Gay TV Networks to Conquer the Masses

By Lucy Cohen

At first it was Will & Grace, then Queer as Folk - before long, TV audiences worldwide were inundated with shows that focused on the gay community. While these programs have achieved great success among straight audiences (females especially), there has, until now, been no TV channel exclusively by gays and for gays. But today, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (or LGBT)-focused networks are hitting the airwaves in a big way, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Proof of the genre’s newfound international acceptance was seen at the last year’s International Emmy Awards where the flamboyantly gay host, Graham Norton, set the stage for rest of the evening. Canada is home to the first-ever LGBT premium channel, PrideVision. In Europe, there is Gay TV, based in Milan, Italy, which was launched in April 2002 and PinkTV, based in “gay Paris,” which just launched this past October. In the U.S., there are two networks already up and running - Q Television and Here! TV- and one, called LoGo, and one, called LoGo, which was set to launch next month but has been pushed back until May.

In 2001, Canada’s CRTC, its radio and television regulatory agency, authorized PrideVision, a digital pay-TV channel serving the gay community. Ratings for the channel, however, have been disappointing. Jason Hughes, PrideVision’s director of sales and marketing, attributed the rocky start partly to launching four days prior to September 11th.

"We offered a three-month free preview, like 46 other digital channels that year. But, then we changed to premium service with a monthly fee [while many of the others remained free-to-view],” Hughes explained. Starting this month, in an effort to improve ratings, PrideVision will adopt a new name and become part of a non-premium digital tier package. The net will also launch a separate channel called HARD, featuring erotic programming 24/7.

Pending complete financing, PrideVision plans to launch in the United States as PrideVision U.S., joining the ranks of the three other networks that should be up-and-running by the beginning of this year.

Last October marked the launch of PinkTV, France’s first cable and satellite channel for LGBT audiences. The programming mix includes gay erotica, documentaries and a sports program, that is hosted by a transvestite; all shows are broadcast in English with French subtitles. Subscribers pay nine euro per month and the channel is aiming for 180,000 subscribers within two years. With a budget of just over 12 million euro a year, advertisers will make up 20 percent of PinkTV’s revenues.

Currently in the U.S, three channels are set to battle for the attention of the gay community. In September 2004, Triangle channel morphed into Q Television. But the Palm Springs-based company, whose carriage is for now mainly on RCN (a large MSO), has yet to reach a viable number of households and some experts wonder whether it will ever really take off. The net has recently inked a deal with Time Warner cable as well. “We’ll never get above 55 percent of homes,” said Q Television CEO Frank Olsen, “and honestly we don’t want to. We don’t want to intrude into someone’s home, we want to be invited into it.” The channel is available for a $7 monthly subscription fee and the additional revenue comes from advertising. “We want to be a gay channel committed to culture, sports, information and news,” Olsen said. “We are not interested in making gay people into caricatures, like a lot of the mainstream shows do.”

Olsen, who once owned a slew of gay bars, said that the idea of a gay network seemed obvious. “The gay community has a very large disposable income,” he said. Even though the idea came to him a while ago, what allowed Olsen to finally launch the network was the emergence of digital technology, such as secured access.

Another LGBT net that has leveraged technology to its advantage is Regent’s Here! TV, which, according to CEO Paul Colichman, is “available on a variety of platforms, including pay-per-view, VoD and subscription, among others.” This ubiquity seems to have paid off, since the network is subscribed to by almost 35 million homes. The decision to exist exclusively as a pay service was not based only on a desire to stay out of uninterested homes as was the case with Q Television; it was also fueled by a desire for more creative freedom. According to Colichman, “relying on advertiser support puts constraints on a network.” He sees his net as a kind of HBO for the gay community - with the ability to take more risks with its own original scripted programming and specials. While the net has a large library of movies, it is most proud of its original programming and premiers. Here! owns its own theater in L.A., so after features are screened there and throughout the U.S., they are shown on the net.

Unlike other executives who claim that shows like Will & Grace and The L Word perpetuate gay stereotypes, Colichman praised those shows for helping launch his network. “Those programs help us because we are selling the service to straight executives. It’s better that they have a good feel for the community,” he said.

Of all the gay TV nets, LoGo, a Viacom-owned digital LGBT network, is the most talked about network on the slate. David Bittler, the net’s spokesman, stressed that what will set it apart from the rest of the channels is its association with Viacom and MTV Networks, which he describes as having “a long history of super-serving niche audiences.” He added, “We also have access to a large pool of talent and resources.” The net will present original programming, including reality, comedy and cabaret, as well as a large library of films. Unlike the others, the net is available on basic cable, as part of a tier-package, and will be accessible to all cable and satellite households.

LoGo’s wide range is being met with some controversy. “In some ways appealing to the mainstream is good, because it normalizes gay content,” said PrideVision’s Hughes. “But the danger with networks like LoGo is that you are going to get watered down ‘gay-lite’ shows, which are not what the community wants.”
Some even question whether, in a country like the U.S., where politics are becoming more conservative, LoGo will get off the ground at all. “It isn’t ever going to happen,” insisted Q’s Olsen. “They can’t do an unscrambled gay network that is so widely distributed. The FCC [the U.S. regulatory agency] is not going to allow it.” Olsen denied that his cynicism is based on a secret desire for the net to fail. “I’d like LoGo to get off the ground,” he insisted. “The more gay networks there are the better it is for us. We’re better off if we can be part of a boxed [tier] set.” Here!’s Colichman echoed Olsen’s enthusiasm and said, “I am a big fan of the people at LoGo and hope that they get off the ground. Besides the fact that it’s great for the community, it will be a good outlet on which I can advertise [my channel].”
When asked why so many LGBT nets are getting off the ground now, LoGo’s Bittler provided a three-fold answer. “Firstly, gay culture is permeating the mainstream,” he said, referring to the explosion of gay-themed programming everywhere. Secondly, “We were one group without a home in television,” and finally, he pointed to the economic opportunity the gay community offers. “We have seen that the gay community has billions of dollars in spending power. We are over the index in terms of education, affluence and advertisers want to openly court us.” Which is good news for the cable net, which will depend entirely on advertiser support.

Another aspect in which LGBT’s net execs are completely in agreement is the gay market’s proven loyalty to those who target advertising to them. Companies such as Crest and Home Depot have benefited from targeting the U.S. LGBT community, a population with an estimated $600 billion disposable annual income. “People will support companies that support them, it’s as simple as that,” said PrideVision’s Jason Hughes.