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Gay Net Role Models: Oxygen, Will & Grace

C1TV, which is looking to become a national cable network for gay audiences, owes a debt to both Oxygen Media and Will & Grace, according to executives of the programming service.

Miami-based C1TV is using Oxygen as a model for its plans to serve its target audience by integrating a cable entertainment network, as well as a Web site, according to C1TV cofounder and CEO David Sine. In fact, the channel sees itself serving the gay community the way Oxygen is trying to serve the women's audience.

And NBC's mainstream hit show, Will & Grace, with its gay lead characters, has made C1TV's road a bit easier to travel, according to Sine.

"It demonstrated that you can depict gay characters and get advertiser support and get a crossover audience," he said. "We don't want to be exclusionary with our programming. We want some crossover appeal."

C1TV launched early this year, and it is currently a weekly one-hour block of branded programming. The company buys time on leased access on cable to get distribution for its programming. It now reaches 7 million homes in 25 cities and, by year's end, it will be in 10 million homes in 40 cities, Sine said.

The ultimate goal is to build C1TV-the tag line of which is, "The world through your eyes"-into a 24-hour network.

It won't be easy. Shelf space for any new programming service today is extraordinarily limited at a time when even networks targeted toward women-one-half of the population-struggle to gain carriage.

And other companies have tried to create 24-hour gay cable networks on a national level without much success.

"There have been efforts like this in the past that have come to naught," said Stephanie Blackwood, a partner in Spare Parts Inc., a research and marketing company specializing in the gay and lesbian community.

Even Sine conceded, "There have been attempts before. It has been tried."

For example, New York-based Gay Cable Network started out 18 years ago. At one point, its four hours per week of programming were distributed in 20 cities. Now, GCN president Lou Maletta has scaled back, only offering programming on cable in New York and instead concentrating his efforts on the Internet and streaming video.

"It's ridiculous that we [gays] don't have a 24-hour network," Maletta said, noting that the Hispanic community has three cable channels and African Americans have one.

But his attempts to get national carriage for GCN on cable systems were frustrating and even sparked controversy, he said. There was a protest in Nashville, Tenn., over an operator carrying GCN's programming, according to Maletta.

"I had such trouble," he said. "[Cable operators] were afraid of the content. With the Internet, I feel that we're going to make inroads we didn't make in cable."

Another U.S.-based gay-cable-network entrée, Gay Entertainment Television, failed in its bid. The company's phones have been disconnected.

C1TV's strategy is to add one hour per week to its program block every two months, trying to build a brand, according to Sine. The network will expand to two hours per week in October, and it expects to be at three hours by December.

C1TV's schedule is currently a mix of original and acquired programming. But the service had a coup earlier this year when it acquired the exclusive U.S. rights to racy British series Queer as Folk, which it plans to add to its program block in August.

C1TV's programming is currently carried in cities including New York; San Francisco; Boston; Chicago; Miami; New Orleans; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Denver; and Phoenix, on systems owed by Time Warner Cable, AT & T Broadband (including MediaOne Group Inc. systems), Cox Communications Inc., Cablevision Systems Corp. and Charter Communications Inc.

C1TV has had initial talks with direct-broadcast satellite service DirecTV Inc. about future distribution, and it has also begun discussions with Ocean Communications about getting a transponder down the road for its service, according to Sine.

To try to demonstrate demand, C1TV has also started a nationwide petition drive that it plans to take to distributors this fall, he added.

Sine has a background in the investment industry, and he said C1TV's private backers have supplied enough money to keep the service rolling. "We have enough funding to carry us for the foreseeable future," he added.

C1TV's management team includes cable veterans David Floberg, its executive vice president and chief financial officer; vice president of programming and production Carlos Fraguio, an ex-official of The Box Music Network; and vice president of ad sales Catherine Gray, formerly of AT & T Media Services.

C1TV's advisory board includes David Bohnett, a founder of Yahoo! GeoCities and now chairman of Online Partners.

On the advertising side, there are a variety of reasons why a national cable network for gays hasn't emerged yet, according to marketing mavens.

Some experts said the cheesy production values and sexually oriented content of some of the past efforts have turned off advertisers right off the bat. Others said sponsors fear a right-wing backlash if they advertise on a TV network for gays.

"Advertisers have been less comfortable targeting broadcast advertising to this market," said Wesley Combs, founding partner and president of Witeck-Combs Communications, a marketing firm specializing in gay and lesbian consumers. "It would demonstrate a very visible commitment. If you do a print ad in The Advocate, the broad consumer audience is not aware that you're doing it."

Both he and Blackwood also pointed out that TV commercials are much more expensive to produce than print ads, and it's hard to do pricey creative for a niche market.

Combs said there isn't a lot of accurate research on the size of the gay market, so it's hard to justify expenditures to reach them. And small portions of media budgets are dedicated to gays by advertisers, Blackwood said, estimating that there are 15 million to 20 million gay people over the age of 18 in the United States.

The final problem with the idea of a gay cable network is the content. As Blackwood asked, "What programming are you going to put on?"

C1TV's approach is to provide entertainment programming for the gay community that has high production values, and that is also of interest to a broader audience, according to Sine. Unlike some gay-targeted cable programming on a local level, C1TV doesn't offer sexually oriented, "guys-in-leather" shows.

In fact, C1TV is editing Queer as Folks so that the U.S. version won't be as bold as its British run, Sine added.

C1TV's program lineup currently includes a dating show and a magazine and lifestyle series.

Sine maintained that the time is right for a network such as C1TV from the audience point of view. Mainstream viewers who are now flocking to Will & Grace began to be indoctrinated to gay TV characters some time ago.

"It took Ellen to prove that there was a mass audience that would watch," Blackwood said. "I've been utterly astonished by the way American values on sexuality have loosened up."