Showtime cable channels tonight will launch the first nationally distributed, weekly block of gay-targeted programming with Night Out on Sho Too, four hours of films, short features and its highly successful Queer as Folk drama every Wednesday starting at 9.
In and of itself, tonight's debut of Night Out is no big deal. For one thing, Sho Too (Showtime 2) is one of the multiplex digital channels, which means fewer than one out of five American homes probably has access. Nor is the programming strikingly unusual.
Personalities like performance artists Tammy Faye Starlite and the Five Lesbian Brothers theater company will serve as host for a feature film that Showtime feels has "gay appeal." These include Kiss Me Guido, Chuck & Buck, In Thru The Outdoor and Bent. The films will be followed by short-form programs including the cult cartoon Queer Duck, a look at the life of a duck that works as a male nurse. The evening ends with an episode of Queer as Folk, a compelling Showtime series about a group of gay men and lesbians in Pittsburgh.
It is all good stuff, but it has all been available for some time in one form or another elsewhere on television - mostly Showtime's main channel. So why does it matter? The presence of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered characters on TV is hardly news these days. In fact, in the wake of the Top 10 Nielsen success of Will & Grace on NBC, it has seemed for the last three seasons as if every other new network series featured a gay or lesbian character.
What's important about Night Out is what it represents. In a business sense, it is the industry's first clear step toward establishing one or more gay cable channels. And, in a cultural sense, that kind of enlarged playing field could provide the opportunity for gay and lesbian identity to be known or understood in a representative way by mainstream America, instead of mainly being visible through a narrow range of stereotypes.
"Some people feel like Night Out is a test - Viacom testing things - for the gay cable channel," Cathy Renna, national news media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said in a telephone interview this week.
Renna was referring to the announcement earlier this year by Showtime and MTV, both owned by the media giant Viacom, that they were planning a 24-hour, premium, gay-oriented cable channel to debut perhaps as early as 2003.
The market research - interviewing gays and lesbians about the idea of creating such a channel - has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Gene Falk, a senior vice president for Showtime involved in developing the proposed channel.
"It blew our researchers away. The magnitude of the response was the best we have ever seen for a premium [channel]," Falk told The Advocate, a gay and lesbian magazine, in March.
And, if Viacom doesn't go there, at least one other cable operation says it will: Pride Vision, which is already up and running in Canada and seeking deals with major cable providers in the United States. But the effects of all this interest and research into the gay and lesbian market is already starting to be seen in some of the more enlightened places on the dial. The television industry is listening to this audience, which Showtime estimates at more than 10 million viewers, and it's starting to show in more diverse images and story lines about gay life.
ABC's Nightline this week is running a series on gay life, titled "A Matter of Choice?" The series started on Monday with an informed and revealing conversation with residents of the nation's first gay and lesbian retirement community in Florida. The rest of the week will be spent looking at Roanoke, Va., where a hate-crime murder in 2000 and a subsequent series in the Roanoke Times has led to intense scrutiny of attitudes toward homosexuality in the community. Ted Koppel will be host for a live, 90-minute town hall meeting Friday night.
"Television has tended to focus, and Nightline has been no exception, on the issues of AIDS and on hate crimes," Koppel said in a statement explaining the goals of the series. "Television in general tends to focus only on the 'out and loud' sector of the gay community, what we have come to call 'the first 10 rows of the gay pride parade.' This series will show a part of the gay community not often seen on television."
GLAAD's Renna said Nightline has met that goal.
"It really is pretty groundbreaking. For one thing, you see older gay and lesbian people, which frankly you never see on TV," Renna said. "It's really one of the first times that they've gotten away from that narrow focus on the urban, 20- to 30- year-old gay, and I mean just gay male, experience."
How did Nightline get so much smarter than most of the rest of network TV?
In part, by listening to the gay community, said Tom Bettag, executive producer of the series, which started out having serious problems with the title - the implication that being gay might be a matter of choice.
"What we did is we spent a lot of time talking with and listening to people in the community. GLAAD actually helped us a lot. We went to the GLAAD convention and did a session on what we were doing. ... That conversation helped tremendously," Bettag said this week.
Nowhere will you find more enlightened programming than on the Sundance cable channel in June as its Out Loud film festival offers 30 films - one each day. The film scheduled to air June 21, a documentary titled The Cockettes about a gender-bending musical troupe founded in San Francisco in 1969, alone would be worth the price of getting Sundance added to your channel lineup.
On one level, the documentary is about some of the original men and women who were in the first 10 rows of the gay pride parade, and that's wonderful in its own right - getting to meet the archetypes on which today's stereotypes are based. But, on a deeper level, the documentary is a perfectly sculpted microcosm of the 1960s.
Paola Freccero, senior vice president for film programming at the channel, said no channel dedicated to independent film could survive without being in touch with a large audience that historically has been outside the mainstream, the place from whence the best independent film comes.
Calling the gay and lesbian community "an incredibly powerful demographic," Freccero said, "Out Loud is a shining example of why we're here."
Renna said that if you look at network television these days, you can't help but feel "there's still a long way to go."
But if you look at what's happening in cable - whether it's HBO's Six Feet Under ("must-see-TV for us," she says) or the commitment by Sundance and Showtime to gay viewers - you can't help but see progress.
And that's what matters about the premiere of Night Out tonight. Change is not only in the air, but starting to show up on the air of television, too.