George Weiss, a nanny who works for the title character in UPN’s drama Kevin Hill, is the latest high-profile example of the growing presence of gay characters on TV.
He’s also bucking a trend: the number of lesbian and gay characters on broadcast-network scripted series TV declined this year to the lowest level since 1996, when the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation began tracking such things.
There’s no doubt that those celebrating Gay Pride month have much to be happy about. There has been a steady increase in the number of gay individuals appearing in reality shows on broadcast and cable — and some notable advances in cable dramas. But broadcast TV’s retreat has been cause for concern.
The mixed report card comes at a time when tolerance and understanding are on the rise in the general public, but the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community has become a primary target of the religious right and politicians who see advantage in exploiting its agenda.
“The climate’s chilly out there,” says Joan Garry, who departed GLAAD this month after eight years as executive director.
While series like Showtime’s The L Word and Queer as Folk go a long way toward portraying lesbians and gays authentically, network primetime continues, in too many instances, to marginalize the community, Garry says.
“With the exception of someone like Cary Weaver on ER, there are still no gays and lesbians as part of large ensemble cop-and-lawyer shows. We are still largely the victim of the week or the criminal of the week.”
The overall presence of LGBT individuals on TV has risen substantially in recent years. This past TV season, 14 lesbian and gay characters appeared occasionally or on an ongoing basis in broadcast primetime series, both scripted and reality. On cable, there were 38 LGBT characters, 26 of them in scripted series.
The growing number of LGBT characters on general-entertainment television, of course, is old news compared to the emergence of networks devoted entirely to gay viewers.
The longest running is here!, which launched as a video-on-demand service in August 2003 and bowed as a linear channel last December.
Subscriptions to the network’s subscription VOD or linear service, now available in 42 million homes, are growing at a rate of 15% a week, says founder and co-CEO Paul Colichman, who noted that during a recent five-week period, the network’s Web site, where viewers go to find out what’s on, received 5 million unique hits.
Internal research shows that 35-37% of here!’s viewers are heterosexual.
“There is a group of straight men, and it’s a pretty big group, that likes watching lesbian programming,” Colichman says. “They’re not so much interested in the really sexy stuff. They like watching women relate to women.”
Likewise, there are straight women who are “very interested in gay male programming. They like seeing men relating to other men. They like it to be sexy, but not sex.”
While here! offers premium, SVOD and VOD outlets, Q Television Network, which launched in October, is a mini-pay service available to 400,000 RCN Corp. homes in New York, San Francisco and Boston.
QTN also offers two minutes per hour of advertising time for cable operators to sell.
Programming is geared to lifestyles, and includes On Q Live, a two-and-a-half-hour nightly program that’s been described as a cross between Today and Late Show With David Letterman, but geared to gay viewers.
This past weekend, QTN offered marathon live coverage of pride events in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco and Honolulu. Next September, it will cover the Gay Games, a 10-day, Olympics-style series of international sporting events that will take place in the U.S. for the first time in 12 years.
This month, the service hired Schramm Sports & Marketing to handle its consumer marketing campaign. The network also hired Rassenberger Media to handle affiliate relations.
Logo, backed by the heft of Viacom Inc.’s MTV Networks, will launch this week with fewer than the 10 million subscribers it had hoped for, thanks to a yet-to-be-completed deal with the MSO Comcast Corp.
“Logo is caught up in MTV Networks’ negotiations for a 10-year contract for all of its networks,” says a source close to the negotiations.
As a digital-basic channel, Logo’s ability to reach general-market viewers makes its potential quite different from that of here! or QTN. Its programming is geared to gays, with the expectation that it will also draw in the families and friends of gays and also other viewers who happen to land there.
Programming will include news produced in concert with CBS and LPI Media, publisher of The Advocate, Out and Out Traveler magazines. Documentaries, an original dramedy about gay men living in Los Angeles and several original reality shows punctuate a lineup of 200 movies — many of them general-market films that have had particular resonance with the gay community.
“Logo’s existence in the palate of offerings is in and of itself powerful,” Garry says. “It will give many people access to the stories it will tell.
“One of the most powerful TV images for me is the lesbian character on All My Children, because she’s invited into homes all across America every day. It’s about reach and introducing gay people into the fabric of society.”