Do Gay TV Shows Have to Appeal to Straight Audiences to Survive?

The Lip Service box set, featuring punky lesbians.The BBC announced last week that Lip Service—its L Word knockoff drama about the lives and loves of a group of lesbians in Glasgow—would not be returning for a third season. The cancellation was almost certainly due to Lip Service's flagging ratings—its audience declined by half from the first season to its second—which makes sense from a business' perspective. The show was on, and people didn't watch it, so now the show is off. TV 101 right?

Well… maybe. Or perhaps it wasn't that people weren't watching the show. Maybe it was just that straight people weren't watching it.

This hypothesis is, I admit, held together by a mix of anecdotal evidence and educated guesswork (the blogosphere's superglue!). But allow me to explain: 

I watched Lip Service. I watched Lip Service despite the fact that it was—let's face it—a terrible show. I watched Lip Service despite the winding, tangential storylines, and the often bizarre, uncomfortable sex scenes. I watched Lip Service, and my girlfriends all watched Lip Service, and my best (gay) friends watched Lip Service, and my favorite (gay) cousin watched Lip Service. We all watched Lip Service because, simply, it was about gay people, and we're gay people. Frankly, we're usually so starved for representations of queer women that that's enough. (Remember Tila Tequila? We watched that. South of Nowhere?  Classic. The Real L Word? Every week.) As a group, we lesbians already have desperately low standards for viewership—despite our complaints about the way we're represented, in the end, we're beggars, not choosers. But when it came to Lip Service, neither our desperation nor our begging could keep it around. We may wonder why this strategy doesn't work on our favorite TV shows any more than it does on our dates (zing!), but it seems that in this day and age, gay shows just can't survive without straight audiences.

Take the example of Lip Service's American predecessor, The L Word. Formally, thematically, The L Word and Lip Service were pretty darn similar. Urban, middle-class, traditionally attractive, mostly white lesbians with glamorous jobs in media and the arts kiss, fight, fall in love, and occasionally engage with LGBT politics. However, The L Word slyly and deliberately marketed itself to straight audiences—while Lip Service relied on its lesbian characters and themes alone to draw a crowd. Think of The L Word's first promotional tagline: "Same Sex, Different City," which was clearly designed to capitalize on HBO's hit-with-the-straight-ladies, Sex and the City, by positioning itself on its expansive, probably Dior coattails. 

On the ickier side, in a pre-premiere review of The L Word, New York Blade writer Winnie McCroy reported that Showtime's Executive Vice President of Original Programming, Gary Levine, said of the show, "Lesbian sex, girl-on-girl, is a whole cottage industry for heterosexual men," and reportedly referenced the Howard Stern show as evidence. Sidelining the infuriating and downright offensive implications of that statement, it's clear that The L Word actively pursued a straight audience. In the end, the show itself managed to balance the demands of its lesbian and straight viewers for a six-season run, possibly due to its target demographics' collective love of racy lesbian sex scenes. (If you want to know why Lip Service didn't survive, just compare its standard, fully clothed DVD box to The L Word's.)

While The L Word certainly answered a call for representation that lesbians had been making for years, the fact remains that its success depended in large part on its straight audience, and their needs and desires dictated the show's form and content at least as much as did the lesbian audience it was purportedly created for.

Complicating the matter, Lip Service's cancellation comes mere months after the BBC released a report evaluating its representation of LGB people on television (transgender people were conspicuously, disappointingly excluded). Among other things, the report noted that lesbians and bisexuals were particularly underrepresented, a conclusion that GLAAD also came to in its most recent "Where We Are On TV" report, and the BBC version called for "more creative" and "bolder" representations of LGB people. The report also specifically called for more "incidental" portrayals of LGB people, leading me to worry that these "creative" and "bold" representations—however progressive they may be—may only serve to deemphasize the gayness of gay characters, and integrate them into an already overwhelmingly straight televisual world. While "incidentally" gay characters may certainly have value, without a world of diverse and varied LGBT characters to support them, "incidental" risks erasure. While the report outlines a variety of loftier goals—including more diverse portrayals of LGB people across lines of race, class, and ability, Lip Service's failure points out that successfully enacting such changes may be easier said than done. 

While stations like the BBC are beginning to invest in such depictions, their investment means little without equivalent audience interest. We all have to invest in complex, diverse representations of LGBT people on TV. And when they appear, I hope we'll all be watching.

by Zoe Schein
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