Showtime seeks broad audience with gay and lesbian programming
January 09 2004 1:00 AM ET
After letting them redecorate their living rooms, will American viewers follow queer TV characters into their bedrooms? The appeal of gay-themed programming in the wake of the Bravo hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is a question of keen interest to Showtime. This month the premium cable network is unveiling The L Word, TV's first ensemble drama featuring lesbian characters, while preparing to relaunch returning series Queer as Folk with a new creative focus and promotional campaign.
Both series will be introduced into a cultural climate markedly different from the one Folk first entered in 2000. While its graphic depiction of male sex kicked up considerable controversy then, it paved the way for the current gay-friendly programming wave epitomized by Queer Eye. And with issues like gay marriage making headlines, Word and Folk couldn't be more relevant, according to out Showtime Networks entertainment president Robert Greenblatt. "People are much more open to these issues," he said. "The timing is right to get more attention on these shows."
But to court wider audiences, Showtime won't make its marketing efforts as steamy as the one that ultimately overheated for Folk, which has since seen its ratings decline. The new efforts represent a strategy shift for Showtime under Greenblatt, who envisions the next wave of Showtime programming aiming for a broader audience. His predecessor, longtime president Jerry Offsay, catered to distinct audience segments with series like the Hispanic-themed Resurrection Blvd. and black family comedy Soul Food. "The niche strategy is one that can work, but I want to go beyond that," said Greenblatt, a former Fox executive who joined Showtime in July after a successful run as an executive producer of HBO's Six Feet Under, among other shows. Establishing both Word and Folk is crucial as the network's reliance on original programming increases because of the dry spell of hit films coming from its main theatrical supplier, Paramount Pictures. Adding to the pressure is the impending departure of several other Showtime series, including The Chris Isaak Show and Food, which end this year after their third and fifth seasons, respectively. "I don't want to look to next year to launch a whole new slate," Greenblatt said. "You need carryover and stability."
Folk, which revolves around the lives of a group of gay friends living in Pittsburgh, was originally touted by Showtime with a $10 million promotional budget that flaunted the flesh and invited viewers to glimpse what all the fuss was about. (The drama is based on a British series of the same name.) But as the opening hype for Folk waned, so did the ratings, which have dropped from season to season. (Showtime does not disclose Nielsen figures.) Folk drew some critical acclaim but was ignored by Emmy and Golden Globe voters. Showtime cut its marketing expenditures for subsequent seasons as well as its episode order, which dropped from 22 in its first year to 14 in its third and upcoming fourth seasons beginning in April.
Ron Cowen, co-executive producer and creator of Folk with Daniel Lipman, believes all the hubbub over the sex on Folk eclipsed the series's more substantive attributes. "I think a lot of other aspects of the show--the characters, the issues--were overlooked because people were so shocked by the sexuality of the characters," he said. After experiencing the TV equivalent of a one-night stand, Folk is now going a more respectable route in hopes of a long-term relationship with viewers. The upcoming season will feature more story lines highlighting the maturation of the characters, shifting focus from the perils of promiscuity to the complexities of relationships. Showtime will support Folk with a new marketing campaign that will spend millions more than it did last season.
To hear Showtime tell it, the changes are not an intentional outreach to a broader audience but an organic outgrowth of the Folk narrative. But Greenblatt acknowledged that less clubbing and more cuddling will appeal to more viewers. "I'm hoping the stories will be seen as a bit more universal," he said. "A lot of people look at the show and think it's a crazy gay sex club show, but it's not." Folk won't stray too far from its raunchy roots either; that would risk alienating not only its core fan base of gay men but straight women who enjoy the series' steamy side. "Folk will still be sexy and audacious," Greenblatt said. "We're not turning into The Brady Bunch."
Like Folk, Word is a drama offering an authentic slice of gay life in America, but it focuses on a group of lesbian friends in West Hollywood, Calif., with only slightly less sizzle. Showtime will promote Word, which debuts January 18, in both mainstream and gay-oriented media, but the message will not emphasize the bawdiness that overwhelmed Folk. Instead, Word will play off its coy title by highlighting other "L words" in its ad copy--including liberty, love, legs, and lunch--that convey the universality of the show's themes. "We're trying to market it in a way that feels inclusive and relatable but with a twist that makes it fresh and unique," said Stephanie Gibbons, senior vice president of advertising at Showtime. Given the hetero male species's notorious fascination with all things lesbian, Word might seem poised for greater crossover appeal than Folk. But while the campaign promoting Word certainly won't hide its comely female cast, it will not go too over the top. "We're not going after the salacious element," Gibbons said.
It remains to be seen whether too much sex will sink Showtime's efforts to sell Folk into syndication--an important revenue source for the network in the face of declining subscriptions. Cleaning up the content may be a little easier with the new creative direction of the fourth season, but Greenblatt rejects the notion that Folk is upgrading its image for syndication. "Making it network-friendly hasn't crossed our minds," he said, pointing to HBO's recent off-network sale of Sex and the City episodes to TBS. "We have some content issues to deal with, but I don't think they're insurmountable." Whether on Showtime or in syndication, Gibbons believes series like Queer Eye have whet viewer appetites for deeper explorations of gay life. "It opens the door for increased sampling," she said. "People's minds are more open than they were four years ago."