BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week we heard that cable channels MTV and Showtime are in quote "serious negotiations about launching the nation's first gay channel." Here to talk about the implications is the man with the scoop -- J. Max Robins. He's also the author of The Robins Report for TV Guide. Max, you're back!
MAX ROBINS: And it's a pleasure to be back, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So -- this cable channel -- do they have a name for it yet?
MAX ROBINS: We haven't been able to find one out, but they are in serious discussions-- both Showtime and MTV, and we may even see kind of a beginning sign of it as early as March.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They're not the only ones in this kind of discussion, are they?
MAX ROBINS:No. MTV and Showtime seem to be the farthest along, but HBO has had discussions over some time about this, and they've also talked about this over at USA networks, and the parent company of Bravo and AMC, Rainbow Communications also has looked into this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why now?
MAX ROBINS:Well I think why not now? There's certainly a sizable gay audience, and-- there's a real thinking that this might make good business sense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are there any concerns among the gay community about ghetto-ization?
MAX ROBINS:Oh, I think there are, and when you talk to people in -- from the gay community - those involved in the television business - the first thing they say is hey -- about time. But the other thing they say is look, it better be quality. This is a demanding audience. There are also some misgivings, if you will. In reporting the story I talked to people who said hey, how are they going to deal with their real different sensitivities among the lesbian community as opposed to the gay community? How is that going to break down?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you think they're going to pitch this thing? I mean Lifetime is television for women.
MAX ROBINS:I don't know. I do know though that there is something in Canada called Pride Vision that launched-- not too long ago, and what they've done is for example they've bought the series Will & Grace. Two of the central characters in it are gay. They've purchased select episodes with gay themes from other sitcoms. They bought the Showtime series Queer as Folk. They do news programming that has a, a focus on gay and lesbian issues. They also, I think, do some game shows that have -- I mean for example one of the things I heard bandied about for this proposed channel is maybe they'll have a gay Dating Game. Look, Brooke, over the last several years we've seen a lot of major advertisers, I mean from General Motors to Budweiser, who have made marketing pitches directed at both the gay and lesbian community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We have an interview about that coming up soon.
MAX ROBINS:There you go. I mean there's a lot of marketing research out there that says there's a sizable gay population. One of the figures bandied about is that 6 percent of the adult American population identifies themselves as either gay or lesbian. There's estimates about what kind of buying power, and it's in the hundreds of billions of dollars that that represents. People in the media business, especially in these tough times, are looking to expand into market segments wherever they can!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You know it's clear that Lifetime television for women has a lot of male viewers. Nevertheless with 52 percent of the population being female it doesn't really need them. BET has principally a black audience, but that audience is certainly big enough in raw numbers. I mean once you get down to the gay community it may be sizable in terms of the population, but in terms of a slice of the viewing audience, it really isn't all that great! Can this channel succeed without the straight audience?
MAX ROBINS: I think it'll need to cross over somewhat, but look, you've got a - you've got networks out there -- there's a Speed Vision which is about-- [LAUGHTER] race cars and auto racing! [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I stand [LAUGHS] - I stand corrected.
MAX ROBINS:Yeah! Come on, Brooke - there's the Golf Channel! I'm not a golfer, but it seems to do okay. That's one of the things that's going on out there -- you have this incredible channel capacity and there are audiences to support just about anything you can imagine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Max Robins, succinct as usual. Thank you very much.
MAX ROBINS: Brooke, pleasure as always to be here. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Max Robins writes The Robins Report for TV Guide. Larry Gross is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the recently released book Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men and the Media in America. His main concern about the proposed new channel is that it will most likely be a pay service, hard to find and possibly unavailable to the audience that needs it most!
LARRY GROSS: The people who I think most benefit from these programs are people who are isolated and vulnerable and for whom media images are, you know, almost a lifeline of, of support. This is in particular young people who are growing up and coming to terms with an identity as lesbian or gay or transgendered in families that may not know or support this identity with friends and schoolmates and teachers who don't know or wouldn't be supportive and for whom the media can, can literally become the only source of some kind of solidarity and connection.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well we heard Max Robins say that my god, they have cable channels devoted to golf and they can support them-- [LAUGHTER] but golfers don't generally worry about being mainstreamed. Are you concerned about ghetto-ization for gays and lesbians if they have their own channel?
LARRY GROSS: No, not really. I think it's very important to have specialized programming -- you know what you might call a voice of your own or a place of your own. That's the kind of cultural format that gay people have really never had except in the gay press. But the gay press is a pretty small phenomenon in terms of the potential audience. I think where the problem is going to be is getting the talent to participate in something which agents and managers and others will view as a threat to career possibilities. You know, if you take Queer as Folk as an example which is the closest thing to what they're talking about, there are only two openly gay actors in that entire cast. All the others are not only heterosexual as far as I know, but all of the publicity about the program has made sure you know that. And if you take prominent cases like Sean Hayes [sp?] who plays Jack on Will & Grace, he goes to extraordinary -- even somewhat ludicrous extremes -- to let you know that he's not letting you know what his sexual orientation is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Professor Gross, thank you very much.
LARRY GROSS: Sure thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Larry Gross is the Salworth [sp?] professor of communication at the Annenberg for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the recently published book Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men and the Media in America.