Gay Times Article III

Whither Gay TV...?

During my wasted youth, the soap operas had no gay characters. There were no pop videos with images of happy gay people. Gay consumers were not actively targeted by advertising agencies. There were no (albeit dreadful) adverts for gay chat services either. News reports - whether on television or radio - rarely covered gay issues... or if they did, reporters always pronounced "homosexual" in a rather extraneous way. Chat show hosts did not refer to one's homosexuality. And gay people were never ever, under any circumstances, to be given their own series.

In the eighties (after some 15 years of unendurable contractions) the brat baby of minority programming was born to Channel 4 and gave gays and lesbians a voice, albeit an infantile one heard small and late into the night, but a voice nonetheless.

Now that baby is a nearly a grown entity, its creator is threatening to oust it from its domicile. Michael Jackson, Channel 4's controller, was quoted recently as saying that C4 is "no longer a minority channel for minority audiences." Denying that a 1% fall in viewing share as the reason behind this decision, Jackson claims that "our remit still enshrines that we should appeal to certain types [sic] but the future lays in this being a channel of contemporary culture in Britain, ahead of the mainstream."

Suddenly the question being asked is, has minority programming (or to use the new vernacular, "niche broadcasting") - at least that with a queer emphasis - had its day? Is there simply no mandate to single out gays and flaunt them in a programme called "Gay!"? To be sure, there seemingly isn't a day that passes without a viewing a daytime show that highlights gay issues, glimpsing soaps featuring gay or lesbian characters, hearing a radio show that has a gay host or gay panelists, watching coverage of gay news or the real gay drama of everyday life... even, cover your eyes the Moral Majority, the sight of gay men fucking. Well it might not be Prime Time, but isn't it at least About Time... so has homosexuality finally been - oh, I can hardly bear to say it - "assimilated" into the world of television and radio?

I truly think not and thankfully - for once! - there are others who coalesce. Michael Atwell, ? [ can't find proper title on C5 PR - typical! ] at Channel 5 and very much a force mejeure behind gay programming ("I feel I paid my dues!") feels there "while much of gay life is undeniably mainstream" there is "no question" that there is still a need for niche broadcasting.

"Twenty years ago, people were doing the same thing, but it was not explicitly recognised," Atwell says. "Now the stereotypes have become overt but there is a still a need for programmes for specific types of information and interests." I would contend these `stereotypes' are only now more visible because of the existence of niche programming; that gays appear more frequently and obviously in the public domain because of those televisual representations, not always or solely because of campaigning groups or protracted debates on rights. But they remain just that: stereotypes.

Atwell points to a recent spate of programmes entirely and lovingly dedicated to "camp comics" such as Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams as an example of `progress'. "They are seen now as part of life's rich tapestry... how times have changed! It has become openly accepted that they were gay and that the humour is explicit." The snag is, when do we move beyond solemnising dear departed comedian.

ns? When are the powers that be going to reap more from such a diverse and ingenious community? And think on, even those programmes are tucked away in the nether regions of the viewing schedule...

Nick Thorogood, series editor of BBC2's "flagship" of gay broadcasting (although increasingly its last lifeboat) Gaytime TV advances the issue from the arena of broadcasting into the Colosseum of real life. "Yes, we have high profile gay entertainers, but they're still not happy to talk about being gay. And you still don't see them in Hello magazine, at home with the boyfriend. We are still stuck in the schedule, safely out of the way... Until we have full equality, then niche broadcasting is essential. Real people deserve airtime as well."

`Real people' did get sustained and compassionate airtime with the bombing of the Admiral Duncan. Thorogood says, "We all grew up with insults in the playground: calling someone a poof is where it starts, and a nail bombing is where it ends." If it takes the death and maiming of so many people to realise that elusive Holy Grail of prime time billing in the schedule, then truly I am disheartened. "Editorially we still have to argue," says David Cook, from Radio 5's Out This Week, pointing out that - as with any news medium - there are additional skirmishes involved in convincing producers that a gay-related story is "strong enough" to be included. Russell Davis, writer of Queer As Folk, concurs, echoing a generic consensus: "Until we are completely equal, and that's a hundred years away, then the niche should exist."

He points to the demise of writing eminence on soap operas (and no that's not an oxymoron) which I feel have always been an important marker for progression. His bug bear is "dull soap" where "everyone is whinging on about coming out. But people don't write well enough." It seems that gay characters, always a best-selling concept at storyline meetings, have become rather one-dimensional. I would point to Tony and Simon of EastEnders - just two in a long line of spineless and pitiable gay roles - and rest my case. And how long can gay men (let alone lesbians!) continue to be content with elderly material of deceased comics and flamboyant but fey characters? Russell Davies sees no problem with extolling any of them: "Oh, I hate it when I hear men slagging off Mr Humphreys [Are You Being Served] saying they were ashamed and embarrassed by him. Out of all those characters, he was the only one who had a sex life!" but I would appeal until blue in the face for producers and commissioners to move on from scheduling repeats of 25 year-old shows...

