The TV industry did a double take when Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and five other Democratic candidates for president said yes to an invitation from a small network called Logo for a live TV debate next month on issues vital to the gay community.
Logo, a cable network unfamiliar to most viewers, which reaches only about 27 million households, goes anonymously about its business because “we’re doing zero off-channel marketing for the network,” says Brian Graden, president of entertainment for the Viacom-owned MTV Networks, which includes Logo. “I’d rather spend that money on content, and rely on word of mouth in the gay community.”
Logo is one of two networks whose programming is aimed at gays and lesbians; the other, Here TV, is a subscription-video-on-demand service privately owned by Paul Colichman and Stephen P. Jarchow, who also own Regent Releasing, a theatrical distributor of independent movies and foreign films.
“We’re an escapist network — you’ll never see a presidential debate on Here,” says Colichman, with a laugh.
In their business plans, Logo and Here are two different animals. Logo solicits advertising from the movie studios and corporations like General Motors, Avis, Macy’s, Unilever and Red Bull; it also pockets modest fees from cable operators (at the monthly rate of 3¢ a subscriber), residing on digital-basic tiers with many other cable networks.
By contrast, Here takes no ads and asks for no cash license fees. Instead, it calls on cable operators to set aside two channels for Here, one a 24/7 linear network and the other a video-on-demand service allowing subscribers to call up a well-stocked menu of movies and series episodes at any time. The retail cost of the two channels averages $5.95 a month, which Here splits with the cable op.
While Logo steers clear of marketing, Colichman says Here spends millions each year to advertise its programming — a wise move when you’re asking customers to pony up an extra monthly fee.
Both parties declined to discuss financial matters, but Here will lay out $30 million for its programming this year, Logo about $22 million, according to SNL Kagan Research.
The two-year-old Logo will lose about $17.7 million in 2007, whereas Here, which celebrates its fourth birthday next month, expects to break even by year’s end.
Earlier this month, Logo kicked off “Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in the World,” an animated half-hour comedy of sexual manners laced with adult zingers that the network is pushing as a potential signature series, like Comedy Central’s “South Park.”
Rosie O’Donnell is one of the exec producers of Logo’s “The Big Gay Sketch Show,” another boundary-pushing half-hour of in-your-face comedy. And the network is even planning a theatrical-movie version of “Noah’s Arc,” the series about four gay black men living in Los Angeles that ran for two seasons on the net.
One of Here’s goals, says Colichman, is “to take all of the established genres and put gay characters into them.” For example, “The Donald Strachey Mysteries,” a series of original two-hour made-fors, focuses on a gay private eye played by Chad Allen. “Dante’s Cove” is a gay Gothic soap opera, just picked up for a third season. Meanwhile, production has begun in New Zealand on the gay spy thriller “Kiss Me Deadly: A Jacob Keane Assignment,” with Robert Gant (“Queer as Folk”) and Shannen Doherty (“Charmed”).
Colichman says Here has wider leeway than Logo in depicting sex and violence and allowing profanity-strewn dialogue because people have to pay extra to get the network, as they do for HBO and Showtime. Also, he says, “we don’t have advertisers breathing down our neck.”
While R-rated movies play uncut on Here, Logo has to meet the standards of a typical general-entertainment net. For example, the network’s scissors get a workout cutting frames out of rerun episodes of “Queer as Folk.”
Professors with a special interest in gay/lesbian studies, such as Larry Gross of USC Annenberg and Suzanna Walters of Indiana U., say they rarely watch Here and are mostly unimpressed with the quality of Logo’s firstrun efforts.
What Gross and Walters do like are uninhibited dramas on HBO and Showtime such as “Six Feet Under” and “The L Word,” which Logo senior VP-general manager Lisa Sherman says is unfair to a fledgling network that has to squeeze every penny. (Animation expert Scott Rosenberg, chairman of Platinum Studios, says the stop-motion animation of “Rick & Steve” probably costs only $50,000 a half-hour, less than one-fifth the cost of an average 30-minute cartoon.)
At the Logo forum Aug. 9 in Los Angeles, the Democratic candidates will have no say over the makeup of the panel of questioners or the content of their questions, but Gross nevertheless criticizes Logo for “underestimating its viewers. I want to see more discussion shows with teeth in them.”
Sherman says Logo does run serious documentaries and has the regularly scheduled “CBS News on Logo,” which gets updated constantly on the Web.
As Logo adds more subscribers to its base and rakes in more money from Madison Avenue, “we’re going to make shows that create buzz and notoriety,” says Sherman. “The presidential debate is just a first step.”