TOPICS > Nation

Gays on TV

November 19, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: “Queer as Folk,” one of the top-rated series on the cable network Showtime, is continuing to raise eyebrows and attract eyeballs.

ACTRESS (mother), “Queer as Folk”: I can’t believe there’s so many.

ACTOR (son), “Queer as Folk”: Queers?

ACTRESS (mother), “Queer as Folk”: People!

TERENCE SMITH: Now shooting its fourth season, the provocative series about gay and lesbian characters deals with sensitive issues such as AIDS, promiscuous sex and drug use.

In this scene, community members discuss a rash of gay bashing.

ACTOR, “Queer as Folk”: Who do you think will come running? Them? They don’t even know how to defend themselves. The cops?

DANIEL LIPMAN: What “Queer as Folk” did was change the perception of not only gay people, but gay characters on television.

TERENCE SMITH: Ron Cowan and Daniel Lipman are the creators and executive producers of “Queer as Folk.” They have been partners in life and work for more than 30 years.

RON COWAN: I think this was a very groundbreaking, landmark television show. It had never been done before, a drama about gay people, and I think we were very … I think we were very scared at the beginning.

DANIEL LIPMAN: Previously there had been gay characters who were always supporting characters — you know, the best friend, the neighbor, whatever. They were not sexual at all. They sort of played into the stereotypes of what people perceived gay people as.

TERENCE SMITH: “Queer as Folk,” which is set in Pittsburgh, but shot on location here in Toronto, is a breakthrough broadcast in two respects: It’s attracted a large crossover audience that includes many straight young women; and it depicts its gay and lesbian characters as living full lives, professionally and sexually.

ACTOR, “Queer as Folk”: Don’t expect too much.

TERENCE SMITH: The broadcast is a forerunner in one of the more dramatic new trends in American television: An explosion of programs on network and cable that features gay and lesbian characters and themes.

TERENCE SMITH: Just a few years ago, the subject was nearly taboo. This season there are some 20 series, dramas or reality shows, that feature gay and lesbian life.

The cable network Bravo made a splash recently with its reality show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” in which a team of gay men makes over aesthetically challenged straight men.

CARSON KRESSLEY, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”: You only have two pairs of pants in your whole closet!

TERENCE SMITH: ABC’s new comedy “It’s All Relative” features a gay couple in a 20-year relationship who are fathers to a college-aged daughter.

ACTRESS, “It’s All Relative”: I’m engaged.

TERENCE SMITH: HBO’s “Six Feet Under” features a biracial gay couple. It won 16 Emmy nominations recently, more than any other show.

ACTOR, “Six Feet Under”: It’s not like they’re not going to know that we’re gay. We’re two men living together.

TERENCE SMITH: In addition, “In the Life,” a nonfiction magazine show about gays and lesbians, has been running on PBS for 11 years. And “Will & Grace” on NBC, now in its fifth season, showcases two gay characters and is the third-most-watched sitcom on network television. Nearly 17 million people a week tune in, including many straight women.

ACTOR, “Will & Grace”: My word, you’re stunning!

TERENCE SMITH: Social scientists see this proliferation of gay and lesbian-themed television as reflective of a broader societal trend.

SUZANNA WALTERS: Well, there’s been a phenomenal change in the last ten to 15 years.

TERENCE SMITH: Suzanna Walters is the director of women’s studies at Georgetown University and author of “All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America.”

SUZANNA WALTERS: The options for lesbians and gays ten, 15 years ago was either complete invisibility or awful, heinous, you know, vicious stereotypes. There’s been this, you know, sea change in our culture, where gays and lesbians have entered into the sort of popular imagination in mainstream television, network and cable televisions, films, advertising.

TERENCE SMITH: There is an economic motivation to the trend as well. The estimated 6 to 7 percent of the adult population in America that identifies itself as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender has a collective buying power estimated at $485 billion a year.

WES COMBS: It’s really a business decision. It’s a bottom-line issue to increase revenues for their companies, and that’s because this is a largely underserved and untapped market.

TERENCE SMITH: Wes Combs tracks gay and lesbian trends as president of Witeck-Combs, a public relations and advertising firm.

WES COMBS: You’re going to see advertisers who are interested in finding the most cost-effective way to reach this audience, and that is going to be, how can I reach the most people with the least amount of money or with the greatest impact? And we all know the impact that television has on our society.

