The Battle of Dante’s Cove

021907 article schmidt The Battle of Dante’s CoveIf you’ve lately gotten on the subway at the intersection of 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, you’ve probably seen the ads plastered across the subway tile for the television show Dante’s Cove.

The ads, featuring two bare-chested men looking a little lasciviously into the eyes of passing commuters, promote a television show that’s a bit like Fantasy Island for gays—complete with creepy island history and, well, lots of sex.

In an effort to lure new viewers and increase its visibility in Manhattan (where it’s available on both Time Warner and Cablevision), Here!, the gay cable network that airs Dante’s Cove, recently bought out the entire subway station, network chief executive Paul Colichman told The Observer.

But wait: Wasn’t there already a gay network? Logo, it was called, and it was owned by MTV (and, hence, Viacom)—right?

“We’re premium; they’re basic,” Mr. Colichman told The Observer, in an interview in his airy midtown office. “We make sure a premium network looks, feels and smells like a premium network. It’s kind of like comparing HBO with TBS.”

In likening Logo to TBS—a network that famously canned the sex from Sex and the City—Mr. Colichman strikes at the Viacom property’s Achilles’ heel.

With cautious advertisers and cable providers anxious about the channel’s racy content, Logo has opted to come to the party in its buttoned-up Sunday best, mothballing, for now, the leather harness.

“I don’t think that we need nudity or profanity to tell good stories,” said Dave Mace, Logo’s V.P. of original programming. He pointed out that Noah’s Arc, Logo’s first scripted series, was the first original series on television about gay men who weren’t all white.

The question whether an all-gay network can succeed if it doesn’t have a fair amount of sex is a fair one—and one that calls to mind not so much the old libel that gays are sexually voracious, but the new market conditions, in which gay themes that aren’t sexual play out regularly on mainstream cable and, yes, even network television.

New major-network shows like Brothers & Sisters and The Class promise significant gay themes and characters, and reruns of Will & Grace and Sex and the City still keep the late-night comfort-television vigil going on CW.

“We believe that the gay community deserves more than one TV show,” Mr. Colichman said.

The “one,” for some time now, has been Showtime’s The L Word, the last holdover from a raft of prime-time gay and gay-friendly programs—Queer as Folk, Six Feet Under and Will & Grace—that rewrote the rules on gay representation in mainstream television.

“Other minorities have several networks; we have one basic and one premium,” he added.

Social activism aside, is his network a real business proposition?

Neither Here! nor Logo was willing to reveal revenues or subscriber numbers, only market reach. Logo, started in 2005, is available to 26 million households, often as a basic cable option, packaged with tens or hundreds of other channels. Without Nielsen ratings, it’s difficult to quantify its audience with accuracy.

Here!, begun in 2002, is available to over 50 million subscribers. It’s a subscription service, either on-demand, 24/7 format or both—whatever the form, consumers have to pay extra to get it.

To lure them in, Here! is rolling out a number of new series coinciding with the campaign, including The Lair—gay vampires!—and a less toothy-sounding documentary serial, Lesbian Sex and Sexuality.

Dante’s Cove, prominently advertised as Here!’s flagship drama, is actually one of the channel’s weaker offerings. Even the network bills it as a “guilty pleasure.” A supernatural soap opera full of hothouse acting and tropical settings might play better in the red states, where the idea of a fantasy homosexual island escape still has currency. (Isn’t that what Manhattan is for?)

Far superior are Here!’s canny, sophisticated adaptations of Richard Stevenson’s popular gay detective novels. Chad Allen is scrappy and quick-witted as gay detective Donald Strachey, easily the most complex gay character on television.

With The DL Chronicles, airing in May, Here! ventures into the thorny territory of “down-low” culture—that segment of African-American men who have sex with men but refuse to identify as gay.

Though well-acted, The DL Chronicles’ titillating sex scenes may draw accusations that the series glamorizes and exploits the closet it purports to expose.

Or maybe Here! is courting such a reaction: Mr. Colichman, talking about an episode that covers bisexuality and H.I.V. transmission, called it “terribly controversial.”

Terribly!

Logo, meanwhile, has already created buzz with Noah’s Arc, a half-hour dramedy—an inherently gay genre?—about four somewhat flamboyant black gay men searching for love in West Hollywood. Sex and the City is clearly a model. Sharp dialogue, over-the-top costumes and a game cast help Noah’s Arc transcend its low-budget limitations. Noah’s Arc boasts what Fisher calls a “passionate”—some might say rabid—cadre of fans who debate the show’s merits online.

So why did Logo recently announce that it wouldn’t be picking up the hit show for a third season, instead producing Noah’s Arc as the fledgling network’s premiere movie offering?

“I think it’s a compromise,” said Patrik-Ian Polk, the creator of Noah’s Arc, reached by phone from Los Angeles. Mr. Polk indicated that budget issues were a deciding factor in the network’s decision, perhaps a reflection of tighter purse strings at Logo’s recently destabilized parent company, Viacom, which last week announced a number of personnel cuts.

“We can probably only afford to do two to three scripted series a year,” Mr. Mace said.

Well, that’s more than one!