would tune in rather than spend money. As is, there’s "got to be enough buzz around their shows to make people want to pay for it." Still, Balan comes to praise as much as she does to bury: "LOGO and here! changed the world by offering gay TV; but they didn’t put enough money behind any of it."
Balan notes that other networks started with meager programming and grew into giants as they solidified their viewer base and claimed their identity: "Look at USA, TNT and FX. They had to spend quite a few years buying old programming, but now people actually tune into those networks for their original shows." As for her own ambitions, there’s no show Balan would like to see on LOGO more than the one she’s currently pitching: "a show called "Living Out Loud," which is more along the lines of a talk show for the gay people over forty." Credit Balan’s integrity to speak her mind; even though she prefaced his comments by confessing that "I don’t want them all to be pissed off; I mean, I want my show to get on the air. And when it does, it’s going to be funny, informative, and fabulous. It will be different all the time!"
Jim Halterman, a NYC-based freelance writer who was a writer on "Beverly Hills 90210" and currently reviews television for Edge, admits to being "more familiar with LOGO!" -- although he did recently review the new here! series "Paradise Falls" for Edge: "It was terrible; the story line was very campy and silly; and I’m sure it appeals to some audiences, but I would never watch it again." Halterman and Balan both have kind words, though, for LOGO’s "Big Gay Sketch Show" -- with Balan citing standout performer "Julie Goldman. I love her; she’s hilarious.
But the show repeats a lot. There’s only so many times you can watch. If it’s doing well, why not do more?" Fisher responds to that criticism by noting that the "Big Gay Sketch Show" increased its episode count in season two -- in addition to taking more creative risks: "Every show evolves. With the first season of ’Big Gay Sketch,’ we were telling the jokes as opposed to being the butts of jokes." Fisher also confirms that "Rick and Steve" (by far the funniest, edgiest, most consistently amusing and insightful series on the network) will be coming back later this year with new episodes.
Like the average report card of a promising student who frustrates his parents with the knowledge that he could be doing better, Halterman perceives the LOGO/here! track record so far as "a double-edged sword. I’m glad they’re able to be on the air, but I’d rather see more diverse stories." Frustrated by the notion that both channels send out the message that being gay is always about sex, Halterman bemoans the fact that he must look to network TV for diverse casts and storylines: "I prefer a show like ’Brothers and Sisters.’ Kevin’s stories are not always about him being gay. The show has a very strong gay character and storyline, but other things draw me to it. My female friends say they love ’The L Word’; not just because it’s about lesbians, but because these women go through the whole spectrum of stories about careers, money, family and relationships. I know a lot of people who are straight who relate to the show."
To that end, Halterman would "love to see here! and LOGO do more shows that have gay elements, but aren’t exclusively gay. I can relate to that a lot more than ’Queer as Folk’ or ’Noah’s Arc.’ That’s a very narrow glimpse into the gay world. I don’t’ know too many people who live in an all gay or all straight world." As for the creative content, Gross points to a modest talent pool that reveals "the cost of success; it is possible now for openly gay writers and directors, if not actors, to get well paying work in mainstream entertainment. They don’t need to work in a gay ghetto of entertainment. That raises the question about the need and the role for that niche."
A Bright, Gay Future?
Both LOGO and here! have made some recent acquisitions and creative commitments that make the strongest case yet for their continued presence. Fisher points out that LOGO "just launched a video hub at www.logoonline.com" which is comprised of "the largest collection of streaming LGBT video anywhere online." This content compliments that of the TV channel -- a synergy viewers are sure to see more of. LOGO has also begun a partnership with Netflix and the audio books resource Audible.com.
They’ll also be "covering the upcoming election through 365gay and CBS news on Logo. We’re open if either of the candidates want to come on LOGO, we’d love to have them." Also upcoming is a twelve-episode first season of their new show "Sordid Lives," a "Noah’s Arc" movie (series cast pictured,) and a new reality show ("RuPaul’s Drag Race"). Cross-marketing and media synergy is also the future over at here!; Rosenzweig says their very recent purchase of LPI media (Alyson books, Out Traveler and HIV+) as an acquisition that provides "massive media space with the online and print parts of Out and The Advocate. Our development department is working with them to create original scripted series and online or on air news and entertainment shows."
The resulting new programming will be seen "pretty quickly; we’re gong to do some robust coverage of the gay marriage issue in California -- and get as much reporting as quickly as possible up online." As for the trickle effect being felt on television: "We’re not a live feed, so we’re figuring out how quickly we can get it on the air." Colucci enthusiastically supports these efforts to makes gains in resources and creative confidence: "I am hopeful that we have more to look forward to. They need to have a sense of vision and an aggressiveness that was lacking in the beginning when they didn’t have the courage to give gay viewers something specific and special and edgy; but I’m starting to think they are changing that. I am hoping when they do more original programming, it can be as good as anything that is any network."