Gay Net Is Back in the Closet

The gaggle of startup niche cable networks catering to nearly every audience imaginable was reduced by one last week when Showtime shelved plans to launch a gay network. Showtime Chairman and CEO Matt Blank blamed a bad economy for the decision by Showtime and parent Viacom to pull back.

"This was a channel you really had to invest in to have some special and unique programming," Blank told TV critics gathered for the Television Critics Association tour in Los Angeles. "The timing is not great."

But, he stressed, the idea is not dead, just off the front burner. The channel is "something we all wanted to do, something we would like to do," he said, adding Viacom President and COO Mel Karmazin has been very supportive of the idea. Blank would not, however, give any estimate of when Showtime might revisit the idea.

The service, said to be dubbed Outlet, was envisioned as a mini-pay premium service costing about $5 per month, rather than a basic-cable network or even a digital channel. It would have probably carried some advertising, likely as "sponsorships" rather than traditional 30-second spots.

The idea was originally hatched as a joint venture between MTV and Showtime, but Showtime had taken the reins. Development hadn't gotten too far along. There were plenty of research and programming discussions, but the channel had no staff yet.

Certainly, it would have been challenging—and expensive—to fill out the gay channel's schedule. Showtime has some shows, such as Queer as Folk
and upcoming drama The L Word,
which features a group of young lesbians in Los Angeles, that could have replayed on the channel, and MTV was to have contributed some shows. But Showtime would have needed to produce or acquire plenty more.

In fact, MTV Networks Chairman Tom Freston had expressed concern that other networks were gobbling up gay-themed programming on the market. Bravo has two such shows debuting this month: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, where five guy experts make over a straight man, and Boy Meets Boy, a Bachelor-style reality dating show in which a bachelor chooses between suitors who are both gay and straight (of course, he doesn't know that twist).

In the end, "it was a matter of capital allocation" that scuttled the project, admitted Blank. "There are a lot more demands on our resources at Showtime, and that [the main network] is the priority."

Showtime is making original series more of a priority, ramping up development and committing more money to shows. New dramas Dead Like Me
and The L Word are said to run about $1.5 million per episode.

Initially, there were questions whether MSOs and customers would welcome the idea of a gay network. But Blank stressed that distribution was not the problem. "It wasn't that anyone was saying they wouldn't carry us. On the contrary, we got a lot of good feedback."