K Alex Ilyasova. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 3: Television. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me state at the beginning that I at times suffer from self-diagnosed Chronic Heterosexual Fatigue Syndrome. The condition, like Chronic Whiteness Fatigue Syndrome, first announced and self-diagnosed by Darrell Y. Hamamoto in his article How to Rob: Strong-Arming Our Way to Equity and Diversity, “has not yet made it into the psychiatric clinical literature nor is it found among the insurance-billable psychic maladies catalogued in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” Following Hamamoto’s example, I will not go too deeply into the behavioral manifestations of this disorder. I will just say that its causes or origin owes itself to a lifetime of unrelenting exposure to a heterosexual-dominated universe multiplied many times over and intensified via the instruments of mass communication, such as television.
Like Hamamoto, there are certain stop-gap measures I have devised to keep myself on just this side of a complete psychotic break: watching Desert Hearts for the um-teenth time (a lesbian cult classic), relaxing with the Logo Channel (gay and lesbian cable channel) or the Sundance Channel in the background, watching Ellen, reading the latest online spoilers for the next season of The L Word, and actively supporting queer cinema as an antidote to the toxic dominant hetero-media. And on particularly grim days, I fantasize about queer alternatives. I fantasize that one day queer people will have our own talk show like Oprah, our own sitcoms like Friends, and our own cable channels … like Logo! Oh wait, come to think of it, we do—Ellen and Will and Grace come to mind. Unlike Hamamoto’s semisarcastic point that “Asian Americans have failed to parlay our proud past and present criminal traditions into significant wealth and power,” which he argues is part of the cause and consequence of their “near-invisibility, marginalization, and continued disparagement on White-controlled TV,” queer culture today has market power on white heterosexual-controlled TV. The December 2003 issue of Vanity Fair stated it best: “Ten years ago American woke up to Willard Scott’s forecast; now it awakens to a pair of flaming-red leather pants.” In other words, queer culture or gay culture appears to have made it in terms of reaching the “mainstream” or the dominant heterosexual viewing audience. We’re there, daily, on your television screens. However, like the near-invisible and marginalized Asian American, our presence in the mainstream is nonthreatening and thus void of any real power and effect. For example, there is desexualized, romantically challenged Will on Will and Grace or the caricatures of the consumer-obsessed, trend-setting, stereotypical (don’t forget nonthreatening) gay men in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and lastly, the don’t-ask-don’t-tell, approachable (and thus nonthreatening), dancing lesbian diva who never mentions it on television, Ellen.
With all this mainstreaming of gay and lesbian culture on the major networks—ABC, CBS, NBC—it seems important to examine if there are any other places on television where viewers can see the lives of gays and lesbians represented in more complex ways. One place is on the cable networks. However, as media companies compete for both profits, and viewers, the content is often sacrificed for savings. And so, I look at the recent developments with regard to media conglomerates and how these events may affect the gay and lesbian content on cable networks. Specifically, I will discuss how one burgeoning relationship, the relationship between the media conglomerate Viacom and the independent (indie) film industry—an industry that continues to be influenced and shaped by the projects and talents of queer-identified filmmakers and directors—translates into the type of content viewers see on their televisions, particularly their cable networks such as Showtime and HBO.
I’ll be completely honest here: When I first started thinking about the connection between media conglomerates, the indie film industry, and queer representation, I was suffering from another episode of Chronic Heterosexual Fatigue Syndrome. My initial argument was that the increasing relationship between Viacom and the indie film industry would have yet another mainstreaming effect on the few queer-focused cable shows that currently explore the lives of gay men and lesbians in a more complex way. I’m thinking specifically of Queer as Folk and some of the issues the show took on, such as living with HIV/AIDS, the anxiety and tensions that exist around aging, the practices and representation of safe sex, testicular cancer, and community activism. I’m also thinking specifically of The L Word and the fact that the show’s very existence signals for the first time the power and potential of the lesbian community. Although, I still think that the increasing relationship between the indie industry and the media giants has the potential to do more harm than good in terms of mainstreaming the content of a show such as The L Word on the cable networks, at the same time, it seems that the work of indie filmmakers who make it to the safe havens of financial security by working for big media companies also have the potential to change things as well. And so, in what follows, I discuss the relationship between large media conglomerates and the indie industry and how that has lead to gay and lesbian content on cable networks, and I use The L Word and its appearance and success on Showtime as my primary example. However, my main argument is that the potential for resisting mainstreaming effects does exist because of the increasing relationship between the indie industry and the media giants.
I discuss this potential by first exploring some of the history with both the development of media conglomerates and the indie film industry. In particular, I look at some of the key legislation that has led to the concentration of media we currently have. I look at one of the largest media conglomerates, Viacom, and some of the financial holdings and subsidiaries that illustrate the extent of power these conglomerates wield. And, I trace how this one media conglomerate has established a relationship with the indie film industry—in this case, The Sundance Institute and The Sundance Film Festival. Lastly, to illustrate this potential change, I look at the relationship between the indie filmmakers that have made The L Word successful and a signature for Showtime; specifically, I look at some of the ways these filmmakers and directors have adapted the strategies used by media giants to create work that successfully stays on the air and continues to represent the more complex lives of the queer community.
The Growth of Media Conglomerates
At the end of 2006, Mother Jones magazine reported that there are eight giant media companies dominating the U.S. media:
- Disney (market value: $72.8 billion)
- AOL-Time Warner (market value: $90.7 billion)
- Viacom (market value: $53.9 billion)
- General Electric (owner of NBC, market value: $390.6 billion)
- News Corporation (market value: $56.7 billion)
- Yahoo! (market value: $40.1 billion)
- Microsoft (market value: $306.8 billion)
- Google (market value: $154.6 billion)
This translates into the realization that most people are getting their news, information, and programming from eight giant media companies. These megamedia companies are considered the media elite—dominating on both the national and global media level. For the purposes of this article, I focus on the top five media corporations because of their longer histories and sustained dominance in the media market.
