The Case for Gay TV

Michael Abernethy

We don't need to be entertained; we are actually quite good at entertaining ourselves, and we are quite accustomed to reframing 'straight' tv and films for our amusement.

Will & Grace

Queer as Folk

The first gay character I recall seeing on tv was a witness to a crime on Dragnet. Neither the character nor anyone else ever mentioned his sexuality, but the wispy voice, limp wrists, and lacey blouse were pretty clear clues that he didn't have a little Mrs. waiting at home. Of course, this was a guest role. In the '60s, a recurring gay or lesbian character would have been a sure sign that Satan had taken control of Hollywood. As a general rule, if you saw a gay character on television back then, he was a middle-aged effeminate man who had witnessed a crime, been the victim of a crime, or was the cross-dressing perpetrator of a crime.

Today, if you see someone with a wispy voice, limp wrists, and lacy blouse on tv, you've probably stumbled onto Joan Rivers hawking face cream on QVC. (Now that I think about it, the queen on Dragnet did bear a frightening resemblance to Joan.) Flaming pansies and butch dykes are no longer the standard representations of homosexuality, though they do linger (Emmitt on Queer as Folk or the lesbian social scientist on Ally McBeal). For the most part, however, television has actually become more inclusive over the last 40 years, striving for more "accurate" portrayals of all aspects of U.S. society.

Consider the many characters who have come out in recent years, including the successful yuppie gay man (Will, Will & Grace), the lipstick lesbian (Lindsay, Queer as Folk), the macho homosexual (Butch, Normal, Ohio), the Wicca lesbian (Willow, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and the high school girl's best friend (Rickie, My So-Called Life). Things are about to change. The number of gay, bisexual and transgendered characters on tv will increase, because Showtime and MTV have joined forces to bring us the first U.S. cable channel focusing solely on matters homosexual. (The new channel has yet to be named.) Last December's announcement brought a flood of reactions, both positive and negative, most centering on two questions -- "Can such a channel succeed?" and "Do we need it?"

Given tv's perpetual bottom line interests, it's likely that the first concern has delayed its creation. But it's just as likely that it's not a real issue. Just look at the variety of niche-marketing already available on tv: special channels for African Americans (BET), women (Lifetime, Oxygen, WE), Latinos (Gala, Univision), kids (Disney, Nickelodeon), and Christians (CBN, Pax). Not to mention those channels focused solely on home and gardening, cooking, history, sci-fi, techno-wizardry, health, finances, cartoons, soap operas, Congress, Westerns, mysteries, court proceedings, animals, game shows, shopping, biographies, and science. And this list doesn't even cover the multitude of specialized music video or sports channels.

If channels featuring nothing but golf or hunting and fishing are making it, why shouldn't one catering to a gay and lesbian clientele be equally or more successful? There's even a gay channel precedent: launched last September, Canada's premium channel, PrideVision, has been lauded by television critics and is enjoying good early ratings, due in large part to its inclusion of a variety of program genres.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument to be made has to do with gay men and women's economic status; it's no secret that they have higher average incomes than their straight counterparts and more disposable income, as argued by University of Massachusetts economics professor Lee Badgett in his book, Money, Myth, and Change: The Economic Lives of Lesbians and Gay Men. Add to this the fact that gays and lesbians have become increasingly vocal about our desire to be represented accurately and respectfully in the media, and it looks like a gay cable channel should be able to draw viewers and make a profit. This especially since it is safe to assume that Showtime and MTV will put the full weight of their publicity departments into promoting the channel.

But, even assuming that the channel will be a success, we might still ask if it is "needed." And what does that question mean? If Lifetime, BET, or Gala disappeared, civilization would not come to a grinding halt. But each serves a particular purpose, that being to include in the larger spectrum of television programming a specific segment of the population that was not being adequately represented on network television. These specialized channels do not just offer fictionalized programs featuring women, African Americans, and Latinos; they also offer programs designed to inform their target audiences on social and political issues relevant to them. Will the new channel do the same for its queer (and straight) viewers?

