Why is Gay TV So Mediocre?

Why is Gay TV So Mediocre?

We get the beef, but where’s the rest of the meal?

It’s a measure of how enlarged the open cultural space available to gays has become—as a result of three decades of struggle, coming out, and the subsequent recognition of the gay consumer market—that 2005 marked the debut of three national gay television networks in America. Canada, France, and Italy were ahead of us on this score. There are now two full-blown networks on cable—Logo and QTN—and a third, Here, on pay-per-view. But the programming offered by these gay networks is quite disappointing, when it’s not downright appalling—especially when one imagines what it could be like.

The Logo network is owned by Sumner Redstone’s giant conglomerate Viacom, which also owns CBS and MTV Networks—and Logo was developed under the aegis of the latter. You won’t see even the tamest sexual scenes on Logo—the network edits what it shows because, it says, it’s “maintaining an appropriate level of content standards for a sponsor-friendly cable channel.”

Not that the films Logo’s been airing so far require much editing-out of bare skin. The majority of Logo’s programming so far consists either of films that have been aired thousands of times already, either on cable or on broadcast TV—or re-runs of shows already aired elsewhere, like Graham Norton’s campy gab-fests (still seen on BBC-America) or stand-up comics borrowed from the Comedy Channel, Logo’s sister company.

Most of the Logo films are over a decade old, some two decades. Did we really need a gay TV network to give us reruns of watered-down Hollywood product or tame gaysploitation films that have been seen endlessly before, and are still seen regularly on other cable channels? Some of these films have only the tiniest or most ephemeral gay-related content.

I find particularly objectionable the re-runs of ancient made-for-TV movies on AIDS like that old chestnut, “An Early Frost.” These films all date from the era when AIDS was still considered “the (white) gay (male) plague,” are filled with fear and loathing, and give a totally inaccurate picture of the epidemic as it exists today. Would it have been so hard (or expensive) for Logo to introduce these period pieces with a few minutes of up-dating, to let younger viewers especially know that AIDS is today increasingly a heterosexual disease, with non-gay women and racial minorities its fastest-growing categories of infected—and that medications mean an HIV diagnosis is no longer seen as an instant death sentence, as it was when TV made those films that make one cringe today?

And couldn’t Logo find a minute or two to accompany those films with a safer-sex message, specifically created for gay people, on how to avoid becoming infected? The rising HIV infection rates demonstrate that sex education is failing—I’d have thought it incumbent on a gay network to help protect its own audience. Logo’s one AIDS documentary was a re-run of a CBS program.

Every year, for a couple of decades now, there have been scads of gay film festivals all over the country—indeed the planet—annually featuring dozens and dozens of new gay films produced and directed by gay people independently of Hollywood. These films—in contrast to 95 percent of the Hollywood big-and-little-screen bilge—are often intelligent, creative, cutting-edge, witty, or contest convential wisdoms and all manner of institutionalized prejudices, and give a much more realistic picture of the many different lived lives of gay people than the cinematic fluff Logo is airing.

Yes, many of these independent gay films are made on a shoestring budget, and don’t have the glossy production values and expensive make-ups and hair-dos that characterize the tepid Hollywood portrayals of middle-class gays—but that also means they can undoubtedly be had on the cheap. So, shouldn’t a gay network be airing some of these thousands of independent gay films? And where are the classics from great gay directors like Pasolini, Fassbinder, or Derek Jarman? What about taping gay plays by gay playwrights, of which there is no lack?

As to gay news, there isn’t much of it on Logo—just a five-minute news-bite repeated several times a day. Too much of it is entertainment-and-celebrity oriented—and the weekend wrap-ups even feature an astrologer! The predictions of the Paddy Chayefsky-Sidney Lumet film, “Network,” have thus been fulfilled. There just isn’t much at all about gay politics, what’s happening to gays on the legislative and judicial fronts, news of the daily outrages of discrimination against gays in the more homophobic parts of the country, and hardly a glimmer of what’s happening to oppressed gays elsewhere in the world. Jason Bellini, Itay Hod, and the rest of the well-meaning but too-tiny Logo news staff—who are clearly under corporate orders to keep it thin—did air a couple of reports when the network first debuted on Iran, including one that tipped a chapeau to my own reporting; but—aside from endlessly celebrating Sir Elton’s and David’s wedding with satellite uplinks to the nuptials—there hasn’t been much foreign news since.

