Queer is here as Showtime invades HBO's racy turf

NEW YORK “If you’re a gay person in America and you don’t subscribe to Showtime, you’re going to be missing something.”

That ringing declaration of Showtime Networks president of programming Jerry Offsay stems from Showtime’s embrace of “Queer as Folk,” the high-visibility American adaptation of the controversial British series.

The skein is just the latest example of Showtime’s hellbent drive to generate the kind of ratings, awards and buzz for original programming that HBO has harvested in the last couple of years for “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City” and “Oz.”

Showtime is also trying to ignite a raging love affair with gay and lesbian audiences, similar to the way both Showtime and HBO have long courted Hispanics and blacks with series and original movies. Studies over the years have shown that minorities pony up for pay TV in far higher percentages than their ratios of the U.S. population.

But Showtime was stung by a recent report indicating that although 66.8% of gays and lesbians are cable-TV subscribers, Showtime was not listed among the 12 networks they tuned to the most.

So the network had to hustle: In addition to relentless on-air promos, Showtime drew up a massive marketing budget (lower than the reported $10 million but twice as much as its previous record) to make Americans aware of “Queer as Folk.”

Tony Jonas, an executive producer of the series and former head of Warner Bros. TV, says Showtime and the distributor of “Queer as Folk,” Warner Bros., “are taking a tremendous financial risk” in bankrolling such a dicey project, which may end up appealing only to a narrow niche audience. It’s the first serious drama to display repeated scenes of graphic gay-male sex to a mainstream audience.

Shot in Toronto (which doubles for Pittsburgh), the series costs about $1.15 million an episode, a little higher than the average cable-TV skein. Showtime is putting up more than half of the budget in exchange for the pay-TV rights in the U.S.

Jonas says Warner Bros. TV Distribution is picking up the deficit and will get worldwide rights to the series, including rerun sales in the U.S. following its Showtime run.

Showtime hopes “Queer as Folk” will become the bellwether of its block of original series that runs every night at 10 except Saturday.

Offsay says that later this month he’ll decide which of the network’s original series will be canceled or renewed. Right now, “Queer as Folk” is in the best shape of them all, chalking up an unusually lengthy 22-episode commitment.

Paramount TV’s “Soul Food” is continuing in production for another 20 hours, and the new episodes will begin on Showtime next summer. In July, Showtime commissioned 17 hourlong episodes from Viacom Prods. and Phoenix Entertainment of “The Chris Isaak Show,” a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a rock star — Isaak plays himself — that will be a blend of fact and fiction. The Isaak show starts on the air next spring.

The jury is still out on the four other series on the network’s schedule:

  • MGM-TV’s “Stargate SG-1″ is finishing its fourth season, consistently pulling higher ratings than any other Showtime original series, although it’s down 17% year to year (using the period of June 30, when the fresh episodes began, to Dec. 3).

  • Viacom Prods.’ rookie “Resurrection Blvd.” is off by 60% in households in its Monday time period since the series premiered the week of June 26. But “Resurrection” has brought kudos to Showtime because it’s the first series to focus on a Hispanic-American milieu, so ratings are only one element in the network’s evaluation.

  • The ratings of the offbeat half-hour comedy from Columbia TriStar TV Distribution and Mandalay TV, “Rude Awakening,” completing its third season, are 69% below the time period of a year ago (again using the week of June 26 to Dec. 3). But the inhabitant of last year’s timeslot was movies, which tend to score better ratings, on average, than series do.

  • Although many critics say it’s underappreciated, “Beggars & Choosers,” the comedy-drama satirizing the TV industry that’s winding up its second season, has fallen 93% in household ratings from June to December year to year.

Instead of checkerboarding its series throughout the week like Showtime, HBO schedules its series on Sunday night, when more people are home watching TV than during any other evening, says Chris Albrecht, president of original programming for HBO. The new season of “Oz” begins next month, followed on Sunday in March by new hours of “The Sopranos.”

“Sex and the City” chimes in with new half-hours next June, followed by a new hourlong black comedy from the writer of “American Beauty,” Alan Ball, called “Six Feet Under.”

Albrecht says that show features “a compelling gay-male relationship,” but the focus of the series is on a dysfunctional traditionally structured family (father, mother, daughter and two sons) that operates a Los Angeles funeral home.

Albrecht adds that HBO has a series in development “with a gay framework.” But the network won’t put it into production just to feed off the buzz generated by “Queer as Folk,” he says, declaring firmly, “It’s got to be a great show.”

“Queer as Folk” kicked off Dec. 3 to a 4.5 rating in cable homes, almost double Showtime’s primetime average. The next few weeks will determine whether it sustains that impressive debut. Larry Gerbrandt, senior cable analyst for Paul Kagan Associates, says that although “the characters are instantly engaging and the direction is fast-paced, the subject matter may not be broad-based enough” to attract a crossover viewership beyond the gay community.

But David Ehrenstein, author of “Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000,” says the series may attract women because “they like to see gorgeous men getting it on.”

“Yes, the show features a great-looking cast,” says Dan Lipman, one of the executive producers and co-creators, who is adapting it from the British series of the same title, which ran for 10 weeks on England’s Channel 4 last year. “But women will watch it because ‘Queer as Folk’ is a relationship show, dealing constantly with emotional issues.”

The third pay TV network, John Malone’s Starz!, is avoiding original series entirely. “We distinguish ourselves from HBO and Showtime by sticking with a movie-only strategy,” says Stephan Shelanski, senior VP. The movie lineup is overwhelmingly theatrical: Starz! buys or makes only about 12 world-premiere movies a year.

Asked if he doesn’t sometimes envy all of the publicity ignited by shows like “Sopranos” and “Queer as Folk,” Shelanski says not at all.

“Considering the time, effort and money that goes into an original series, and the enormous failure rate of these shows,” he concludes, “I never let a day go by without a prayer of thanks for having to worry only about movies.”

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