Panel discusses homophobic media

“I Want My Gay TV,” screamed the title of a recent panel discussion in New York featuring executives of the two entities that are each brainstorming a cable network aimed at gays and lesbians.

Of the two entities, Viacom’s is the Goliath and a Canadian network called Pridevision is the David, and the panel’s evocation of the famous “I Want My MTV” rallying cry of the 1980s was meant to reflect at least a hypothetical pent-up demand among gays and lesbians for a 24-hour-a-day network they can call their own.

But the barriers to getting even one of these proposed networks up and running in the near future are formidable.

The overriding necessity of each of the channels is to get subscribers to buy it, and that means selling cable operators on making room for it on their cable systems and convincing satellite distributors to carry it on their transponders.

But the timing is less than perfect right now: Four of the potential major buyers — AT&T, Comcast, DirecTV and EchoStar — are holding off on making controversial network deals because of merger talks that have subjected them to the intense light of regulatory scrutiny. Comcast has engineered an agreement in principle to take over AT&T, and EchoStar has submitted all of the particulars of its purchase of DirecTV to Washington.

The last thing these four corporations want to generate is stories detailing their pickup of the first cable network in the U.S. devoted to gays and lesbians. Such an announcement could provide fresh ammunition to competing operators and D.C. interest groups that have spoken out against the mergers.

Another complication for cable operators is that many of them own systems in small communities. Gay and lesbian subscribers in these communities may hesitate to order Viacom’s network (still unnamed) or Pridevision (which started operation across Canada in September) out of fear that the decision could prematurely push them out of the closet.

But John Levy, chairman-CEO of Headline Media Group, the Canadian company that owns Pridevision, says his staff has worked out the details of a subscription operation that preserves the anonymity of people who buy the network through their local cable system or satellite provider.

With support from cable systems in the U.S., Levy says Pridevision will build in similar protections, hoping to persuade closeted gays that they won’t be outed with their subscription.

Viacom’s point people for its gay network — Gene Falk, senior VP for Showtime’s digital-media group; Kim Lemon, senior VP of research for Showtime; and Matt Farber, an MTV consultant who’s president of his own company, Wilderness Media & Entertainment — also are ready to try to build in mechanisms that would protect the privacy of the network’s subscribers.

Both Viacom and Pridevision are touting themselves as pay TV networks that also accept advertising. Farber says Viacom is looking to charge between $5 and $7 a month; Levy says subscribers to Pridevision should expect to pay $10. In Canada, the Pridevision subscriber pays either $6.95 or $7.95 a month, depending on the delivery system

Viacom’s Falk says he fears the reason for Pridevision’s willingness to charge $10 is that “the gay audience is so starved for content that it’ll pay anything. I find that offensive, and wrong.”

Q&A sessions with members of focus groups, and long experience with the pricing of pay TV networks such as Showtime and its multiplexes, have led Falk and his staff to propose the lower monthly fee.

At $6 or so a month, Falk says subscribers will be less likely to cancel their subscriptions than at the stiffer $10 tariff. Keeping subscribers is crucial because the network’s goal is to collect some of its revenues from advertising: Madison Avenue will quickly lose interest in supporting a network to which few people have access.

But Cathy Rasenberger, president of Rasenberger Media and Pridevision’s distribution consultant, says her focus groups show gays and lesbians “are an enormously affluent audience” and they’d have no problem ponying up $10 a month. She cites some foreign-language programming services for which immigrant households pay as much as $25 a month.

And since Pridevision’s contract calls for a 50/50 split of the subscriber’s fee, Rasenberger says the higher retail price will funnel more money to the network so it can buy better programming and produce more expensive originals. She also says Pridevision will pocket only a small percentage of its total revenues from advertising. In Canada, that figure is only about 10%.

Viacom’s Matt Farber declines to go into any detail about the network’s specific programs. “Every genre of original programming — sitcoms, newsmagazines, talkshows, gameshows, relationship shows — can be done for gay and lesbian characters,” he says.

Acquisitions will play a big role in filling the schedule of the network, he continues, citing lots of independent theatrical movies and documentaries “that were not mass-appeal enough for straight audiences, so they never appeared on TV in the U.S.”

And Viacom’s Paramount TV library is chock full of old series that some gay and lesbian viewers dote on for their camp appeal, titles such as “The Brady Bunch,” “Love Boat” and “Love: American Style.”

One area into which Viacom will not venture is hard-core porn, which shows up every Friday and Saturday at midnight on Pridevision in Canada.

Rasenberger says that even though the porn movies draw big ratings in Canada, Pridevision won’t import them to the U.S. Instead, the post-midnight shows on the U.S. version “will feature the kind of erotica you might see latenight on pay networks like Cinemax,” she says. But for operators who carry some of the porn pay-per-view networks, Rasenberger says Pridevision, while not running hard-core itself, would be set up to cross-promote these movies on PPV. The promotion would help to drive PPV revenues to the operators.

Mark Lieber, Pridevision’s program consultant, says as much as 50% of the network’s Canadian programs could play on the U.S. version, everything from lifestyle and travel shows to cooking shows and magazines. The sex talkshow “Under Covers” on Pridevision is similar to the U.S. syndicated TV series “Lovelines.” One show on the drawing boards is a relationship series like “Blind Date,” only featuring gays and lesbians.

Although none has taken the plunge yet, cable operators say they’re keeping an open mind about buying a network directed to gays and lesbians. But most of the operators say there’s room for only one such program service.

Even though Viacom’s financial resources dwarf those of Pridevision, Rasenberger says cable operators have told her they’d love to curb the power of a company that owns more cable networks (including multiplexed channels) than any other media conglomerate, from MTV and Nickelodeon to Showtime and VH1.

Pridevision’s Levy is particularly fond of the David-and-Goliath analogy because “if you remember the Bible, David’s slingshot carried the day.”

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