TERENCE SMITH: Not everyone is happy about the trend, however. Robert Knight is director of the Culture and Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America, and author of “The Age of Consent: The Rise of Relativism and the Corruption of Popular Culture.”

ROBERT KNIGHT: We have not seen any what I would consider honest portrayals of the homosexual lifestyle on television in at least 20 years.

The gays consistently are portrayed as the loyal friend, the most self-sacrificing person, even the most morally upstanding person. So the public is getting this constant picture of gay life as something exemplary.

TERENCE SMITH: The controversy over gay and lesbian-oriented programming in the U.S. is less in evidence in Canada, where PrideVision, a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, all-gay channel has been on the air for two years.

The Canadian station is advertising-supported, but relies on subscriber fees as well. Twenty-three thousand households currently pay to subscribe, which translates into about 45,000 to 65,000 viewers a week.

PrideVision, which is available on digital cable and satellite across Canada, has been holding focus groups in the U.S. with hopes of launching an American version in the spring of 2004.

JASON HUGHES: We get e-mails, phone calls from people daily, asking “how can I subscribe?” And these calls are from, you know, Charlotte, N.C., they’re from Galveston, Texas, they’re from San Diego, New York City. If the product was there for them right now, they would give us $8 a month for it.

TERENCE SMITH: American media companies have been actively considering starting their own 24/7 gay and lesbian cable network.

Media giant Viacom announced plans for a gay network last year, using the resources of its Showtime and MTV channels, but put the project on hold recently, citing the weak advertising climate.

Are cable systems and advertisers in the U.S. ready to support a gay-dedicated channel? Wes Combs:

WES COMBS: It’s safe to say that a lot of the advertising decisions in this country are made by a lot of men, a lot of straight men, and a lot of the concerns or the discomfort that people feel about what they identify as gay is often associated with gay sex. So whenever any sort of intimacy is shown of gay people, it makes people uncomfortable.

TERENCE SMITH: Robert Knight says his objection goes beyond discomfort.

ROBERT KNIGHT: Well, I’d be concerned about a gay channel even if nobody I knew was watching it for the same reason I’d be concerned about a red-light district in my town. I mean, it’s hurting people. It’s promoting something that takes them away from a plan for a happy life.

TERENCE SMITH: But PrideVision anchor Renee Olbert insists that her channel fills a void for gay people, airing shows on travel, sports, and news.

RENEE OLBERT: You can really tell when you go to smaller cities around Canada that are provided with this network that it’s a lifeline for them, and you see how important our network is to showing people that they’re not alone and that they have other people that they can reach out to in that life.

TERENCE SMITH: Gay activists say, in the U.S., the groundbreaking moment on network television occurred in 1997, when comic Ellen Degeneres came out.

ELLEN DEGENERES: I’m gay. ( Laughter )

TERENCE SMITH: There was far less attention this year when she debuted her own daytime show, “Ellen.”

TERENCE SMITH: Still, Suzanna Walters says acceptability of gay themes has its limits.

For example, there is a world of difference between the comedic “Will & Grace” and the sometimes raw “Queer as Folk.” She says only a subscriber-based network like Showtime would take a chance on such a sexually infused show.

SUZANNA WALTERS: “Queer as Folk” is about as sexually explicit as you can get, and it’s been very successful. That’s the great fear that, you know, depicting gay sexuality will be the, you know, the one line that can’t be crossed, and certainly mainstream network television has followed that.

TERENCE SMITH: Co-creator Cowan says his show portrays a realistic range of characters, and the “oversexed” label is too readily applied to gay intimacy.

RON COWAN: In a way, it’s a very sort of political thing we’re doing. We are saying gay people have sex the same as straight people do, and, you know, we have to sort of get over that.

TERENCE SMITH: Daniel Lipman:

DANIEL LIPMAN: What we’re out to do is to tell the truth. So we push the limits of what we think the truth of the characters and their behavior is, and there’s always that point we say, “you know something? Let’s not — we’ve gone as far as we need to go.”

So it does become a creative decision as opposed to broadcast network, where they have the censors, where they have standards and practices.

TERENCE SMITH: Five PBS stations recently started carrying a magazine show called “Under the Pink Carpet,” which aims to be a younger, hipper alternative to the network’s long-running “In the Life.”

ACTOR: Oh, come on! Don’t walk out!

TERENCE SMITH: And Showtime will debut a series in January called “The L Word,” about a group of lesbians in Los Angeles. So despite controversy, even more gay and lesbian-themed shows are on the way.