We Want Our Gay TV: Showtime and MTV Partner to Create a Gay Cable Channel-But Will They Be First across the Finish Line? (Television)

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While studying the feelings of gays and lesbians about the idea of creating a gay cable TV channel, Showtime senior vice president Gene Falk and MTV consultant Matt Farber got some surprising results. "It blew our researchers away," recalls Falk, describing the data collected for their parent company, media powerhouse Viacom. "The magnitude of the response was the best they have ever seen for a premium service. I'm out. Matt's out. So it wasn't like we were in the dark about this. The gay community is a vastly underserved market in mainstream media."

Viacom agreed. In mid January the conglomerate announced that it is planning a 24-hour premium gay-oriented cable channel, a joint venture between Showtime and MTV--two networks already known for their gay-friendly fare. "The gay market is a large, diverse market, and it's willing to pay for programs, for a voice of its own," says Farber. "Will & Grace is wonderful, but it still needs to conform to make sure it's a top five show. By having a dedicated channel, you can show a diversity of story lines. But there's no question we wouldn't be here without Queer as Folk being a success, without Will & Grace being in the [coveted] Seinfeld time slot."

There's no scheduled launch date (although published reports have speculated at early 2003), but Falk and Farber are hard at work developing a business plan for the yet-unnamed channel. The model calls for charging a modest flat monthly fee for the service, with additional revenue generated through PBS-style program sponsorships.

"The gay community probably represents something north of 10 million adults," says Farber. "That represents significant buying power. Whenever you connect with and give a voice to people, it's always a good business plan."

Predictably, the right wing has come out swinging against the very concept of a gay TV channel. In a recent appearance on Fox News, conservative battleax the Rev. Jerry Falwell commented, "If we are going to go that route, then when are we going to create a channel for those who enjoy kiddie porn? When are we going to do a channel--a legal channel--for those involved in or submitting to bestiality?"

Gay activists have been quick to join the fray, countering that because the channel would require users to subscribe and pay for the service, no one who doesn't actively seek out the channel will see it. After all, cable already works on the principle of niche marketing, as Lifetime TV for women and Black Entertainment Television attest.

Nevertheless, observes Joan Garry, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, "it's not surprising to me that the Right has come out against this. They've been loudly opposed to any images of gay people." Garry, who has worked for Showtime and MTV, adds, "[Both networks] have done groundbreaking work before, and it has proved to be both smart business and the right thing to do."

Though no specific programs have yet been selected, planners have plenty of ideas on how to fill the 24-hour slate. "We're going to acquire movies and documentaries that aren't available in video stores," says Farber. "There are potential series. There will be news, talk shows, relationship shows. No doubt, it's going to be a challenge."

Part of the difficulty will be in appealing to all the elements of the wildly diverse gay community in a single channel. "I don't think it's possible for an. organization to represent everyone all the time," says Falk. …