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Viacom takes leap with gay cable channel

Scott Collins Los Angeles Times

Any company that broadcasts such shows as “Jackass” and “Beavis and Butthead” can’t get overly worried about controversy. But Viacom – the corporate giant behind CBS, MTV, Nickelodeon and numerous other networks and media properties – might be taking its biggest TV programming gamble yet with Logo, the long-awaited gay cable channel.

On Thursday, the media giant will roll out the network in roughly 10 million U.S. homes, becoming the first widely available, advertiser-supported channel for the community known by the acronym LGBT – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

Brian Graden, the MTV programming whiz hired to oversee Logo, envisions the network eventually becoming a “lifestyle brand” as essential (and inescapable) for gay people as MTV is for teenagers or Nickelodeon is for preschoolers.

“That’s the hope,” Graden – perhaps best known for backing such water-cooler fare as MTV’s “The Osbournes” – said in a phone interview, adding that a major Internet and radio presence for Logo is likely down the road. “Our philosophy is, in an age of 400 channels, you better ‘super serve’ ” the target audience.

Some analysts believe Viacom stands a good chance of success, especially given its track record at MTV, VH1 and other networks. Many marketers say up to 7 percent of American adults identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual, making a potentially huge audience for a cable network.

“They’ve got a clear target market that is receptive to a dedicated channel,” said Jack Myers, a TV industry forecaster and editor of www.mediavillage.com, who estimates that Viacom will spend at least $70 million to launch the channel (an MTV Networks spokesman declined to comment on the figure).

Early advertisers include online travel service Orbitz and car maker Subaru.

Still, Logo faces one stumbling block most start-ups never have to contend with: To some, its very existence might prove offensive.

“Logo needs to become synonymous with the gay lifestyle, just as MTV has become synonymous with the music lifestyle,” Myers said. But “they’re launching the network in the face of a governmental and regulatory environment which is anti-gay.”

In fact, since Viacom announced plans for the network, which was originally scheduled to launch in February, conservative politicians have intensified their focus on measures vehemently opposed by many gay rights groups, most notably a constitutional amendment, supported by President Bush and others, that would ban gay marriage.

Earlier this month, syndicated columnist and Parents Television Council founder L. Brent Bozell strongly criticized Viacom for launching Logo and celebrating “tolerance and diversity” while airing a program on its Showtime pay-cable network that featured magicians Penn & Teller using scatological terms to make fun of Mother Teresa. (A council spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.)

Some TV veterans said that Viacom may face an uphill battle in wooing mainstream advertisers. Paul Colichman, who makes gay-oriented fare through his Regent Entertainment and runs the Here! video-on-demand service for gay viewers, said he had disconcerting experiences with advertisers who insisted on “ghettoizing” gays and lesbians by, for example, assuming that each member of the community thinks and makes purchases in the same way.

But, he added, “if the advertisers can evolve in their thinking, it can be done.”

Graden, who is openly gay, shrugged off such concerns. “The dialogue (on gay issues) in corporate America is well ahead of the political dialogue” reported in newspapers, he said. And as for such favorite pressure-group tactics as advertiser boycotts, he scoffed: “Not a single successful boycott of this nature has ever been effective.”

Of course, it’s not uncommon for start-up channels to take years to tweak their identities; some well-known players, such as Spike, which targets a decidedly male audience, and Oxygen, with its focus on women, are still finding their way. But given the sensitivities involved, Viacom seems to be going out of its way to tread lightly – for now. Few of Logo’s early shows look destined to be as flamboyant as, say, Bravo’s make-over hit “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

A glimpse at Logo’s lineup over the summer and early fall reveals a mix of gay-themed theatrical movies (“The Birdcage,” “Kissing Jessica Stein”), a few original series (such as the comedy-drama “Noah’s Arc,” about black gay life in West Hollywood) and some straight-ahead documentaries, such as “The Evolution Will Be Televised,” which traces gay Americans’ rise to public prominence over the last 35 years and whose broadcast will officially inaugurate the channel Thursday.

Instead of focusing on one genre of programming, Graden said, “the channel is more like a Rubik’s cube” of many different styles, although programs will be grouped thematically on certain nights, and of course, all of them will highlight the gay community in some way.

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