Based on informal discussions I have had with gay men and women, as well as research into the development of the new channel, I've concluded that there are three major arguments against it. The first and most obvious is the religious-based objection, which I have no desire to tackle here. Those who oppose the portrayal of gay, lesbian, or T* communities on tv due to religious beliefs will never be convinced that gay tv has a place in society, even as a subscription channel, only piped into your home at your request. Fortunately, this group poses no real threat to the new channel; if it possessed the kind of power needed to keep this station from launching, then it already would have gotten Will & Grace and Queer as Folk off the air.

Another argument against gay tv, one more easily answered than the religious objection, is the belief that the channel will result in "ghettoization." Proponents of this view believe that other networks will stop developing gay characters because there would be an entire network showcasing them. Those fearing this segregation of gay and lesbian characters, actors, and viewers to a "special" channel point out how difficult it was for homosexuals to get representation on network to begin with.

The history of gays and lesbians on tv is, of course, complicated and lengthy, and started long before Ellen DeGeneres. The first continuing gay character on a series was Peter Panama (Vincent Schiavelli) on ABC's short-lived 1972 comedy, The Corner Bar, more than two decades before Ellen. In fact, she's not even the first gay protagonist on tv. NBC's 1981 series, Love, Sidney, cast Tony Randall as the effeminate Sidney Shorr. While the series never overtly addressed Sidney's sexual orientation, the movie on which it was based made it perfectly clear that Sidney was gay. In the 25 years before Ellen came out of the closet, queer characters had continuing or recurring roles of such hit shows as All in the Family, Barney Miller, Soap, Dynasty, St. Elsewhere, Cagney and Lacey, L. A. Law, Roseanne, The Simpsons, and Beverly Hills, 90210. So, while Ellen's place in tv history is secure, we shouldn't forget that she wouldn't have been able to come out on national television if it weren't for the boardroom battles that allowed tv's first gay couple (in the 1972 tv movie, That Certain Summer) or tv's first lesbian kiss (on 1997's Roseanne).

My point is this: after over 30 years of boardroom battles, it is not likely that the networks will reverse course and drop popular shows or characters to avoid competition with a gay cable channel, nor will they stop developing new shows with homosexual plotlines or gay characters. Will & Grace is a big money-maker, and networks have traditionally been hesitant to cancel successful series in favor of new shows which have yet to prove themselves. The networks' programming decisions within the last few years indicate that they will continue to develop these shows and characters in the future. The Bernie Mac Show, My Wife and Kids, and The Hughleys were all picked up by network television despite the presence of BET; Lifetime was not the network of choice for The Gilmore Girls or Providence; and two programs with religious themes, 7th Heaven and Touched by an Angel, are not on Pax or CBN. If the networks did not stop marketing programs to black, female, and Christian audiences because of competing channels targeting those demographics, why would they suddenly stop marketing shows to the advertiser friendly gay audience? The networks seem to have finally learned that once you let gays and lesbians in the door, it's damn near impossible to get us to leave.

Unfortunately, this statement applies more to gay and lesbian characters than gay and lesbian actors and celebrities. Rosie O'Donnell can play a lesbian mother on Will & Grace with little fanfare, but pre-publication buzz that her new autobiography will out her has raised questions about the continued success of her magazine, Rosie, and, tragically, about her fitness to be an adoptive mother, despite her obvious love and devotion to her children. Chad Allen, who played the son on the family show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, experienced depression, anxiety, and a fear for his career when pictures of him kissing another man were published in The National Enquirer. While Allen's castmates were extremely supportive of him, he has found it difficult to find film and tv work since the cancellation of the series, and is currently appearing in theater productions.

The final objection also has to do with programming. It was first voiced to me by a co-worker, a professor of gay and lesbian studies, who felt that the channel will become little more than a soft-porn channel. After all, he theorized, there is no way to make the entire queer population happy in terms of programming content, so why not just put on the crap that you know will get ratings? That, of course, would be smut. Actually, one could make this same argument about "straight" tv, and there is enough straight sex on tv that could be used to make this argument seem valid. However, straight tv has never relied solely on sex for ratings (think: Touched by an Angel or Smallville), and to think that a gay cable channel will have to use sex alone to attract viewers merely reinforces the stereotype that gays and lesbians are sexual beings first and foremost, and human beings second. All humans, to a certain extent, are sexual beings, but few of us rely solely on sexual content of a program as a determining factor in deciding whether or not to watch. Even in instances when sex is a major part of a show's content, such as Sex and the City, is it usually not enough to keep viewers. The recent Victoria's Secret special was dripping with sensuality, but it was ultimately a ratings disaster.

