On the night of the finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the Logo network’s most popular program ever, Logo celebrated with a party at the Out Hotel’s XL club. The drag-queen competitors posed for photos with guests—and sat for interviews with the national media; the clientele was almost entirely gay men. (As one friend emailed me: “EVERYONE IS THERE. EVERYONE. EVERYONE BUT ME.”) Even the contestant-villain of the season was inundated with admirers.
While Logo was once a gay enclave—the Out Hotel of the airwaves—the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race has been a breakthrough for the network among straight and gay audiences alike. It’s the kind of hit that defines a network. Or, in Logo’s case, helps to redefine it.
In April, the channel’s general manager, Lisa Sherman, wrote an op-ed on the Huffington Post wherein she indicated that the network’s programming was to follow gay interests, but that “quite often those interests are now the same as those of their friends and family, whether they’re gay or straight. It’s not just programming about gays, it’s programming that gays will enjoy.” The channel’s new branding hinges on the slogan “Beyond Labels.” In other words, Logo is going gay-ish.
This means less reality programming like The A-List—a real-life soap opera starring gay socialites—and more like like Eden’s World, a currently-airing series about a seven-year-old beauty queen, or The Baby Wait, an upcoming series about couples (both straight and gay) trying to adopt. “It seemed almost too on-the-nose for Logo,” said Baby Wait executive producer Tony DiSanto, of The Hills fame, who said the show was initially pitched out as a gay-centric series influenced by the portrayal of gay adoptive parents on ABC’s hit Modern Family.
A conversation with Logo’s recently installed senior vice-president of original programming, Brent Zacky, changed the angle slightly. “Brent called us and said, ‘This is great. Let’s take it a step further and feature all different sorts of couples.’ It’s such an obvious way to make this a more broadly appealing show. We hadn’t even thought of it.”
The success of cable networks with a gay sensibility but whose programming grid is not an all-gay agenda—think of Bravo or E!—is indicative of what Logo, a division of Viacom, stands to gain with its shift in sensibility.
As the gay movement has seen substantial gains in political and cultural capital, and as gay political groups (like the Empire State Pride Agenda, which recently fired its executive director) and gay media (like Out, which recently laid off its entire editorial staff) struggle to define their reason to exist, gay-ish culture is booming like never before. The success of Bravo is emblematic: the network that came to prominence in 2003 with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is by now largely about straight, married women, the winking visage of Andy Cohen the only reminder of its history.
“I don’t think Logo thinks gay men and lesbians need a network all their own,” said Dan Savage, the sex columnist who collaborated with Logo on a TV special about his “It Gets Better” campaign for bullied teens and who spoke at the network’s upfront presentation. “Some people in gay-land are a little upset that Logo is abandoning the gay market, and I don’t think that’s true.
“It reminds me of gay people bitching about straight people in gay bars. ‘These are supposed to be our exclusive preserves, our wildlife preserves.’ In the same way that gay people are in the mainstream now, a lot of straight people are in what used to be our little parallel universe.”
Mr. Zacky, who in his previous post in development at TLC helped turn that network into a reality-TV powerhouse with programs like Cake Boss, insisted Logo will be coherent going forward. “I get it. People look at it at first blush and may not fully understand it. But as we get closer to each of these shows launching, they’ll begin to see why it makes sense for it to be on our network.”
The shift includes transforming shows that already exist, like the Drag Race spinoff RuPaul’s Drag U. Heretofore, the show had shown drag queens remaking the lives of “women who had lost their mojo,” in Mr. Zacky’s telling—a yet queerer Queer Eye. In its upc oming season, the show will feature specific tips for the straight female audience watching at home. “It gives women one more reason to watch and participate,” said Mr. Zacky. “It’s the cherry on top!”
Not everyone thinks so. Ben Harvey, a reality TV enthusiast at the Huffington Post, wrote, “Gay TV as we know it is dead” and compared Logo’s shift to MTV’s move away from music video programming. “The new Logo will be a Cuisinart-blended cocktail of Bravo, Lifetime, and Oxygen, with a pink boa as garnish.”