In addition to the apparent lack of laudable writers, budgeting constraints have perpetually been an excuse for turning brilliant ideas into a detritus variety of shows. It is something Davis has seen only too often. "Programmes are not given proper backing, they get a budget of tuppence," he says. "With Queer As Folk Channel 4 were champions, They gave us the budget that Cracker or Prime Suspect would get." But QAF was a first and you can't help thinking, well is it the last?

In radio too, platforms are being knocked down and access is being barred. "Maybe with digital radio," a seemingly wistful David Cook told me, "maybe things will flip over. But there will be much more fighting for the ratings, if not for the private funding."

With the advent of 500 channels (and possibly still nothing on) the fight for the right to broadcast may become far more difficult. This means we could be returning to Square One but even here there may be a dot of light just barely visible on the screen: the Internet.

"Gay men are becoming well versed in harnessing the technology," says Michael Atwell. "The Internet subverts national and international boundaries. Obviously, it's a phenomena that could meet the niche market, and that's healthy." Cook agrees but sounds a slight note of warning: "Internet access is fine but it's mostly the Americans who are pioneering it. It is an attractive proposition to them because it's cheaper. We need more platforms, more access."

Still, whether viewing on your grubby 14" portable, the latest widescreen Sony, tuning in on your Bakelite wireless or clicking away on the information superhighway, the debate over whether we have pertinent and scintillating gay TV or whether we grudgingly endure our televisual lot is far from over yet. I mean, how many times have you just kicked yourself for wasting 30 or 40 minutes or a whole hour watching programmes on the box simply because they are `gay'?

Russell Davis groans. "We should raise our standards, and not be satisfied with less. You sit there watching, thinking `Oh you never know!' but your heart sinks. There's so much rubbish!" He maintains that, "It's got to be good TV, full stop! No matter what you do, do it better!" David Cook heartily agrees. "You have to present a polished programme. If it's down to a handful of volunteers, then it's going to suffer and people will switch off." And haven't I - and others - been saying this for ages? But do they listen? No, and as a result we are still travailing.

TV producers claim that this is not the reason gay programmes have been pulled off air - Dyke TV and Queer Street amongst them: they still bleat about budgetary constraints and ghettoising the audiences out of the crucial race for ratings and advertising revenue. Minority broadcasting be damned, they have to make a profit somewhere. Even Channel 4 would be worth £2bn to the Treasury if privatised. Hardly a tuppence budget...

However, I would echo Russell Davis' sentiment that representation is "not just [about] `gayness' now. It's just a modern point of view. Everything is looser, and I don't mean more immoral. The world is a bit wilder and freer, and I would just like everything to relax." You can bet on him meaning the suits that run the broadcasting corporations and seemingly Channel 4 have taken the hint, but I am apprehensive that this Jackson's comment that the channel will "plays to its strengths" - drama, entertainment and sport - will mean that gays - and even more so, lesbians - will be almost left out of the schedule. While it's all well and good in theory saying, as Jackson did, that Channel 4 can no longer continue to be a `minority' channel or else, "We'd end up filling the small gaps left by other channels." The reality of this more mainstream programming could further disillusion and frustrate gay viewers already disappointed by content and tired from all those late nights.

There has been a constant notion that the fragile thread of gay programming might be, and can be, snapped at any moment. It leads to a point where reviewers are extremely wary of making captious comments, or even creative observations, for fear that this fragile link between reality and the viewing masses will be broken. Believe it or not, I count myself among those. There are some personal hopes of a brighter future... well, maybe.

"There is a lot of potential change, but how it will all settle down..." Cook said, leaving the sentence hanging precariously, almost ominously, in the air.

The is one goal though: that apparently intangible Prime Time Slot. "I have a dream," says Thorogood, "where I can turn on Blind Date and one in ten of those panels actually are gay, that I could watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire and hear Chris Tarrant say, `Mister Whoever, who is here tonight with his boyfriend...'" And as for programmes such as Gaytime TV? "If I had it my way," Thorogood says, "we'd have it 52 weeks a year, not just for six or eight." Well no offence, but I won't hold my breath for that one... Davis wants to see programmes "on ITV or BBC at 8pm, 9pm, primetime, without any fuss about it."

Don't we all want that? But equivalently, many think that will still be a lengthy time in coming. While niche broadcasting exists but continually fails to satisfy the appetite any audience has for it - and not forgetting it has disenchanted other groups too - we can but dream on to those halcyon days when producers are commissioning and scheduling inclusive television as a matter of course because we have a truly inclusive society. And you all know this, the answer is always the same: you'll have to wait and see...

© Oct 2000 Megan Radclyffe

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