Such a concentration of ownership by media corporations has not always been so integrated and unfathomably large, partly because TV and movie companies were the parent companies, at least until the 1970s. For example, according to Ben H. Bagdikian, a media critic and author of The Media Monopoly, “In 1983, fifty corporations dominated most of every mass medium and the biggest media merger in history was a $340 million deal.” However, in the 1980s, the unrelenting efforts of network lobbyists to overturn the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules, or Fin-Syn, reduced the number to 29 companies by 1987. According to The Museum of Broadcast Communication, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), “implemented the [Fin-Syn] rules in 1970, attempting to increase programming diversity and limit the market control of three broadcast television networks,” namely NBC, CBS, and ABC. The main objective of Fin-Syn was to limit the amount of “prime-time programming the networks could produce themselves,” or, in other words, keeping the means of production separate from distribution, much like what the Paramount Decree of 1948 had done for the movie industry. Fin-Syn attempted to do this by “taking away the long-term monetary rights to programs created by the networks, severely restricting their participation in syndication,” and by eliminating incentives for the networks to produce programs. After the collapse of Fin-Syn, which began in the early 1980s, the trend toward vertical integration—the control of production, distribution, and exhibition—opened the way for production organizations to merge with distribution organizations. Examples of production and distribution coming together were first seen with FOX Broadcasting, or more specifically Fox Pictures, and a Hollywood studio, then with Paramount and Warner Brothers, and by the mid-1990s, Disney purchasing one of the big networks, in this case ABC, instead of starting one from scratch. As Bagdikian goes to chronicle,
[I]n 1990, the twenty-nine had shrunk to twenty three. … [I]n 1997, the biggest firms numbered ten and involved the $19 billion Disney-ABC deal, at the time the biggest media merger ever. … [In 2000] AOL Time Warner’s $350 billion merged corporation [was] more than 1,000 times larger [than the biggest deal of 1983].
One of the results of such huge mergers is the consolidation of numerous media companies into media conglomerates who controlled both the means of production and distribution, a strategy that the FCC was attempting to prevent.
These now larger-than-life media corporations own businesses across various industries, such as distribution networks, production companies, manufacturing of other related products such as toys, and retailing—this is vertical integration at its finest, the owning of everything up and down the production and distribution chain. Vertical integration arguably makes it easy to have horizontal help or cooperation across different divisions. For example, “Think of [a company] like Sony, which produce, distribute, and exhibit the Spiderman movies but also the DVDs and games which can be viewed/played on Sony DVD players and/or Playstations, [and] the soundtrack which is populated by Sony Music artists. [T]hey have vertical monopolies of different media which can cross-pollinate across their holdings horizontally.” As Anup Shah explains, author of Corporate Influence in the Media, this vertical integration “means that while this is good for their business, the diversity of opinions and issues we can see being discussed by them will be less well covered.” The wider ramifications include enhanced market power through cross-promotion and cross-selling, unrestrained ability to own and control the total process, and increased ability to seize the competition.
Inherent in this business strategy is the enormous influence these corporations have in shaping mainstream media—nationally and globally. To play devil’s advocate for a moment, the idea of corporate media itself is not inherently bad. As Robert W. McChesney points out, “global conglomerates can at times have a progressive impact on culture, especially when they enter nations that had been tightly controlled by corrupt crony media (as in parts of Asia). The global commercial-media system is radical in that it will respect no tradition or custom, on balance, if it stands in the way of profits.” Additionally, on the surface, the idea that mainstream media is more corporate owned translates into the media feeling the same market pressures and drives that have affected and spurred competition among companies. Such competition in the past has fueled innovation, facilitated risk-taking (which is connected to innovation) and, with regard to news reporting and media in general, has pushed for better quality.
However, the concern that has grown out of the media mergers and consolidation efforts of corporations is that such concentration of ownership by a handful of corporations is having the positive effects mentioned previously. For example, the idea of competition facilitating innovation and pushing for better quality has, with few exceptions, not materialized. I’m thinking of the reality shows on all the major networks and the lack of local news reporting that extends beyond the personal survival tale of a local resident. As a result, the enormous influence these media conglomerates have in shaping mainstream media is both their strength and their weakness. And in terms of competition, as is the heart of traditional capitalism, where free markets experiment to create better, more unique products, in the media market such capitalist intentions translate more into mutual aid and shared investments than outright competition. As Ben H. Bagdikian explains, to compete outright
would mean offering differing kinds of programs that reflect the widely different tastes, backgrounds, and activities of the American population. To compete outright would mean unique products and the goal of a winner-take-all victory. Instead, the Big Five indulge in mutual aid and share investments in the same media products. They jointly conform to the periodic ratings that presume to show what kinds of programs have fractionally larger audiences, after which “the competitors” then imitate the winners and take slightly varying shares of the total points.
One of the results of such cooperation, which is another business strategy employed by the media conglomerates, is that the thousands of media outlets then carry highly duplicative content—again, thinking of reality shows here. In addition to cooperation with each other, when it serves their business interests, the big five also have interlocking members on their boards of directors. Interlocking, the practice of one board member sitting on a board of another company, is yet another business strategy used by these media giants to sustain their status as major owners of all kinds of media. As Bagdikian reports, “According to a study by Aaron Moore in the March/April 2003 Columbia Journalism Review, News Corporation, Disney, Viacom, and Time Warner have forty-five interlocking directors.”