J. Bryan Lowder at Slate chimed in, “This is obviously just a ploy to transition Logo to a more economically lucrative ‘lifestyle’ model,” though he contended that Logo’s move made sense from a quality perspective. “Logo’s reality shows (aside from Drag Race) were just poorly made, plain and simple.”
Lisa Sherman, Executive Vice-President at Logo, emphasized to The Observer that Logo’s changes were prompted by a broad view of gay citizens’ expanding role in the culture. “The truth is I don’t think it’s a mission shift at all. I think it’s a shift in the culture and the way gays are living more in a mainstream culture. The culture in the last six or seven years since we’ve launched has thankfully become a very different place for gay people.”
The channel launched in 2005, the summer after George W. Bush had won re-election on a “moral values” platform. It had to strike a delicate balance between appealing to a core audience and getting acceptance from advertisers (there were but three charter advertisers) and cable providers. At the time, MTV Networks chair Tom Freston said: “We’re not using profanity, we’re not using sex. This is going to be mainstream programmiGng that you see everywhere else, except for the fact that it’s targeted to the gay and lesbian community.”
Since then, Mr. Bush’s campaign manager came out as gay and same sex marriage passed in New York. Modern Family and The Ellen DeGeneres Show are both hits, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. To Ms. Sherman all of these are bellwethers, and gays are leading what she called “far more mainstream, integrated lives.”
Logo’s shift isn’t just engendered by a vague feeling, though. The media research group Starcom performed a study of the gay community for the network, the results of which were presented at Logo’s recent upfront presentation for advertisers. Esther Franklin, the executive vice-president of Starcom, told the ad buyers in attendance that the gay community could be segmented into eight “identities,” five of which were “most exciting for advertisers.”
These included the “Just who I am” identity, which she called “the face of average, everyday American life.
“What I love about this community is its ordinariness—if that’s a word. The normalcy of ‘Just who I am’ is what makes it revolutionary.” These people, in Ms. Franklin’s telling, tend to be most interested in chilling out in front of the television, and not overly concerned with whether the characters they watch are straight or gay.
Another identity was “Out and Proud.”
“When I think about this community, Kool and the Gang’s ‘Celebration’ starts to play in my head,” said Ms. Franklin.
These communities were delineated in order to plan a programming strategy that could appeal to the widest variety of gay people—and their straight friends.
“It’s crucial that we speak to more than ‘Initiators,’” said Mr. Zacky, referring to the identity associated with advocating for equality and political change.
“You might have noticed that there’s a common theme,” he said at the upfront, before introducing a reality series about a bar-owning Italian family, led by a patriarch in the Archie Bunker mold. “We like to think of ourselves as beyond. Beyond refuses to be labeled.”
That refusal means an uncertain future for The A-List, whose future remains up in the air. That series, with its homosocial homosexuals, was not mentioned or shown in video form at the upfront presentation. And about a past lesbian-themed scripted series, Ms. Sherman said, “Every single one of those characters was gay. Their world was gay. Where they hung out was gay. And I think we would probably do a show like that, but it would feel broader. We would touch on the lives of those characters in a sense that they had other friends in their lives that weren’t gay.”
Was Ms. Sherman worried that the gay community—if such a thing existed—was losing an on-air refuge? “I would hate to think that we lose it. I would think that we just spread it more broadly around so instead of it just living in Chelsea or West Hollywood…” She laughed, then compared gay life to hip-hop in the 1980s.
“So hip-hop started in a very niche way,” she continued, “and then it sort of broke out and now you can be in suburban Massachusetts and you’ve got kids who feel the hip-hop vibe. I don’t think it takes away from the people that started that but yet it’s sort of felt and reflected and appreciated by more than that group. And I’d like to think that the same thing is happening to and for the gay community. And I think that’s a great thing.”
Mr. Savage said the change may already have occurred on the back of Logo’s competition-reality hit. “Straight people are watching Logo too,” he pointed out. “Half the straight people I know are more obsessed with RuPaul’s Drag Race than I am—and I’m pretty obsessed.”
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