Market Focus: Gay Networks Coming Out

Show quality has improved and advertisers see a growing audience with buying power and strong brand loyalty.
In the ever-expanding world of cable television and direct satellite systems, you can find such niche channels as the Game Show Network, Tech TV, Speedvision, SoapNet, and of course the Weather Channel. While zapping around the dial, you can watch five different Discovery Channels, eight unique HBO channels, 19 regional versions of Fox SportsNet, and 20 channels directed at Spanish-speaking people. However, except for the barely seen Triangle Television Network in the U.S. and PrideVision in Canada, there is no major channel aimed at the significantly sized, affluent gay market. That might be changing very shortly.

MTV and Showtime, both part of the Viacom media group that also runs CBS, Nickelodeon, and VH-1, are considering launching a gay cable channel to fill this void. For the last several years, both MTV and Showtime have independently been thinking about a gay network, but teamed up when the business model to support this type of network appeared to be a combination of Showtime’s pay channel concept and MTV’s niche advertising. A sponsorship model is also a possibility.

As early as this March, Showtime may begin a trial run with a four-hour gay programming block on its companion service Showtime Too. At press time, representatives of Showtime would not comment on when a full launch of the yet-to-be-named network might happen, but it is likely to be before the year is out. Before anything can happen, however, Viacom must line up the digital-cable and satellite-TV operators who provide the signals to 40 million homes.

Why the current interest in a gay channel now? Two reasons: demographics that advertisers want to reach, and proof that gay-themed programming can be high quality and draw a strong audience. First the numbers. Gays and lesbians are affluent, educated, and brand loyal. According to research from PlanetOut Partners, gays and lesbians are a growing demographic with an estimated population of 16.5 million people and buying power of $450 billion. They are twice as likely as the general population to have a household income over $250K and to have graduated from college. Lastly, two recent studies indicate that gays support brands that support them. A recent Simmons study showed that the demographic is 87 percent brand affiliated, meaning most likely or highly likely to actively seek out a brand that had advertised in the gay and lesbian media. Also, a Greenfield Online report showed that 63 percent of gay and lesbian customers said they are willing to pay more for products from companies that are gay- and lesbian-friendly.

When you have an attractive target, advertisers are sure to follow. Advertisers for years have run commercials with a “wink-wink” gay subtext in the hopes of attracting a gay following while at the same time not offending the mainstream audience. But recently, marketers like Miller Lite, IKEA, Hyundai, and State Farm have aired TV commercials that clearly appeal to a gay audience. Check out to see just how many gay-themed ads have already run.

Demographics aside, marketers have known about the vitality of this target for years; it seems that producers have finally figured out how to make programming that appeals to both gays and the critics, and this would certainly bode well for a new gay network. There was the occasional stereotypical gay supporting character on TV shows in the 1970s and ‘80s, but with the exception of Showtime’s Brothers in 1984, very little attention was given to developing a whole show devoted to a gay theme.

In the 1990s MTV started to set the pace with leading gay participants on Real World and Singled Out, and VH-1 had the gender-bending The RuPaul Show. But the big breakthrough came with ABC’s Ellen, the first starring role for an openly gay woman on TV. By the end of the decade, NBC’s high-rated award-winner Will & Grace and Showtime’s critical and popular success Queer as Folk have shown this to be a viable programming genre.

The programming for the new MTV/Showtime gay channel remains to be seen, but both networks have a track record of success with this audience. Executives describe potential programming that included acquired films, original series, imported series, news and information programs, talk shows, comedy shows, and travel shows.

To get an idea of what this future channel might look like, it’s helpful to examine one gay cable channel already in existence, The Triangle Television Network, which has been available since September 2001. Billed as the world’s first television network broadcasting programming exclusively devoted to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities, TTN has approximately 30,000 subscribers who pay more than $15 per month to receive the programming through their cable or satellite providers, such as DirecTV and The Dish Network.

TTN’s programming schedule includes gay-themed news and news magazine shows, movies, sitcoms, game shows, documentaries, financial news, travel, cooking, and more. It showcases gay and lesbian films, entertainment programs, and weekly serials from around the world. The news and news-magazine programs cover gay world affairs, politics, festivals, local news, and events throughout the U.S.

On a typical weekday, TTN will air such shows as Dyke TV, Good Morning Gay America, Cooking with Queens, Lesbian Lunch, Gay Court, Gay Dating Game, Gay Icon Theater, Evening News from a Gay Perspective, and Under the Pink Carpet, to name just a few.

Will programming like this attract enough advertisers, cable operators and viewers to support one or more 24-hour gay cable networks? We should find out soon.

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