As Ted Turner explains in a 2004 article for Washington Monthly titled, “My Big Beef with Big Media,”
Unless we have a climate that will allow more independent media companies to survive, a dangerously high percentage of what we see—and what we don’t see—will be shaped by the profit motives and political interests of large, publicly traded conglomerates. […] Let me be clear: As a business proposition, consolidation makes sense. The moguls behind the mergers are acting in their corporate interests and playing by the rules. We just shouldn’t have those rules.
One of the rules that Ted Turner is referring to is the FCC restrictions on how many stations a company can own and what percentage of the audience they are allowed to reach, or audience-reach cap. In 1984, the FCC raised the number of stations one company can own from 7 to 12. A year later it revised this ruling to include an audience-reach cap of 25 percent, “meaning that media companies were prohibited from owning TV stations that together reached more than 25% of the national audience.” By 1996, the FCC did away with numerical caps and raised the audience-reach cap to 35 percent. And in the summer of 2003, it raised it again to 45 percent. Moreover, “the FCC also allowed corporations to own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market and permitted corporations to own three TV stations in the largest markets, up from two, and two stations in medium-sized markets, up from one.” More recently, in December of 2007, the FCC overturned a 32-year-old ruling banning the cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcasting. Essentially, the new ruling allows newspapers to own one television station or one radio station but only in the very largest markets. These rulings are important to mention because most citizens get their views and understandings of the world around them from mainstream media. Thus, the concern over the concentration of ownership has led many critics to the following points of contention: (1) very few media owners are influencing what issues and perspectives reach the masses; (2) large corporations that own television channels and/or newspaper/magazines would understandably not encourage information that criticizes the company; and (3) vertical integration, cooperation, and interlocking as business strategies have made competition difficult for smaller companies, forcing them out of business, making them prone to buy outs, or encouraging them to try and emulate the larger corporations.
Viacom and the Indie Industry
Viacom is a particularly useful media conglomerate to focus on for a number of reasons. First, Viacom is one of the top-tier media conglomerates, having financial interests in broadcast and cable television, radio, Internet, book publishing, and film production and distribution. As stated on their company Web site, “Viacom is a leading global media company […] with programming that appeals to audiences in every demographic category across virtually all media, the company is a leading in the creation, promotion, and distribution of entertainment, news, sports, music, and comedy.” Second, the self-described interests of the company—“leading in the creation, promotion, and distribution”—illustrates clearly Viacom’s success in vertically integrating its businesses, and as you’ll read shortly, it has also often cooperated with its “competitors” when it is beneficial to do so. Some of the conglomerate’s highly recognizable properties include:
- CBS network: one of the oldest television networks
- MTV: most popular teen media outlet
- Simon and Schuster: one of the world’s largest book publishers
- Blockbuster: operates and franchises video stores around the world
- Paramount Pictures: producer and distributor of motion pictures
Within this vertically integrated structure is the connection between Viacom and the indie film industry. Viacom owns the Showtime movie networks, which also manage the Sundance Channel. This is particularly relevant because Viacom’s ownership of Showtime, and, more recently, the Sundance Channel, establishes the connection and growing relationship it has to the indie industry. Let me explain this further: In 1990, Showtime began acquiring and premiering independent films directly for the channel. It started with some short-film anthologies and eventually expanded into the realm of feature-length films, one of the most recognized being Lolita, directed by Adrian Lyne. In 1996, in a joint venture with CBS Corporation (Showtime Networks are part of CBS Corporation as well), and in cooperation with Robert Redford and NBC Universal, the Sundance Channel was launched in order to show independent films on TV. As an interesting side note, a year earlier the Sundance Film Festival, the brainchild of Robert Redford and arguably now the world’s premiere forum and competitive marketplace for independent film, had a record-breaking year in terms of the number of feature films and short films presented, as well as sold-out attendance. Understandably, it was just a matter of time before Corporate America and the big five in particular took notice. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I discuss this connection further, let me provide some background information about the indie film industry.
The Indie Film Industry
It seems important to note the roots of this industry in order to understand what it is evolving into now or possibly what it has, at least partially, always been. Indie films have been thought of as typically low-budget, small-studio-produced films. Additionally, indie films have often been identifiable by their content and style, which has resulted in their developing a reputation for representing more than their share of “art” films, foreign language films that larger studios refuse to make, and films that introduce and explore topics that are seen as too avant-garde or politically risky for mainstream producers. The underlying sentiment of the defenders of indie filmmaking is the maintenance, at all costs, of the writer’s or director’s personal, creative, and artistic vision for the film. As a result, “old school” indie filmmakers tend to be identified as ones that reject mainstream standards—including the business-minded approaches of production companies—and explore and create films that preserve the artistic nature and integrity of filmmaking.
That’s arguably the idealistic version. The reality, with of course some exceptions, is that indie filmmakers have almost always existed alongside, and at times have worked directly with, the major film studios of the day. For example, around 1908 when Thomas A. Edison and his Motion Pictures Patent Company created a monopoly in the film industry by combining a number of film companies, and an oligopoly by holding most of the patents for film equipment, many indie filmmakers shunned the Edison Trust Corporation and moved west to California. These indie filmmakers moved as far away as possible in order to avoid Edison’s lawyers, to continue making their smaller, yet more creative films, and, ironically, to create the second oligopoly in Hollywood. As one article about the history of the independent film industry describes, “Louis B. Mayer, the Warner Brothers, and all the other pioneers of the original ‘big six’ studios who fought Thomas Edison over his film patents all started out as independent filmmakers, fighting the very thing they would become: corporate filmmakers trying to control the film market.”
