What? No gay channel?

In a medium with a niche for everybody, one demo is still missing
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When cable was younger, I used to muse about those claims that soon, very soon, there would be a channel for every taste, every lifestyle, everything. This sounded exciting, until reality settled in. For a long time, it sounded absurd to me that there should be something called The Weather Channel. That's it? Just the weather?

Cable has a billion channels. Four channels for women, and another one on the way. A black channel (now owned by mega-huge Viacom), and at least one other being planned. Several Hispanic networks and, in some cities, cable networks that carry other foreign-language programs. For years, somebody has been trying to start a Puppy Channel.

But there's no gay channel. I'm not ready to protest; I'm just pointing out that, in a distribution system that caters to virtually every niche, the absence of a dedicated full-time outlet for homosexuals is amazing. (There are some fledglings, to be fair: A part-time cable network, C1TV, based in Florida, buys leased time on cable systems nationwide; and there is the Gay Cable Network, although it exists mainly online. And up north last fall, a Canadian government agency approved the creation of PrideVision, which it called a "world first.")

Even if they find the whole gay business uncomfortable, most Americans, I think, have learned to live with the fact that there are homosexuals. Still, I suspect that, if the kinds of gay-pride parades held in New York or San Francisco were transported to Biloxi or Wichita, I'd discover a less tolerant bunch of folks.

Things have changed. Ellen DeGeneres was hounded off ABC and shunned by advertisers because her sitcom turned into a gay
sitcom in 1997. This year, when CBS introduced her new network series at its upfront presentation at Carnegie Hall, the audience of ad buyers who once tried to make her lifestyle economically unviable gave her a rousing ovation.

NBC's best time slot goes to Will & Grace, a comedy about a gay man and his hetero best girl friend. Even Showtime built a marketing campaign around Queer as Folk
that featured a handy toll-free number for would-be subscribers: 1-800-COMINGOUT.
This is a country that eventually builds monuments to and names sports teams after the same people we once shot to kill.

The point is, gay is getting to be mainstream, enough so that the idea of a gay network is no longer a lunatic fantasy.

What's more, unlike some other demographic niches, here's a group with buying power. According to Simmons Marketing Research, gay households have a median income of $55,670, and about 70% of gays have a college education. And they are extraordinarily brand-loyal.

Exactly who "they" are is a little more difficult to figure, but researchers say that, in the U.S., there are 10 million to 14 million gay men and women. That's enough to matter.

I'd say, if we weren't talking about homosexuals, there would be a network or two for a group of free-spending consumers like that. In fact, Bravo last week concluded its Third Annual Out of the Closet Week, featuring a quasi-documentary on gay celebrations called Gay Riviera;
another remarkable documentary about the history of gays in mainstream cinema, The Celluloid Closet; and a bunch of movies with gay plots or subplots.

"We've received no complaints," said Frances Berwick, the senior vice president of programming for Bravo.

"In fact, we've had a certain strong response from some advertisers. There are particular advertisers who would embrace this kind of thing. For us, Volkswagen and Subaru come to mind. The reason we do this is to cater to an upscale group. This is a huge group."

For which there is not much on television specifically. Indeed, a program offered through public television, called In the Life
is now, very quietly, the most widely circulated gay-news program on television, showing up in 120 markets nationwide, sometimes late at night and sometimes at more decent hours. It attracts about a million viewers a month.

Executive producer Charles Ignacio never fails to marvel at where the show has been compared with where it is now. "There were program directors at public television stations who thought they would get fired for scheduling our show," he said. So he could scarcely believe that a segment on the gay leather scene aired without much uproar, on public stations east, west, north and (slightly less) south. "It used to be controversial enough that we were a show that was about gays," he said. "We would never have done a show about something like the leather scene."

As I said, times have changed.

Bednarski may be reached at
pbednarski@cahners.com
or 212-337-6965

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