I Want My Gay TV!

Among the ever-blossoming bouquet of niche cable networks, a channel aimed at the gay community is finally emerging.

The gay community has been deemed a lucrative market, with polls showing gay people to be strides ahead of the rest of the population economically. According to a 2001 study conducted by the OpusComm Group in conjunction with Syracuse University and another marketing firm, the average combined income of gay couples in America is $65,000. That's significantly higher than the incomes of other demographic groups the study looked at, including Hispanic couples, who averaged $30,700, and white couples, who averaged $42,500. Those figures make gays an attractive population to corporate America.

Viacom, the conglomerate that owns MTV, Showtime, CBS and other media outlets, has already begun its courtship. MTV and Showtime have joined resources to launch a new cable channel to cater to the tastes of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) audience. No launch date has been announced yet.

Not long ago, when the landmark coming-out episode of Ellen aired on prime time TV, advertisers couldn't pull out of their contracts fast enough. But since then, shows such as NBC's "Will and Grace," MTV's "The Real World" and "Undressed," and Showtime's "Brothers" and the recent success "Queer as Folk," which all have gay characters and themes, have grown in popularity. These shows are attracting faithful audiences as well as advertisers.

In fact, given the extraordinary numbers from the OpusComm survey, it's no wonder Viacom seems very positive about the new channel and very confident about advertisers' interest. Roughly 6.5 percent of the adult population identifies as either gay or lesbian; the real figure is probably higher, considering that many gays and lesbians are still fearful to come out. Even using this rough estimate, the gay and lesbian population can be ball-parked at around 15 million people, with a buying power of somewhere between $250 million and $450 million.

History has shown that niche networks, such as Black Entertainment Television (BET) and Telemundo, a Hispanic channel, are worth their initial corporate investments. BET sold to Viacom recently for a cool $3 billion.

The new channel will be offered as a pay channel, cheaper than Showtime, at about $5 a month. The channel will also have advertising, like MTV. The possibility of PBS-style advertising "sponsorships," where ads are only shown at the beginning and end of shows, is also being entertained. Because it will be a pay channel that will only be viewed by those who choose to do so, one can only hope that backlash from anti-gay groups will be limited -- to an occasional itch, instead of a full-blown bigoted rash.

If the income numbers are correct, Viacom will be sitting pretty on this "new" gay market. But, according to UMass economics professor M.V. Lee Badgett, author of Money, Myths, and Change: The Economic Lives of Lesbians and Gay Men, the numbers are not correct. (See "An Antidote to Gay Affluenza," Aug. 16, 2001)

Badgett challenges the OpusComm survey with the some sobering statistics. Contrary to marketing polls, gay men earn 17 to 20 percent less than straight men, and lesbian couples are at the bottom of the economic barrel, she says.

Badgett is quick to point out that there's a difference between academic studies and those conducted by marketing firms. It would be rash to assume that the skewed marketing numbers are malicious, but as the middle-men between advertisers and the media corporations, these firms do stand to make money from a new gay network venture.

The new gay channel may not be the pot of gold Viacom is hoping for, but that is not to say it will not do well. PrideVision, a Canadian gay cable channel, has been successful since it went on the air a year ago.

Money matters aside, the network will be welcomed by gay people who want to see more relevant programming on TV. If the programming is intelligent, the channel will draw a loyal audience.

As media hype over the new channel grows, so will the debate, even within the GLBT community. Gay TV is a means to exploit the GLBT community by advertisers; clearly, they're in it for the money. But on the bright side, being exploited like everyone else is also a sign of progress. Joan Garry, the executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, says she will be glad of the new visibility.

In the end, most people won't analyze the channel that closely -- they'll just plop down in front of their boob-tubes like they do every other day.

And then there are those on the Christian Right who will heckle and picket and be entirely too outraged. Viacom doesn't seem phased. The corporation is already on the Christian Right's black list for donating money to Planned Parenthood. Viacom might be a giant conglomerate trying to profit from the GLBT community, but the fact that it draws the attention and anger of the anti-gay Christian Right may draw solidarity from the constantly attacked GLBT community.

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