The 1920s, and later the 1930s, not only brought the pressures of the corporate film industry but also the emergence of “film societies” such as The London Film Society in England. Such societies brought together filmmakers passionate about the art of filmmaking. It provided a forum for them to share and develop ideas about film editing techniques (such as montage) and subject matter (such as alternative realities and interior thoughts of characters). Eventually, these film societies that started in Europe made their way to Hollywood “where the very thing these societies railed against (big film studios) lived and prospered.” It was arguably during this period where independent filmmakers made the types of films still often considered as true indie films today—films screened at little “art-house” theaters that were owned and operated on an independent level. Although the films did not have packed audiences, often filmmakers made enough to cover their expenses and even have a little profit because the films cost hardly anything to make.
Skipping ahead a bit, past World War II, we hit the 1950s. According to some television history trivia, 1950–1959 was a particularly exciting time for the television industry. According to one source, “[i]n the USA, [black and white] television exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the decade, mid-decade saw electronic color television and remote controls launched, and at the end of the decade the public witnessed some interesting styling changes and the introduction of transistorized television.” What did this new technology in the television industry mean for big studios of the day? Namely, a noticeable downswing in their profits. And so, to lure people out of their living rooms and back into the movie theaters big Hollywood studios offered color films on a wide screen format. Meanwhile, as the big Hollywood studios grew, as McCarthyism played its part in censorship, film studios grew conservative in their film choices and imposed more artistic restrictions on filmmakers. As a result, some big-time directors sought other means (for example, ghost-directing) to create and be part of the films that allowed for artistic experimentation even in highly restricting times. For example, Howard Hawks, who made dozens of film classics including Scarface (1932), Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and To Have and Have Not (1944), directed The Thing From Another World (1951) without out receiving credit because it gave him a chance to use his strong “narrative style to the full extent with an emphasis on character motives and realistic dialogue.” And so, even in that time, people who had “made-it” still strived to be part of the indie film scene as a way to make movies without big Hollywood studio restrictions and commercialism.
Coming almost to the end now, for our purposes, in terms of indie film history, are the 1960s and 1970s and the concept of film festivals. Although the concept of having contests among filmmakers, as well as promoting their films through such venues, has been around since the film industry itself, it wasn’t until the ‘60s and ‘70s that film festivals blossomed into full-fledged circuits. In 1978, what has become the Sundance Film Festival started in Salt Lake City, Utah. The guiding goal, at that time, was to showcase films made regionally outside the studio system. In 1985, Robert Redford, a local resident and a person who was involved in the festival from the beginning, took over the artistic management of the festival through his arts organization the Sundance Institute. By 1991, the film festival having gone through various name changes—“from the U.S. Film Festival to the Utah/U.S. Film Festival to the United States Film & Video Festival to the Sundance/United States Film Festival”—finally settled on the Sundance International Film Festival. The success of Sundance, as the story goes, was spurred by Red-ford’s management of the festival, the move from Salt Lake City to Park City (a ski resort town in the mountains), and changing the festival date from September to January (making it the only film festival held at a ski resort during ski season).
By 1992, Sundance had attracted the attention of American audiences who were increasingly being let down by the seemingly unending number of unadventurous, “lowest-common-denominator nature of Hollywood production films.” Throughout the 1990s, Sundance firmly established itself as the “place where you could see talent early,” launching the careers of independent filmmakers such as Kevin Smith (Clerks, 1994), Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, 1992), and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, 1992). Understandably, it was just a matter of time before Hollywood studios really took notice and became “invested.” As Kenneth Turan, a film critic and author of From Sundance to Sarajevo: Film Festivals and the World They Made, describes, by 1996, after the much-publicized fuss made over the film Shine, it was clear how and why Sundance has changed in its relatively short life. According to Turan,
Ever since Redford’s Sundance Institute had taken over the festival, the putative specter of the evil empire of Hollywood and the movie establishment had hung over the event. Every year, agents and development executives [make] the trek to Park City in greater and greater numbers, paying up to $5,000 for coveted Fast Passes to the entire festival and prowling the occasionally snowy streets on a lonely mission to discover the Next New Thing.
To put this into some monetary perspective and to quote Turan once again,
Though [Sundance] still believes passionately in championing striving young filmmakers, Sundance itself, not immune to all the success that surrounded it, has become established and institutionalized enough to have an annual budget of $8.5 million. With a fleet of Mercedes M-Class vans as “official vehicles” and a catalog as fat and glossy as an issue of Architectural Digest, Sundance increasingly exudes the prosperity and success that go with its place in the film universe.
Consequently, with such success it is no wonder that nowadays the film festival circuit no longer exists solely for the purpose of showcasing independent films and unknown independent filmmakers. The top five media conglomerates, who all now have a division for “independent films,” all aim to have a film in the race in every festival in order to meet their quotas of 10 to 17 percent of company grosses each year coming from these independent film divisions.
The potential problem of the big studios increasingly investing in and cofinancing the projects of independent filmmakers and the smaller independent studios is that the business side of such investments tends to lead to conservative choices in cast and crew. Why is this a point of concern? It is a concern partly because the problem that the quotas and cofinancing create is the lack of opportunities for the “unknowns” in the indie industry to get their big break. As one article explains, “An unproven film director is almost never given the opportunity to get his or her big break with the studios unless he or she otherwise has significant industry experience in film or television. Films with ‘unknowns’ in the cast, particularly in lead roles, are also rarely produced by the Big Six.” As a result, big Hollywood stars these days not only dominate the film festival circuit but are also signing on to do more “art-house” type films with big Hollywood studios. Arguably, as the big studios gain more access to and attract the spotlight from indie filmmakers, the line between indie films and Hollywood will continue to blur.
