The entertainment biz has been looking at the world through rose-colored glasses lately. With Brokeback Mountain scooping up awards around the world and earning eight Oscar nominations – more than any other movie honoured by the most recent Academy Awards – the gay community is suddenly the center of the industry’s infamously fickle attention. But chances are this isn’t a passing trend. Once gatekeepers take a closer look at the potential of this underserved market segment, they’d be foolish to ignore gay/lesbian/bisexual/transsexual (GLBT) viewers ever again.
Though official stats don’t yet exist, many estimates put the GLBT segment in the US at 10% of the population. That’s close to 30 million people, or a potential audience the size of Canada. In Britain, six percent of the adult population is estimated to be gay or lesbian, or about 1.5 million households. But beyond sheer numbers, GLBT viewers reflect the most coveted demo characteristics.
‘The reason people go after this audience is their brand loyalty and consumer attractiveness,’ says Jeffrey Garber, president of OpusComm Group, a NY company specializing in GLBT consumer research. According to a study conducted last summer by OpusComm and Syracuse University, about half of the GLBT market segment lives in urban centers and 65% are college graduates. As well, the GLBT segment is fairly affluent: average household income is between US$60,000 to $79,999, with 29% of males and 21% of females reporting household incomes of $100,000 or more.
One of the services the GLBT segment spends money on is premium cable. A list of the shows most popular with GLBT viewers reveals that three of the top five programs air on cable: Queer as Folk (Showcase), Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (Bravo), and Six Feet Under (HBO). In fact, 32% of the segment has digital cable and premium channels. ‘Here’s a group who, if you produce a program that grabs their attention, are willing to pay extra,’ says Garber.
Bravo goes broadband
A couple of years ago, Frances Berwick, SVP of programming for Bravo in the US, noticed that if the net aired indie films with a gay theme, they would often pop bigger numbers. ‘Today it’s still a very underserved niche,’ says Berwick of the GLBT audience. ‘We’ve deliberately sought to appeal to that niche. More specifically, we started producing original reality shows.’
The first was Fire Island, soon followed by Gay Weddings. Upcoming is Work Out from Mentorn, a docudrama set in a high-end gym owned by Jackie Warner, an out lesbian. The channel’s biggest success, however, has been Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. ‘Queer Eye is a very broad appeal series, but when we were originally pitched the concept by Scout [Productions], it immediately felt like the bull’s eye for us – it was liberal in its sensibility and would appeal to what was clearly a growing part of our audience.’ She adds, ‘We’re not a gay network – we’re catering to as broad a network as possible – but I think it’s interesting to note that a lot of the shows, Queer Eye being one of them, end up being very successful, and part of the success is driven by the GLBT audience.’
In April, Bravo will launch OutzoneTV.com to further serve the niche. Originally a programming block on trio, the broadband channel will run original programming as well as product from Bravo’s catalog, including factual formats Gay Weddings and Boy Meets Boy, a Bachelor-like show in which straight men were secretly mixed in with the gay men vying for the show’s principal character. PlanetOut, a media company exclusively serving the community, is onboard as a sales and promotions partner.
‘It’s a business imperative to be anywhere and everywhere the consumer is, and they’re spending more time on the Web,’ says Jason Klarman, Bravo’s SVP of marketing. When Klarman joined Bravo two years ago, he discovered the channel’s most popular websites were Queer Eye and Boy Meets Boy. With this info, he launched Man Hunt, a format about the search for America’s best-looking male model. Klarman says the show didn’t deliver a strong performance on air, but ‘literally a year-and-a-half later, we still get tens of millions of page views.’ He adds, ‘Anecdotally, it seemed to be something that resonated [with the GLBT segment].’
Logo makes sure it represents
Klarman notes that launching a broadband channel will allow Bravo to extend its relationship with the GLBT audience in ways a cable channel wouldn’t. ‘We can program even more stuff to them that we couldn’t do on an 80 million-subscriber basic cable channel. It wouldn’t work,’ he says. But MTV Networks sees cable as a natural outlet for a dedicated GLBT channel. It launched Logo in June 2005, and while it’s only available in 19 million homes, it is ad supported – a fact its viewers actually appreciate. ‘They like that there are commercials – it makes them feel supported,’ says Eileen Opatut, Logo’s SVP of original programming. ‘They tell us they go out of their way to support the companies that support our channel.’
MTV has a strong track record for spotting underserved niches early and maintaining a dominate position in that market: think teens, kids, adult cartoons. Logo launched with the doc The Evolution Will Not be Televised, about the history of the media and its representation of GLBT images, and it continues to program a strong mix of docs, reality, drama and sitcoms that reflect the diversity of the channel’s audience. Curl Girls, for example, a one-off doc about lesbian surfers, generated a huge response on Logo’s website, alerting Opatut to the lack of images of lesbians on TV – and the high demand. (Logo isn’t yet measured by Nielsen.) ‘We believe if you can see yourself, you’ll be comfortable being yourself,’ says Opatut.
She furthers that while Logo is looking for clever and unusual formats in which to package content, the key to successfully programming to the GLBT segment is to be authentic and inclusive. Here, the production community often falls short. ‘I can’t say we’ve been happy with all of the pitches we’ve received,’ says Opatut. Misconceptions and stereotypes, she explains, are all too common. ‘All gay men love fashion. All gay women know their way around a tool box. It just goes on from there,’ she says. ‘You want to laugh, but I think more people just need to be educated.’
To that end, Opatut is pleased about the increased competition for GLBT viewers. ‘The rise of gay-like television in the States has caused creative people here to think more broadly, and I anticipate the same to be true in other territories including the UK, France, Australia, South Africa, other European markets.’
Interestingly, OpusComm’s research reveals that 60% of GLBTs identify more strongly with their sexual orientation than their ethnicity. (Though the bulk of the company’s data is generated in North America, it’s collected from 51 countries in total.) In other words, gay-themed or gay-sensitive content will play well internationally. Says OpusComm’s Garber, ‘The common denominator is sexual orientation, so you have a wider audience – you don’t have to slice and dice as much. As long as you’re unilaterally sensitive to the GLBT, you’re in good shape.’ Call it the rainbow connection.