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Viacom, Pridevision fight to become first gay TV network

Saturday, May 04, 2002

By David Bauder, The Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Animal lovers, soap opera fans and science fiction aficionados all have their own cable channels.

Homosexual viewers have never had one devoted to their interests, but that's about to change. There's suddenly a race to reach that market.

Two Viacom outlets -- MTV and Showtime -- are collaborating on a plan for a new gay-oriented premium service. Meanwhile, Canada's existing Pridevision TV is looking to expand into the United States.

Showtime, whose successful "Queer as Folk" drama helped change the business climate, has scheduled homosexual-oriented movies and programs on its Showtime Two service on Wednesday nights beginning May 22.

MTV and Showtime's prospective gay channel has been talked about since 1994, but only recently have executives started outlining their plans to cable and satellite distributors.

Although Viacom still hasn't given the official go-ahead, "we wouldn't be going through all this if we didn't think the channel, as a consumer proposition, was going to be a home run," said Gene Falk, senior vice president of digital media programming at Showtime.

Their plans -- even the channel's name -- have been kept under wraps. But Falk said Viacom's other successful niche networks, like MTV and Nickelodeon, hint at the mix of games, reality shows, talk shows and movies that the channel will include.

John Levy, chairman of Canada's Pridevision, believes his network has an advantage over Viacom.

"First of all, we exist," he said. "We have a commitment to do this thing on a full-time basis. We're not testing or doing a block of programming once or twice a week."

Pridevision's fare includes "Locker Room," a comedy about homosexuals in sports; "Undercovers," a phone-in sex advice show; "Dyke TV," a news and commentary show about lesbians; and "Urban Fitness TV," a lifestyle show. Its on-air hosts are called "gay jays."

Both prospective networks want to be premium services, meaning cable or satellite customers would have to request and pay for the channel.

After years in which the homosexual audience has been ignored, why have the forces of competition now been unleashed?

"Queer as Folk," set in Pittsburgh, proved to many television programmers that a gay-oriented program could be a ratings winner without a damaging backlash from cultural critics. GLAAD believes that since more homosexuals are coming out, ratings services are counting them as a visible audience.

At the same time, cable has shifted to the belief that niche networks are easier to establish and be profitable than those that offer general entertainment. Homosexuals are considered a loyal audience with money to spend.

The expansion of digital service also means there is more "shelf space" available for new channels on cable and satellite systems.

Pridevision hopes to get on the air this fall. Viacom offers no timetable. Neither network has announced an agreement by a cable or satellite provider to carry their service.

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