Influence in Indiewood: The L Word and Showtime
The increasing relationship between media conglomerates, their film studio subsidiaries, and the indie industry no doubt has influence on what we see and don’t see on our cable networks. Up until this point, it may be all too clear that the influence over content on cable shows is similar to the network shows, that is, a one-way street, namely, from the media conglomerates to the networks, and driven by cooperation, and not necessarily competition, among the big five or six. However, in spite of this established pattern, the increasing relationship between media giants and indie film directors and filmmakers, in particular, does have the potential to push back and possibly influence this established standard in a variety of ways. To address this potential, I want to discuss briefly some of history that has led to such a possibility. I outline just a slice of lesbian history on television. In doing so, I am not presuming to encompass the entirety of lesbian history on television nor all of the other histories that engaged with it, instead, I just want to provide some context for what has contributed to The L Word‘s emergence in 2004 and the potential influence of the indie industry on cable television.
Lesbian TV History
Major networks had figured out by the early 1980s that there were ratings to be had by writing in shocking content during sweeps week—remember all those Dynasty episodes that ended with a fire, explosion, or a character being killed off? It seemed that once every network adopted that strategy, something else had to be done. Arguably, prior to Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out of the closet in 1997, lesbians on network television were relegated to these sweep weeks as sweep boosting subplots—that is, temporary, titillating, and nonthreatening. Although gay men were present since Billy Crystal played one on Soap in 1977, the first lesbian kiss ever on network television did not occur until 1991 between CJ, a bisexual lawyer on L.A. Law played by Amanda Donohoe, and her female colleague. An even more controversial kiss occurred between two girls on Picket Fences in 1993, and in 1994, Roseanne Barr planted one on Mariel Hemingway on her sitcom Roseanne. By 1996, the first lesbian wedding was televised on Friends, between Ross’s ex-wife Carol and her lover, Susan. And that brings us back to 1997, and to Ellen DeGeneres. DeGeneres’s coming out in real life and on the show Ellen on April 30, 1997, the first day of May sweeps, was TV’s biggest lesbian moment. As Malinda Lo explains, “Ellen’s coming out on ‘The Puppy Episode’ was significant not only because it was the first time a leading primetime character was gay, but because the character was also played by an openly gay actor.” More importantly, although this episode occurred during sweeps week, it did not adhere to the established pattern of temporary sweep boosting subplots. Instead, that episode made front and center the life of one semifictional primetime character/actor, and that was threatening. As Lo goes on to explain,
The right-wing group Media Research took out a fullpage ad on the back cover of Variety on April 17 claiming that ABC and Disney were “promoting homosexuality to America’s families.” Pat Robertson, Phyllis Schafly, Rev. Donald Wildmon, and Rev. Jerry Falwell joined a group of antigay right-wingers to sign a scathing letting characterizing “The Puppy Episode” as “a slap in the face to America’s families.”
Despite “The Puppy Episode” winning an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 1997, as well as a GLAAD Media Award and a Peabody Award in 1998, the show was cancelled at the end of the next season. In all fairness, the show did have low ratings coming into its fourth season. Although it started off strong, ranking at one point at 13th on the top ratings chart, the lack of a love life for the main character, Ellen, seemed frustrating for both the producers and viewers of the show. “The Puppy Episode” was the result of various negotiations to try and address this issue. The episode pulled in approximately 42 million viewers. In spite of this initial peak, the show continued to have low ratings into its fifth season, leading to its cancellation. However, as Stephen Tropiano, author of The Prime Time Closet, notes, “Instead of simply stating that the show was canceled due to low ratings, [Stuart Bloomberg, chairman of ABC entertainment] claim[ed] that because the material was more politicized (translation: gay) and issue-oriented (translation: gay), it became less funny (translation: too gay).” Obviously, no straight TV shows are ever criticized for being “too straight.” In the wake of Congress passing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, the mainstream media did not appear willing to make any waves. Consequently, DeGeneres soon felt the backlash of media personally. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times criticized her for “being too openly affectionate with Anne Heche at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Although DeGeneres and Heche claimed that they weren’t doing anything that a straight couple would do, the New York Times characterized their behavior as an ‘ostentatious display of affection,’ thereby teaching all future lesbian couples that they should do no more than hold hands in public.”
Not surprisingly, there was a dry spell on network television in terms of lesbians kissing for a number of years. It wasn’t until 1999 that viewers saw the return of sweeps boosting lesbian kissing—for example, on Ally McBeal between Calista Flockhart and Lucy Lui, and on Party of Five with Neve Campbell’s character. Somewhat ironically, in the fall of 1998, less than a year after “The Puppy Episode” controversy, NBC premiered Will and Grace—a show featuring a straight-acting gay man (Eric McCormack), his straight female friend (Deborah Messing), and their hyper-flamboyant stereotypical gay male friend, Jack (Sean Hayes). The show went on to win 13 Emmy Awards in its eight seasons on the air. In contrast to the relegating of lesbians to sweep weeks and the success of the desexualized show Will and Grace, HBO premiered, that same year, Sex and the City. Sex and the City focused on a group of sexually charged (straight) women who were not only shown having sex but also discussing it constantly. Prior to Sex and the City, the only show on network or cable television that made a group of women the focus, without the main lens being their jobs, was The Golden Girls. Although it would be a stretch to credit the coming-out of DeGeneres as the sole contributing factor to the premier of not only Will and Grace but also Sex and the City, it may be reasonable to consider that her coming-out and the furor that followed paved the way for other primetime and cable shows to include gay characters and address (at least straight women’s) sexual habits.
