Is Gay Too Mainstream for Its Own Media?

As General-Market Media Becomes More Gay Friendly, LGBT Players Broaden Niche

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Photo by Rick Lew for Absolut
Drag queen Yara Sofia, who competed in season 3 of "Ru Paul's Drag Race," poses in an ad for Absolut

You tune into a cable network and peruse the roster: a reality show about a child beauty queen, a pop-culture review and a canine-makeover series.

So what's surprising about this lowbrow lineup?

That it doesn't belong to TLC or Oxygen but to Logo, Viacom's LGBT-focused cable channel, which until this year featured gays and lesbians at the heart of its programming. Among others programs on Logo that are either green-lit or in development, "Eden Wood's World," which focuses on the 6-year-old "Toddlers & Tiaras" alum's transformation into a singer and actress; "Scandalicious," a trashy countdown show; and "Design My Dog" have fueled controversy among gay-media purists. The fear is that Logo could undervalue or ignore its LGBT identity by pursuing a programming model that attracts more mainstream viewers and advertisers.

Beyond the debate over whether LGBT media has a social responsibility to its core audience, the move raises larger questions about whether niche content for gays has enough profit potential for media companies and whether catering to audiences' gay identity is still the best way for marketers to reach this demographic.

In short, has gay become too mainstream for its own media?

Logo is piped into 48 million homes nationwide through cable, satellite and telco providers, but its network-wide ratings are too low for Nielsen to report. Its No. 1 show, "RuPaul's Drag Race," on Monday nights, recently drew 481,000 viewers for its fourth season premiere—a series record. Compare that with the season premiere of gay-friendly Bravo's top-rated series, "The Real Housewives of Atlanta," which aired the night before the "Drag Race" premiere and drew 3.9 million eyeballs, according to Nielsen.

Logo won't share its network-wide ratings , but the average 2011 ratings for TLC and Bravo (which many believe is the destination Logo's new content is charted toward) stand at 995,000 and 804,000, respectively.

Lisa Sherman, Logo's exec VP-general manager, said building a slate of shows that are not specifically about gay people isn't a move to attract a wider audience.

"The truth is , we're doing it to grow our gay base," Ms. Sherman said. "We do agree that we will be bringing in more gay viewers as well as their friends and allies, but we've always been about focusing on our core audience. We need to show them programming that speaks to their interests and sensibilities if we're going to stay relevant to them."

This spring, Logo will release the results of an audience study it conducted with Starcom MediaVest Group that the network says helped inform its content shift. Early data points showed that more than half of gay viewers don't consider showcasing their orientation a priority, and only 30% said they preferred living and socializing in exclusively gay communities.

"Keeping gay people ghettoized is an old idea," Ms. Sherman said.

The shift isn't exclusive to TV. It's familiar to all media companies that have recognized a glass ceiling in catering to a gay audience -- and acted accordingly.

In 2011, less than a year after launching the wide-reaching gay social network Fabulis, founders Jason Goldberg and Bradford Shellhammer faced an unexpected dilemma: Their great idea, which was to build the ultimate Facebook/Yelp/Groupon/TripAdvisor for LGBTs, wasn't gaining traction.

"We built a beautiful and amazing website, and no one used it," Mr. Shellhammer said. "The reality is , gay people don't live in a bubble. What we consume and do with our lives is just like everyone else. We thought gay people needed a place to rate their hotels and find the hottest bars, but in reality, they are already doing that on Facebook."

Fabulis drew 50,000 users in its first three months, and doubled that number in the next five months. Mr. Goldberg posted on his blog that the founders realized that the site would never pass even the $10 million revenue mark, far below what its early investors had signed up for. So, last March, Fabulis (which by then had shortened its name to Fab) dropped the gay angle altogether to focus instead on daily design deals.

The pivot has paid off massively. The company has grown to 200 employees from 10, with 2.5 million worldwide users, and says it is on track to make $100 million in revenue this year. It has attracted attention from venture-capital firms, and even deep-pocketed celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary. Ad Age gave Fab a Media Vanguard Award last fall.

Despite the business' mounting success, Mr. Shellhammer insisted that the revamp "was absolutely not a financial decision.

"We could have carried on, trying to make it work, but we're not stupid guys," he said. "Gay people just didn't need [Fabulis], because this generation didn't want to live separately."

Though gay print is struggling with serving an evolving gay audience, this past year bore some good news. The 2011 Gay Press Report, conducted annually by LGBT ad agency Prime Access and media-placement firm Rivendell Media, showed that advertisers spent more than $307 million in gay print media last year. The overwhelming bulk of that -- 97% -- went to local publications, with bars and restaurants, nonmedical services and retail marketers spending the most. More than 68% of these ads were gay-specific (explicitly referencing gay people as their target ).

"I hear all the time about the death of gay print media, and nothing is further from the truth," said Todd Evans, president-CEO of Rivendell, which has been compiling the Gay Press Report for 15 years. On the whole, he said, national gay-media outlets are having a tougher time staying relevant to gay readers.

A 2009 cover of Out Magazine, featuring openly gay singer Adam Lambert
A 2009 cover of Out Magazine, featuring openly gay singer Adam Lambert

"It used to be that you needed The Advocate to know what's going on in gay politics," Mr. Evans said. "Today, you have the internet and even The New York Times."

The political and social goals that initially spurred many gay-media companies were eroded by the profit motive, Mr. Evans said. "It used to be, every [company] had a dollar and a dream. But gay media grew, and then suddenly it became about the business. They toned down content to get national advertisers and then lost readership."