Still, I do agree that one of the major obstacles this new channel faces is how to please such a diverse audience. Let's face it: a 47-year-old lesbian in Butte, Montana, doesn't want to watch the same type of programming as a 19-year-old gay raver in Miami, Florida. And I probably don't want to watch the same stuff as either of them. How do you appeal to all of us? Simple. Offer diverse, quality programming. PrideVision has been lauded for providing a variety of shows -- talk shows, travel shows, original programs, European imports, and sports programs. What that station's executives have found is that if the show is well made, both the 47-year-old lesbian and the 19-year-old gay raver will tune in, regardless of the show's genre.

Keeping this in mind, network execs need to realize that gays and lesbians (and other sexual or gender minorities) won't watch a show (or a channel) just because it features gay and lesbian characters. Okay, maybe we will once, but if the show lacks interesting characterization, a believable storyline, and quality production values, we won't come back.

Witness the dreary CBS comedy, Some of My Best Friends. Despite its gay theme and the presence of the adorable Jason Bateman and the stacked Danny Nucci, the show didn't last more than a few episodes because it just wasn't funny. Of course, there will be some shows that will appeal more directly to that raver than to me, but that is to be expected. ABC's The Practice and My Wife and Kids also have different target audiences, yet both have found success on the same network. Problems arise when a network focuses too much attention on one section of its desired demographics. Such was the case at BET, threatened with a boycott by African American professors and educators because the station placed too much emphasis on violent programming and rap videos. This type of programming appealed to "young black males," but was of little interest to the majority of black viewers. After revamping their line-up to appeal to a broader segment of the African American community, BET has begun to generate more favorable feedback from viewers as well as higher ratings, and has provided a valuable lesson for new networks.

All three of the above objections focus primarily on why we do not need a cable channel focusing on gay and lesbian issues. So, the question remains, do we need such a station? If such a channel is designed to inform, entertain, and unite gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered communities, then yes, it is needed. The potential to be a source of information on gay and lesbian issues is staggering, especially in a time when such issues as same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships, employment protection based on sexual orientation, and gay and lesbian adoption have sparked national debate. President Bush's agenda concerning gay issues is somewhat less reactionary than his father's or Ronald Reagan's, but it is nonetheless one that does not advance the cause of inclusion.

Bush has openly opposed virtually all legislation favored by the Human Rights Campaign, the primary gay/lesbian/bi/transgendered lobbying caucus in the United States. With the events of September 11th dominating the U.S. collective consciousness, few people have paid attention to the steps the Bush Administration has taken to dismantle the civil rights progress of the Clinton Era. The new AIDS Czar, Scott Evertz, the only openly gay person in the Bush Administration, is a conservative who favors discontinuing safe-sex education in favor of programs that promote only abstinence as a means to prevent AIDS. Now, no one opposes abstinence as a life choice, especially for teenagers, but let's be realistic. Trying to convince a 17-year-old boy, gay or straight, to keep his dick in his pants until he's settled into a long-term relationship is like trying to convince Jerry Falwell to join you at Planet Hollywood for some tequila shooters.

If the new cable channel can find ways to inform queer communities concerning what our government and religious leaders are doing and saying, or not doing and saying, then these communities will hopefully be able to prepare for the ramifications of governmental policies and budget cuts, and even fight back against such discrimination in a more organized and effective manner. And that's why we need a gay cable channel. We don't need to be entertained; we are actually quite good at entertaining ourselves, and we are quite accustomed to reframing "straight" tv and films for our amusement. We need to be informed and we need a nationwide source for news to bring us together as a political faction that cannot be dismissed or ignored. If a cable tv channel can accomplish these two things, or at least get us started in that direction, I am all for it. And if all this information is brought to us by hunky gay men and beautiful lesbians, well, I guess I could live with that too.





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