TV faces obstacles

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As Viacom's MTV Networks and Showtime Networks forge ahead with plans for a 24/7 gay-targeted channel their odds of success are in question.

The time is ripe for a gay TV channel, say some media observers, considering the gay TV audience has been hungry for such targeted entertainment for quite awhile, the general public is becoming more accepting of gay portrayals on TV and marketers want to be perceived as gay-friendly. The key, though, could be in attracting non-gay viewers.

While gay and lesbian print outlets are established, gay TV outlets have lagged till now. Even though C1TV, a gay-oriented cable network, has had its troubles, CEO David Stein thinks the new Viacom network has a chance. "The business model begins with the individual shows," says Mr. Stein, whose national network aimed at the gay community launched in 2000. A lack of advertising and revenue forced C1TV to all but shut its doors in 2001. But while the network is off the air, it's still in business trying to negotiate other means of broadcast, including satellite TV.

Mr. Stein believes a network targeting gays and lesbians shouldn't be branded as "gay TV," but as a network with shows appealing to gay as well as non-gay viewers.

"Individual shows like [NBC's] `Will & Grace' are your business model," Mr. Stein says. "Many people who are not gay enjoy 'Will & Grace' and watched [MGM/UA's] `The Birdcage.' "

The MTV-Showtime venture, which was announced last month, is still in the pilot phase of development, says Betsy Frank, exec VP-research and planning at MTV Networks. "We don't have a specific programming model locked in, but we are looking at a mix of acquisitions and originals."

Original shows would focus on gay and lesbian executions of popular genres such as reality, talk, comedy and live performance, newsmagazine and lifestyle.

Acquisitions would likely be independent films, films from gay and lesbian film festivals, documentaries, and English-language foreign series such as the U.K.'s "Queer as Folk," Ms. Frank says. Based on the British version, "Queer as Folk" debuted on Showtime in December 2000 as an original program. It has become the highest-rated Showtime original series in prime time, which could have been the impetus for Viacom to approve the launch of a gay network.

With the 2000 U.S. Census showing that 99% of all U.S. counties have a gay or lesbian household, Ms. Frank says the company "felt that the gay population was hungry for a place to go for entertainment where they could see themselves reflected in a multidimensional way."

Although a launch date has yet to be set, the channel will be a hybrid premium pay service supported by license fees and sponsorships, as well as advertising.

"There are a lot of viewers willing to pay for gay content," says Paul Poux, principal of gay-focused ad agency Poux Co., New York. "Advertiser support, I think, would be more difficult because there's still a stigma attached to [gay content]. Viacom, however, has a lot of clout and would have the best chance of getting someone on board."

Mr. Poux believes initially the channel will see a lot of general-market ads with the possibility of gay-specific ads developed down the road. "A lot of marketers don't create gay-theme ads for TV," he says.

Abigail Hirschhorn, chief strategic officer at Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide, New York, concurs.

"The big question is would the network benefit from general interest," she says. "For it to be successful it could have a core [gay] community but have interest and power enough to appeal beyond that community. The key is to find some form of entertainment that is broadly appealing to everybody and can connect them to everybody. ... [For example] the great old movies appeal to everyone. So if there were a particular set of movies and programs that have certain themes the gay community loves, then you will have a really successful network."

The gay and lesbian population is the fastest-growing advertising market in the U.S., according to Rivendell Marketing Co., Westfield, N.J. The print advertising market has more than tripled in the past seven years to more than $171 million in 2001.

"American Airlines would certainly take into serious consideration advertising on a new, quality cable option that reaches a very desirable customer segment, including gays and lesbians," says Robbin Burr, national sales manager for the airline's Rainbow Team unit, which handles marketing services to American's gay and lesbian customers. "There are limited marketing options available to corporations to reach gay and lesbian households, so it may make good economic sense to expand that mix with quality broadcast channels."

John Nash, partner at New Yorkbased Moon City Productions, which places print ads for Subaru of America in gay print media, likes the idea of the MTV-Showtime venture. "It might be a good environment for clients like Subaru to speak to that community," he says, although he hasn't yet talked about it to Subaru management.

General-market ads used to reach gay audiences work, says DDB's Ms. Hirschhorn "because 99.9% of what gay households need is exactly the same as what non-gay households need." So for an ad-supported network, "what it probably needs is advertising and marketing that don't leave anybody out."

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