Logo won't be the only player in gay cable sweepstakes
Viacom on Tuesday introduced its plans for a gay-themed digital cable network, but it won't be the only new entry: Cablevision's Rainbow Media Networks is also at work on a similar channel. After years of development, Viacom's MTV Networks unveiled Logo, which is expected to launch in the first quarter next year with content aimed at gay viewers ages 25-49. From a programming and distribution perspective, Logo will likely benefit from the cross-promotional and back-office synergies at MTV Networks, which has a proven track record starting new channels, as evidenced by its vast collection of analog and digital properties.
"We believe this new network will be a smart and valuable addition to our company as well as a source of much future growth for us," MTV Networks chairman and CEO Tom Freston said in a conference call with reporters. MTV Networks Group president Judy McGrath said the name of the new brand intentionally avoids alluding to gay iconography in order to reflect the targeted community's diversity. "A logo is all about identity, and Logo the network aims to embrace the individual and collective identities of the lesbian and gay communities," McGrath said of the network, which carries the tagline "Different. Together."
The network will feature a mix of original and acquired programming with an entertainment focus in a wide variety of genres. Initially scheduling mostly movie acquisitions in its embryonic stage, the network has already made deals to acquire gay-themed titles from such studios as Sony, MGM, and Warner Bros. On the original-programming side, Logo already has 40 shows in development, with 20 that are already at the pilot stage, including projects in collaboration with other Viacom properties ranging from VH1 to CBS News. McGrath outlined potential projects that could run on more than one network, like a history of gay characters in television that would air on TV Land.
Logo also will likely become a second home to the wide variety of gay-friendly programming that has appeared on the various MTV Networks properties, ranging from Showtime's Queer as Folk to MTV's The Real World. But in keeping with the content regulations of basic cable--a perennial sore spot for MTV, especially after the flak it received for producing CBS's Super Bowl halftime fiasco--racy programs like Folk would have to be edited for Logo but could appear uncut on the channel's planned subscription video-on-demand component. Dismissing potential criticism from conservative circles, Freston cited the Bravo hit series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as the kind of programming that will attract blue-chip advertisers hungry for an audience segment that overindexes on disposable income. "We do not anticipate any huge backlash over this network."
Paul Colichman, CEO of Here! TV, one of several small independent premium gay channels in operation, believes that without the liberties that programming like Folk takes, gay viewers won't be interested. "If you have to meet broadcast standards, you won't appeal to the core audience in a way that's meaningful," he said. Colichman feels that premium is a more viable category, given the attractive revenue split it affords operators as well as the problem of the crowded cable menu. "If Universal couldn't get an excellently programmed channel like Trio to succeed, it should make you think twice," he said.
The concept for Logo was developed several years ago as a premium venture at Viacom's Showtime Networks; its CEO and chairman, Matt Blank, scrapped it because it could have cannibalized Showtime's viewership, according to sources. At a conference for the securities firm Bear Stearns in March, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone publicly regretted not launching a gay channel earlier. But such TV hits as Queer Eye and Will & Grace have only very recently made a gay-themed venture viable at a publicly traded conglomerate. "It's taken big mainstream success stories like those two shows to convince conservative shareholders and financial institutions to get behind something like this," said Cathy Rasenberger, a cable-industry consultant who has helped launch numerous channels. Viacom has already secured distribution deals with Time Warner Cable in New York and Adelphia Communications in Los Angeles, and Viacom is expected to announce more deals in the coming weeks that will target major markets. The goal is to get Logo in as many as 14 million homes by the end of next year.
On Tuesday, Rainbow will launch Divine, a high-definition channel that will reside exclusively on Voom, the new satellite venture that launched in October. Divine will be one of 10 channels under Voom's HD Cinema category that Rainbow is converting into branded environments. A mix of acquired movies featuring gay themes or actors, such as Kissing Jessica Stein and La Cage aux Folles, would be shown in high definition. Rainbow decided to scrap the channel's broad programming mandate in favor of a more targeted approach. "As we get more sophisticated about affinity groups, we think the gay audience is very likely to be a strong audience segment," said Nora Ryan, senior vice president, business development, at Rainbow. Rainbow also will shoot original interstitials featuring a range of gay personalities from writers to cabaret performers--to be known as HDivas--who will introduce each film. Ryan said Divine will likely expand beyond movies into areas such as gay-themed theater productions and stand-up specials that would be shot in HD.