At this point it might be unclear just where the indie industry fits in. The reality is that the emergence of this new cinematic force, and I’m thinking particularly of the indie film movement “polemically known as ‘queer cinema,’” is directly related to Hollywood’s (and thus to the media conglomerates’) marketing and abuse of queer culture and the “abandonment of serious, issue-oriented, provocative films” and content. As Emanual Levy notes in Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film, “In an attempt to be inclusive, mainstream Hollywood has always held to a naive belief in America as a melting pot. The strategy that followed ignored gender, racial, and sexual distinctions in search of a common, unifying cultural denominator that would be acceptable to all and offensive to none.” By the early 1990s, in the wake of the AIDS catastrophe of the ‘80s and continued abuse by Hollywood of employing homosexuality to either get an easy laugh or to inspire fear by condemning this “deviant lifestyle,” gay and lesbian audiences began to express more aggressively their discontent with how they were shown and began to demand fairer treatment.
As Levy explains, “In 1991 alone, four major films (JFK, Basic Instinct, The Prince of Tides, and The Silence of the Lambs) came under fire for their onesided distorted portrayal of gay characters. Hollywood’s well-intentioned but flaccid efforts to be sensitive about gay issues, from Personal Best and Making Love in 1982 to Philadelphia in 1993, have only reinforced the idea that gay filmmakers must create their own cinema.” Such an idea began to coalesce between 1991 and 1992 with the appearance of Todd Haynes’s Poison, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, Tom Kalin’s Swoon, Christopher Munch’s The Hours and Times, and Gregg Araki’s The Living End. By the mid-1990s, gay visibility and queer cinema finally got the attention of Hollywood. New voices challenged the old stigmas and stereotypes, and the fight was on for more realistic representation. As Levy explains, “The queer cycle reached its maturity at the 1994 Sundance Festival, when the director Rose Troche (one of the writers/directors on The L Word) and her cast stormed Park City with Go Fish, their edgy lesbian romantic comedy. Industry suits suddenly began to think about gay and lesbian spending power.”
However, Hollywood, and particularly network television, is slow to change. Although the spending power and market potential of gays and lesbians began to be understood as a result of the success of these new voices in the indie/queer cinema industry, it would be a while yet, six years to be exact, before television took on serious, issue-oriented, and provocative gay and lesbian content—and then only on cable networks. The idea of gay and lesbian filmmakers that had to create their own cinema in order to see the kind of complex and complete representations of themselves that they wanted to see is the same idea that brought to the small screen Queer as Folk and, particularly, The L Word.
In 1999, HBO came out with another hit in the form of The Sopranos. That same year Ilene Chaiken pitched the idea of The L Word to Showtime. “After writing a magazine article about same-sex couples with children, she pitched a drama based on her life as a lesbian mother in Los Angeles.” As Chaiken explains, “There wasn’t a shred of receptivity.” Nobody took the possibility seriously. Meanwhile, the all-woman cast of Sex and the City and the stars on Will and Grace were reveling in their success. By 2000, the competition between premium cable channels HBO and Showtime appeared to define HBO as the winner. In December 2000, Showtime premiered Queer as Folk. That same year, Chaiken’s movie Dirty Pictures aired on Showtime as well. The movie was about the Cincinnati museum director, played by James Woods, who went on trial in 1990 for exhibiting sadomasochistic photographs taken by Robert Mapplethorpe. In 2001, Queer as Folk was well on its way to becoming Showtime’s signature show, and Chaiken’s Dirty Pictures won the Golden Globe for best TV movie. There is, I think, a certain amount of strategic thinking and timing involved in these events. Chaiken, whether consciously or not, made use of this propitious moment—namely, the competition between major networks, her work and success with Dirty Pictures, and the viewers’ readiness—to experience more challenging, more complex, and serious content. Perhaps the most profound change that occurred here is the same one that was affected by queer cinema—the realization by Corporate America that “money isn’t homophobic.”
One characteristic then that some of the HBO and Showtime shows in particular have shared in common was the use of indie filmmakers and directors. According to the Village Voice, HBO and Showtime in particular remade themselves as the “natural habitat” for adventurous filmmakers, offering them freedom from the stresses of financing and distribution that besets any indie filmmaker. HBO arguably “prepared the ground for the indiefication of TV.” Showtime quickly followed in order to compete for ratings, viewers, and dollars. For example, The L Word premiered on Showtime in 2004 with filmmaker Rose Troche, of Go-Fish and Six Feet Under, as co-executive producer; Guinever Turner, also of Go Fish and American Psycho, as one of the writers; and Steve Golin of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as an executive producer. For the second season, “The slate of directors on board [read] like a Sundance festival of Who’s Who—Neil LaBute of The Shape of Things, Lisa Cholodenko of Laurel Canyon, Burr Steers of Igby Goes Down, and Alison Maclean of Jesus’ Son.” With the show in its fifth season, the presence and influence of indie filmmakers and directors cannot be denied. Arguably, what is happening is what happened when queer-identified indie filmmakers and directors created queer cinema—in order to see the kinds of representations on television they want to see, they have to create them themselves. And that is, I would argue, what they are doing on The L Word.
