Is Gay Too Mainstream for Its Own Media?

As General-Market Media Becomes More Gay Friendly, LGBT Players Broaden Niche

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You tune into a cable network and peruse the roster: a reality show about a child beauty queen, a pop-culture review and a canine-makeover series.

So what’s surprising about this lowbrow lineup?

That it doesn’t belong to TLC or Oxygen but to Logo, Viacom‘s LGBT-focused cable channel, which until this year featured gays and lesbians at the heart of its programming. Among others programs on Logo that are either green-lit or in development, “Eden Wood’s World,” which focuses on the 6-year-old “Toddlers Tiaras” alum’s transformation into a singer and actress; “Scandalicious,” a trashy countdown show; and “Design My Dog” have fueled controversy among gay-media purists. The fear is that Logo could undervalue or ignore its LGBT identity by pursuing a programming model that attracts more mainstream viewers and advertisers.

Beyond the debate over whether LGBT media has a social responsibility to its core audience, the move raises larger questions about whether niche content for gays has enough profit potential for media companies and whether catering to audiences’ gay identity is still the best way for marketers to reach this demographic.

In short, has gay become too mainstream for its own media?

Logo is piped into 48 million homes nationwide through cable, satellite and telco providers, but its network-wide ratings are too low for Nielsen to report. Its No. 1 show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” on Monday nights, recently drew 481,000 viewers for its fourth season premiereā€”a series record. Compare that with the season premiere of gay-friendly Bravo’s top-rated series, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” which aired the night before the “Drag Race” premiere and drew 3.9 million eyeballs, according to Nielsen.

Logo won’t share its network-wide ratings, but the average 2011 ratings for TLC and Bravo (which many believe is the destination Logo’s new content is charted toward) stand at 995,000 and 804,000, respectively.

Lisa Sherman, Logo’s exec VP-general manager, said building a slate of shows that are not specifically about gay people isn’t a move to attract a wider audience.

“The truth is, we’re doing it to grow our gay base,” Ms. Sherman said. “We do agree that we will be bringing in more gay viewers as well as their friends and allies, but we’ve always been about focusing on our core audience. We need to show them programming that speaks to their interests and sensibilities if we’re going to stay relevant to them.”

This spring, Logo will release the results of an audience study it conducted with Starcom MediaVest Group that the network says helped inform its content shift. Early data points showed that more than half of gay viewers don’t consider showcasing their orientation a priority, and only 30% said they preferred living and socializing in exclusively gay communities.

“Keeping gay people ghettoized is an old idea,” Ms. Sherman said.

The shift isn’t exclusive to TV. It’s familiar to all media companies that have recognized a glass ceiling in catering to a gay audience — and acted accordingly.

In 2011, less than a year after launching the wide-reaching gay social network Fabulis, founders Jason Goldberg and Bradford Shellhammer faced an unexpected dilemma: Their great idea, which was to build the ultimate Facebook/Yelp/Groupon/TripAdvisor for LGBTs, wasn’t gaining traction.

“We built a beautiful and amazing website, and no one used it,” Mr. Shellhammer said. “The reality is, gay people don’t live in a bubble. What we consume and do with our lives is just like everyone else. We thought gay people needed a place to rate their hotels and find the hottest bars, but in reality, they are already doing that on Facebook.”

Fabulis drew 50,000 users in its first three months, and doubled that number in the next five months. Mr. Goldberg posted on his blog that the founders realized that the site would never pass even the $10 million revenue mark, far below what its early investors had signed up for. So, last March, Fabulis (which by then had shortened its name to Fab) dropped the gay angle altogether to focus instead on daily design deals.

The pivot has paid off massively. The company has grown to 200 employees from 10, with 2.5 million worldwide users, and says it is on track to make $100 million in revenue this year. It has attracted attention from venture-capital firms, and even deep-pocketed celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary. Ad Age gave Fab a Media Vanguard Award last fall.

Despite the business’ mounting success, Mr. Shellhammer insisted that the revamp “was absolutely not a financial decision.

“We could have carried on, trying to make it work, but we’re not stupid guys,” he said. “Gay people just didn’t need [Fabulis], because this generation didn’t want to live separately.”

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