The Outer Limits
Gay shows score in heartland and with advertisers
By Steve McClellan -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/2/2004 8:00:00 PM
Most Americans may not be ready to accept gay marriage, but consider this: Not only does NBC's Will & Grace play in Peoria, it plays 20% better in the Illinois city than it does nationwide. The same holds true for other gay-themed shows that conventional wisdom claimed wouldn't fly in the fly-over states.
In fact, Thom Filicia, the designer on Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, is now featured in Pier One ads, a subtle turn of the cultural corner for a mass merchandiser.
"When mainstream advertisers use a gay spokesman, that's a big change," says Arthur Gruen, a partner at research firm Wilkofsky-Gruen Associates. He points out what some advertisers are just discovering: Gays have a relatively high per-capita disposable income. More significant, he notes, consumers now associate gay with being hip, an attitude once reserved for the tres chic fashionista magazine readers. That's why Pier One likes having Filicia around.
Monitor-Plus, the Nielsen arm that tracks TV ad spending says Queer Eye for the Straight Guy generated $36 million in revenue from September 2003 through February 2004, including $22.6 million on Bravo and $13.2 million in repeats aired on NBC.
And even though Bravo had gay-themed weeks before it was purchased by NBC, it wasn't a top-tier network. Queer Eye is as important for Bravo as Biography once was for A&E. It defined the brand. (The show has spawned a book, a calendar, a CD, and an upcoming spinoff—Queer Eye for the Straight Girl—in less than a year on-air.)
Soon, three new gay and lesbian cable networks may debut. Viacom's MTV has a gay network in development; Regent Entertainment kicks off Here! TV, a 24/7 gay and lesbian pay-per-view channel, Oct. 1; and digital network Trio debuts "Out Zone," a gay-programming block, May 28 that becomes permanent Sept. 18.
Contrast that with Will & Grace, which is more about friendship than about sexuality. Queer Eye is a makeover show with a hook. ABC's It's Relative features a gay couple as parents. In TV terms, gay lite.
But given television's past prudishness, it's telling that Will & Grace generates about a 16 rating in Peoria vs. a 13 rating nationwide, according to Nielsen. It's All Relative outperforms its national average in many smaller markets, including Oklahoma City (by 14%); Dayton, Ohio (8%); and Louisville, Ky. (63%).
The sexual thermometer goes up with Queer as Folk and The L Word, Showtime's two out-and-proud shows, which are far racier. For the pay service, though, advertising isn't an issue.
According to Witeck-Combs, a marketing firm that specializes in reaching the gay and lesbian market, and MarketResearch.com, gay spending power in 2003 was $485 billion, up from $451 billion a year before. To give that figure context, 12 million Asian-Americans have spending power of $344 billion. Witeck-Combs "conservatively" estimates there are 15 million adult gays.
Which means gay-themed programs "have a much easier time getting mainstream advertising now than even five years ago," says Gruen.
For example, Nissan is the biggest advertiser in Queer Eye, having spent $3 million on the program between last September and February of this year. Procter & Gamble was second, shelling out $2 million, while Pfizer was third, buying $1.4 million in commercial time.
P&G was also the top spender in the same period for Will & Grace, with $8.2 million; the Gap was second with $6.4 million; and Disney third with $4.4 million.
Dave Morganlander, president of Qtopia Media, a New York and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based company specializing in gay marketing, says Main Street advertisers are realizing the potential of the gay market. "Everyone is jumping on it," he says. "It's such a huge marketplace they feel they can't ignore it. Marketers realize the best way to reach this audience is through mainstream media."
What advertisers do notice—on network TV and cable alike—are ratings. Of course, Queer as Folk and The L Word, two graphic shows, score high in New York and San Francisco. The twist is they do surprisingly well in places you wouldn't expect.
In Salt Lake City, according to Nielsen, The L Word attracts eight times the prime time household audience Showtime normally generates in that market. The show also matches its average national audience. Queer as Folk isn't quite as popular in the Mormon stronghold, but it still draws a triple the audience that the network normally attracts in prime.
The same is true for both shows in Charlotte, N.C. In Birmingham, Ala., L Word generates more than six times the prime time Showtime's usual audience there, while Queer as Folk lures triple the audience.
"It shows the evolution of how accepting people are of the gay lifestyle," says Robert Greenblatt, president of Showtime, "which has increased substantially over the last 10 years. It follows there would be more of an openness to gay characters and shows. And despite the hard-edge, explicit nature of Queer as Folk," he adds, "there's been no backlash." The network built a marketing campaign around Queer, inviting would-be subscribers to call 1-800-COMINGOUT.
Cincinnati-raised David Collins, one of the partners in Queer Eye producer Scout Productions, worried about the show's reception in the heartland. What allayed his fears was a test he did on his family. He showed the pilot to his dad, "the epitome of a Midwestern father." His review? It would kill in the Midwest. Why? Dad replied, "I showed it to my fishing buddies, and they loved it. They were howling and had a good time."
That makes sense to Collins, who says Queer Eye focuses on relationships. "It's about gay guys and straight guys—and how it doesn't really matter. That's why it's working in the fly-over states." There may be controversy over gay marriage, but the lifestyle isn't condemned as taboo.
Cathy Rasenberger, a consultant to PrideVision, a Canadian gay network launching in the U.S. this fall, believes gay networks have the potential to be for gays what MTV was to teens, a sort of "community home."
Queer Eye's Midwest ratings—which outperform the national average by 13%—demonstrates "how far we've come. Just because you play football doesn't mean you're straight," says Collins. "If you like shoes, it doesn't mean you're gay. It's about being human."
Just ask Procter & Gamble.
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