Show Time: I’ll Show You Mine, If You Show Me Yours
Three of the most effective strategies employed by the indie producers and writers of The L Word are the use of celebrities in every season, the producers’ and writers’ willingness to continue to work within, as opposed to against, the system that employs them, and what I refer to as horizontal integration—expanding the show beyond cable television. As I explained earlier, the indie film festivals are now places where the presence and participation of celebrities in recent years has attracted additional attention—from both Corporate America and from the average American—making the film festivals something almost everyone pays at least a little attention to now. Such celebrity presence and appeal is, I would argue, one of the ways The L Word crafted itself into something more than just a lesbian soap opera. Some of the celebrities that have made an appearance on The L Word include Snoop Dogg (Season 1), Lolita Davidovich (Season 1), Sandra Bernhard (Season 2), Tony Goldwyn (Season 2), Gloria Steinem (Season 2), Kelly Lynch (Season 1 and 2), Ossie Davis (Season 1 and 2), Jane Lynch (Season 2, 3, and 4), Alan Cumming (Season 3), Rosanna Arquette (Season 1, 2, 3, and 4), and Heather Matarazzo (Season 4). Others celebrities that have had a more lasting role include Cybill Shepherd, Marlee Matlin, Jane Lynch, and Kristanna Loken. Unlike the 1990s, when the sigma of playing a gay or lesbian character, and thus being perceived as homosexual, kept almost all celebrities away from gay and lesbian roles, appearing on The L Word seems almost chic now. One of the reasons celebrities seem to flock to The L Word may have to do with the indie filmmakers and directors that are working in the television industry and thus shaping the content of cable television series. As Christine Vachon, one of the well-established indie filmmakers, explains “Up until a couple of years ago, if you went to direct TV, you didn’t tell anyone because there was such a stigma attached to it […] But now some of the HBO and Showtime series show more provocative things than we can get into movie theaters.” Additionally, as film and TV director Barry Levinson states, “Movies these days are less and less about characters and behavior. All that’s gone out the window. It’s television that’s taken over the role of capturing the small moments of human behavior—a role that’s been abdicated by theatrical films.” If the comments by Vachon and Levinson are true, it’s not surprising that celebrities follow indie filmmakers and directors to TV. As a result, shows like The L Word make use of the caliber of writing and directing that indie filmmakers and directors bring, including a certain art-house aesthetic that brings the “edgy” aspects of indie films, as well as high-profile celebrities, into our living rooms. The potential result for viewers is a deeper understanding and affection for television characters that is built over a number years instead of a couple hours, which makes for a more intense experience that keeps viewers coming back for more.
The presence of celebrities and the edgy work of the indie folks on the show does not address or solve all of my concerns about the growing relationship between indie folks who are writing and directing The L Word and the media giant Viacom, Inc. Ultimately, when profits or ratings are at stake, it is the media giant or its executives who will make the final decision—which is often reflective of their conservative, white, male, and heterosexual values and privileges. But wait. Some of you might be thinking (and rightly so) that, if a show is not making money, then canceling it is not necessarily reflective of white, male patriarchy. It’s simply smart business. And in some cases it is. Arguably though, not all decisions in response to shifting ratings and profits need to be addressed in the usual and expected way. One of the benefits of having indie directors and filmmakers as a part of the larger media industry is their ability to think differently. Consequently, what if there are other ways to address the issue of ratings and profits? Such a moment came at the end of season one. Apparently, the ways that the perfectly nice women leading pleasant, more or less realistic lives on The L Word were represented did not attract the attention of the mainstream audience—meaning the white, heterosexual male. According to the demographic breakdowns from audience polls, although the first two episodes of season one “generated four times the Showtime prime-time average rating, pulling in a strong audience in spite of the fact that the second installment aired opposite the powerful Golden Globes telecast,” and led the executives to renew the show for a second and third season, it did not in the course of the first season hook the “broader,” or heterosexual male, audience media executives had hoped for. As Stacey D’Erasmo explains, “Visibility is a tricky thing; is someone visible when you can point her out in a crowd, or when you understand what her life feels like to her?” With regard to The L Word, visibility meant, at least by big media standards, having cross-over appeal to not only the Sex and the City crowd—women and gay men between the ages of 18–39—but to the white heterosexual men as well.
Apparently, Tim (played by Eric Mabius), the one main, straight male character from season one, did not provide the executives with what they had hoped for—a guy the male audience can relate to and straight women can desire. And so, my concerns seem to have materialized when news broke at the end of season one that Showtime’s top executive Bob Greenblatt had specifically requested that the cast of season two add a straight male character so that “the male audience … have a guy they could relate to.” The result of this request is, in the fourth episode of season two, Mark (played by Eric Lively)—an amateur filmmaker and future roommate to Shane and Jenny. His newest project, after meeting Jenny and particularly Shane, is to “ ‘put his finger’ on how lesbians work, particularly in the bedroom, centering on his two new roommates and their lesbian friends … through nine ‘strategically and respectfully placed’ cameras (i.e., placed everywhere but the bathrooms) Mark becomes fixated with Shane’s bedroom practices and develops a form of ‘non-penis’ envy for her ability to seduce and shag every girl in sight.”
As the season progressed with this storyline, the message boards on Showtime’s online posting area, particularly from lesbian viewers, reflected the opinion that they were not thrilled with Mark’s character. Lesbian viewers especially noted that they found the storyline distasteful. They noted that they get to hear guys being sleazy assholes in real life and are not interested in examining this issue on their favorite show. Although the dissatisfaction that lesbian viewers, in particular, experienced is important, what is important here is why the writers and directors chose to write such a storyline in the first place. One possible explanation maybe have to do with how Ilene Chaiken, the creator and executive director, and her team of indie writers and directors are able to negotiate the system they are working in—balancing the realities of profits and ratings with meaningful content and artistic control. Arguably, the Mark storyline allowed them to do both, as well as to make a “tactical” point that may ultimately create a space for change. Let me explain. The request by top exec Bob Greenblatt to add a straight male character to the show could have been handled in a variety of ways—for example, a straight, attractive, metrosexual male with no porn-based assumptions about lesbians’ sex lives. Instead, the writers chose to create the character of Mark—“an awful stereotype of the straight male population that may be based on a certain amount of truth, as stereotypes can be.” In the process, Ilene Chaiken and her indie writers and directors took a major risk. They risked alienating their main audience—lesbian viewers. They risked decreased ratings in their second season, which did materialize—ratings for the second season were considerably lower—and they risked that the third season could be their last. However, I would argue that the Mark storyline had more positive long-term effects than the short-term consequences let on. First and foremost, Chaiken and her group fulfilled the request by the top media exec to add a straight male character. In the process, they directly took on the issue of the voyeuristic straight male audience (a point of criticism among viewers from season one) who tunes in to the show to “get off” on the depictions of lesbian sex. And, they tactically asserted themselves as the ones in control of content in a media system designed to co-opt anything that makes a profit. As a result, Bob Greenblatt has yet to make another request with regard to content, although he does weigh in on casting decisions. Additionally, ratings came back up in season three, and the show got renewed for a fourth and then a fifth season.