One had hopes for “Noah’s Arc,“ the first black gay sitcom—alas, it’s another piece of gay minstrelsy as insipid as the shows with gay characters on the Big Three commercial networks, with writing that makes “The Brady Bunch” sound like Moliere. Only a handful of Logo-produced documentaries, though devoid of commentary or analysis, relieve this net’s mostly boring audiovisual landscape.

Where are the gay talk-shows featuring smart chat by gay activists, gay writers, and intellectuals and academics, and even gay politicians, talking about what’s going on in the world we live in? Isn’t there room for at least an hour each week to talk about the burgeoning gay literary and book output? How about in-depth, hour-long chats with some of our greatest gay pioneers and artists before they’re no longer with us—from Gore Vidal and Franklin Kameny to Germaine Greer and Del Martin; the list is endless. None of the above seems to have occurred to Logo’s programmers.

The same can be said of QTN, owned by Palm Springs-based Triangle Multimedia—and which has only been available as a “premium channel” to New York City cable subscribers for a few weeks. By the way, why is a pay-per-view channel that charges $7.95 airing paid commercials?

From what I’ve been able to see of it, the news on QTN, what little there is—10-minute segments of the rip’n read variety, with little out-of-studio reporting, produced in cooperation with Planet Out, and repeated a couple of times a day—is almost exclusively entertainment-and-celebrity and gossip oriented, with an occasional few seconds thrown in on gay marriage, the only queer issue which QTN appears to think is worthy of more than one or two sentences.

QTN does have lots of talk shows—for primetime viewing, between 7 and midnight, it has nothing else, and they’re frequently repeated. But the guests are, for the most part, show business figures who would have trouble making the D or even E lists, spliced by diet chat and other inanities that don‘t even rise to the level of daytime banter chez Ellen, and both the hosts and their guests are—as Truman Capote once said of Marlon Brando—so dumb it would make your skin crawl. The half-hour so-called “political” chatshow is hosted by a sun-baked, constantly-hollering lesbian who appears to have trained at the Fox News school of high-decibel screeching: she’s named Chrisanne Eastwood, is clearly not the sharpest knife in the drawer—and she says she went to law school, which reminds me of Shakespeare’s famous line, “First, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

As the host of what’s billed as QTN’s “avant-garde” chat show, “Queer Edge”—a portly, 50ish gentlemen named Jack E. Jett who thinks wearing one glove and a multi-colored Mohawk and repeatedly climbing on top of his desk makes him avant-garde—said the other day, “You don’t have to be talented to do this show.” How right he was. Only occasional glimpses of semi-pulchritudinous go-go boys gyrating on the set provide any relief from the utter mindlessness of these talk shows. And for this garbage we also have to endure commercials?

QTN does have films one might not have seen before on TV—some of them are even interesting and not from Hollywood, with a sprinkling of foreign gay films. Unfortunately, QTN airs all these films only in the daytime or well after midnight—when nearly anyone who has to work for a living is busy either earning or sleeping. Call it Slackers TV?

Of the Here network, the less said the better. If you purchase most of their offerings you’re asked to pay $3.95 for, you’re a sucker. Most of their films are gaysploitation idiocies where the writing is dreadful and the acting is worse—that’s especially true of a particularly leaden horror soap opera they’ve produced called “Dante’s Cove”—and only about one in 10 are watchable. And their idea of a talk show is that indigestible endorser of Republicans, Elizabeth Birch, talking to Pat Buchanan. How enlightening. I’m not going There.

When one considers what gay TV could be, and then spends any time looking at what it is, all that’s been proven is that gay TV can be even more repellently mediocre than straight commercial television. And we’re supposed to call that progress. But didn’t the stereotype always maintain that we are supposed to be the creative ones

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at direland.typepad.com/