Last fall, Logo shut down one of its gay-focused news blogs,, signaling the network's departure from the news-media business. "There are other [news outlets] that can do that better than we can," Ms. Sherman said. Though Logo still operates popular gay-entertainment blogs, including and, Ms. Sherman said it had no plans to alter their content—though the coverage may become "more broadly gay-centric" along with the rest of the network, she added.

Aaron Hicklin, who edits the national gay men's glossy Out (which boasts a reported 200,000 circulation and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year), has noticed the changes in the market and in readers in recent years. He himself is no stranger to criticism for using nongay (or even, more controversially, closeted) subjects on the cover, and he famously took pop star Adam Lambert's management team to task for insisting that his 2009 cover concept not read as "too gay."

It isn't gay-media's job to produce only gay-focused content, Mr. Hicklin said, but to maintain a gay perspective on content. That's something mainstream publications aren't doing.

"The argument these days seems to be that The New York Times does a lot of gay stuff, and so does New York magazine, and Gawker is by default a gay website," Mr. Hicklin said. "There is great coverage in all those [places], but there are often things that are missed just because they're not looking at the world through a gay prism."

When Manhattan's St. Vincent's Catholic Hospital closed its doors in 2010, it received plenty of mainstream media attention. But Out (whose parent company, Here Media, also owns The Advocate) featured an oral history highlighting the institution's groundbreaking role in AIDS research and activism, including interviews with dozens of nurses, patients and others who lived through the crisis during the "80s and "90s.

"No one wrote that story, but we did," Mr. Hicklin said. "Gay media's role is not just to talk about our culture but also to acknowledge and celebrate our shared cultural antecedence—our history. We don't get that from our parents, and that 's unique to LGBTs."

Though that social mission may be a relevant goal for magazines and newspapers, Mr. Shellhammer said, it often takes a back seat at other kinds of media companies, as it did with Fabulis. "There is an energy that is alive in the heart and soul of the gay experience, but I don't think you can build a business around that ," he said. We found it really hard to do."

It's estimated that there are 16 million gay consumers in the U.S. and they spend $845 billion a year, according to Prime Access' data. Though the demographic is diverse, marketers and consumer experts have pegged gay men and women—and particularly urban LGBT two-income households without children—as having disposable incomes that are higher than average. And while they are a smaller minority market than Hispanics or African-Americans, gays are recognized influencers and early adopters.

Analysts agree that gays are a great target for brand growth, but as gay-media companies evolve and their audiences "integrate," it could get tricky for ad agencies that specialize in LGBT marketing.

Craig Karpel of The Karpel Group said TV is an increasingly less effective way to reach gay consumers. His marketing agency targets that audience through event and nightclub promotions, street initiatives, blogs and social media.

"The way gay people want to be entertained and the way they need to be marketed to are two very different things," Mr. Karpel said. "Advertisers can go to them as part of their mainstream campaigns, but if they want targeted [gay-specific] marketing, TV is not the best place to reach them."

For Prime Access (a full-service multicultural agency with a client roster that includes Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and American Express) the reality is that Logo remains one of the only mass-media opportunities to reach a gay audience with gay-specific creative—whether or not straight people are watching.

Mr. Evans at Rivendell said that smaller ad budgets have made "gay-vague" creative (including subtle targeting that many straight consumers might miss) a thing of the past. Instead, LGBT-conscious marketers are either sticking to their mainstream campaigns or tailoring creative to fit well in gay media.

"Logo gives you license without explanation to deliver a gay-specific message," said Prime Access' President-CEO Howard Buford. "And it's been true since the "90s that gay consumers respond more strongly to advertising that portrays them directly for who they are and how they live their lives."

Gay-specific creative has shifted along with the audiences, who expect more depth in messaging aimed at them, Mr. Buford said. Though TV remains an integral part of the story, he added, digital-media channels increasingly allow for the best targeting capabilities.

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The cast of "Ru Paul's Drag Race" season 4

Though the jury is still out on how Logo's new shows will fare with its increasingly diverse audience, one of its most prominent advertisers, Pernod Ricard's Swedish vodka brand Absolut, is optimistic.

Over three decades ago, Absolut became one of the first U.S. marketers to actively and unabashedly go after gay dollars, and it has partnered closely with Logo since the network was created in 2005. The brand is fully integrated with "Drag Race," an appropriately campy arrangement that 's been embraced by the show's fans. (After being dismissed by the judges, drag-queen contestants congregate in "The Interior Illusions Lounge" to sip "cocktails perfected by Absolut" through sticky, heavily painted lips, often while crying or fighting.)

Though Absolut won't disclose sales numbers, it confirms that LGBT bars and restaurants rank among the best performers in its top 10 cities. In most cases, they're the No. 2 and No. 3 accounts according to sales volume.  

Pernod Ricard VP-Marketing Jeffrey Moran, who oversees Absolut's LGBT initiatives, said Logo is well within its mission in expanding the content focus but hopes the network will be sensitive in marketing nongay shows.

"We appreciate [the decision], and we understand," Mr. Moran said. "We certainly hope Logo remembers its core audience."

From a marketers' perspective, he said, it's important for Logo and other gay-media companies to exist and to remain devoted to a gay audience—even if that audience may be re-prioritizing its identity.

"If you want to push the limits, you want to know you have a place to do that ," Mr. Moran said. "If Logo [doesn't have gay ads], everybody on TV gets the same thing. I don't think we want that ."

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