Lastly, I’d like to address the strategy of horizontal integration. Unlike vertical integration—the owning by media conglomerates of everything up and down the production and distribution chain—horizontal integration is the extension of a show beyond the boundaries of television. In terms of The L Word, horizontal integration means exporting parts of the show to the Internet. For example, in season one, the character of Alice introduced viewers to her chart of lesbian hook-ups. The chart became both a symbol of how the lesbian community is often connected to each other as well as the overarching theme of the show. By season four, Alice’s chart expanded into real-time—the creation of an actual online social networking site for “lesbians, dykes, queer girls, gay women, high femmes, butches, drag kings, bois, transwomen and transmen—however we define ourselves,” known as http://OurChart.com. Additionally, the show’s popularity has also launched the creation, by Showtime, of various avatars—a 3-D virtual world that is designed to imitate the show’s environment. Participants can customize their own avatars to allow them to throw parties, interact with characters from the show, have coffee at The Planet, watch episodes of the show, and more. What these two developments point toward is the potential for change. The expansion of the show beyond the borders of television comes with some potential perks (and yes, some drawbacks). The Internet has long been touted as having limitless potential when it comes to media. As Robert W. McChesney explains, “After all, the cost of launching a website is minimal, there are millions and millions of websites, and people have access to a range of information and ideas that was simply unfathomable as recently as ten or fifteen years ago.” Although it remains to be seen just how the Internet will reshape the media system, it has already became evident that the Internet has the ability to subvert and undermine some of the established practices of big media. With regard to The L Word, and at least in terms of content, the Internet has the potential to influence what viewers and consumers have access to online and potentially how that translates into what they see on their small-screens. Arguably, as the popularity of the show gains more currency on the Internet—garnering a larger and more loyal audience and fan base—I would contend that Ilene Chaiken and her group of writers and directors would have the ability to exert more control over the content and issues raised by the show. This is, I’ll admit, a double-edged sword at times because of the expectations and feedback of those fans that Chaiken and her group will then have to negotiate.
Together, these three strategies have had the effect of at least changing how The L Word does business. The indie filmmakers and directors have continued to be one of the most creative, at times the most outspoken, and inspiring groups in the media culture. It is not surprising that as the indie folks get recruited by media conglomerates to direct television their inherent skills of addressing taboo subjects, tackling marginalized issues, and representing serious content affects what we as viewers and consumers see on the television screen. Ultimately, the indie filmmakers presence in directing television is one of the main antidotes to Chronic Heterosexual Fatigue Syndrome.
But is this a blip? Or, is this the beginning of a continued viable (i.e., profitable) presence of queer-themed media? In the moments in which I am not under the influence of Chronic Heterosexual Fatigue Syndrome, I tend to think that the presence of queer-themed media is here to stay and is quite profitable. In what form and with what consequences to queer communities, I think, are the real questions. Queer cinema, for example, has tended to be way ahead of the mainstream in how they deal with and represent gay and lesbian characters. And as Levy explains, “in the late 1990s, Hollywood finally began to take notice of the new gay [and lesbian] lifestyles, which resulted in movies that propagated a revised gay [and lesbian] image.” For example, gay and lesbian characters are rarely now portrayed as “tortured perverts” or “diseased victims,” and films, at least, have moved further and further away from “swishy queen humor” to more complex and substantive dramas. At present, representations of gay, and to a lesser extent lesbian, characters on network television tend to be cast as charming, loveable, emotionally accessible, playful, at times vulnerable, and often unapologetic—or in other words, still quite nonthreatening to mainstream expectations.
Arguably the unstated justification for the various representations of gays and lesbians on network television comes down to the phrase: “It’s business, not politics.” As Katherine Sender explains with regard to gay marketing, “With the claim that gay marketing is a matter of ‘business, not politics,’ marketers have attempted to establish a commonsense idea that the business of gay marketing can be considered independently of the politics of gay rights, identity, and visibility, [a view that shows like Queer as Folk and The L Word clearly contest].” Understandably, media conglomerates are counting on this mantra to apply to television content as well. By separating business from politics, media companies can appeal to an economic model in which financial decisions can be made free from political motivations and ramifications, and most importantly, where networks can reach new consumers and generate increased profits independently of any impact this activity might have on social relations or cultural politics. But the reality is that there is no escape from politics.
Consequently, as the trite saying goes, only time will tell, with regard to how much politics make it into our living rooms in the near future. But for my money, the amount of politics the media companies have already allowed and the amount of politics indie filmmakers and directors have incorporated has already shifted. And this shift could not have happened without the success of cable shows such as Sex and the City, Queer as Folk, and The L Word and the increasing influence of indie filmmakers and directors on the content and business of television.