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It pays to be gay

As networks look harder and harder for unserved niches, Viacom siblings MTV Networks and Showtime have teamed up to explore a gay network.

A gay channel would probably be a mini-pay channel slated for digital tiers, instead of a basic or even a more conventional digital channel, according to Showtime Executive Vice President of Corporate Strategy and Communications Mark Greenberg. It would, however, also likely carry some sort of advertising, perhaps "sponsorships" between shows.

Greenberg said that making a gay network a $5 or so per month channel is dictated by the relatively narrow programming approach Viacom might take.

A gay network would be a blend of entertainment and information programming—some with gay and lesbian themes, some simply conventional programming that tends to attract gay viewers. "We see a wide range of programming opportunities," Greenberg said.

Cable operators, noting that they hadn't gotten a pitch from Showtime and MTVN, said a gay channel could be a tough sell. "I wouldn't worry so much about political backlash as customer backlash, even though it's a premium service," said one MSO executive with mostly rural systems. "I'm not sure if we have the market. If I had a large city. I would say yes."

Rev. Jerry Falwell weighed in on Fox News Channel Thursday: "Saying gays should have their own channel ... is like saying everybody who misbehaves in this culture should have their own channel. Why do they need a particular channel," he added, "when so much of prime time features stars that are gay?"

For all the obvious jokes about how E! or Style are already gay channels, this is a niche that no one has taken much of a stab at. Showtime and MTVN executives believe that 6.5% of TV households have at least one gay occupant.

By contrast, Nielsen characterizes 9.7% of TV households as Hispanic, and there are six Spanish-language broadcast or cable networks. On the other hand, even more TV homes, 12.4%, are characterized as black households, and only BET and a couple of smaller channels target them.

Greenberg said plans have not been finalized and no launch date is set.