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The great divide: as the makers of ‘Tales of the City’ can attest, a sizable gap remains between the lucrative gay market and advertisers and broadcasters By Betsy Sharke

As the makers of ‘Tales of the City’ can a

Before a recent episode of Picket Fences aired on CBS, network executives forced the producers of the quirky drama to tone down a scene in which two girls kissed. According to sources, the late alteration was made to appease nervous affiliates, who feared a reaction by equally nervous advertisers.
Such trepidation over gay and lesbian matters is not new, but for advertisers it is ironic. The homosexual market is one that many marketers, particularly those with high-end products, would love to tin-get. The average reader of the gay and lesbian magazine The Advocate, for example, is male, 38 years old, college educated and boasts a household income of at least $51,000. But despite such desirable demographics, advertisers have often pulled spots from programming that treads too closely to gay subjects because of what one agency buyer calls the fear of “stirring up middle America.”
By extension, broadcasters are increasingly sensitive about which gay issues will be acceptable to advertisers and which will not. Perhaps no example of this discomfort zone is more striking than Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, a six-hour miniseries currently in production in Los Angeles and San Francisco after years of false starts.
Maupin’s quintessentially American novel of life in San Francisco during the ’70s follows a tangle of gay and straight relationships. Tales is relatively innocent (a film version would likely earn a PG rating), and it’s being adapted by veteran TV writer Richard Kramer (best known for his thirty something scripts). But while Tales will be an anchor of fall programming for Channel 4 in Britain, when and where it will be shown in the U.S. is anyone’s guess.
The project was originally to be a 12-hour mini-series encompassing the first two books in Maupin’s six-novel series (Tales of the City is the first book). Funding was to be split between Britain’s Channel 4, which backed Academy Award-winning Howards End and The Crying Game, and a U.S. broadcaster. For two years, the producers, independent British film company Working Title (My Beautiful Laundrette) and U.S.-based Propaganda Films looked for American backers. Virtually all network, cable and public broadcasting outlets were contacted. None would sign onto the project, so Channel 4 decided to produce the first book alone. Recalls producer Antony Root, U.S. programming execs would say, “I think this material is absolutely wonderful, but . . . my advertisers, or management, or subscription department wouldn’t buy this. Nobody seems free to say, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.'”
Now negotiations in the U.S. have shifted simply to finding a broadcaster to air the program. The sticking point seems to be the underlying tone of acceptance that is typical of Maupin’s writing. Gay and straight characters are treated with the same even hand, as is the casual drug use of the period. “We are looking at a more innocent time,” says producer Alan Poul of the pre-AIDS story, “and because it is historically correct, it makes it politically incorrect. American television, unfortunately, is interested in political correctness when it comes to sexuality and drug use, although not at all when it comes to violence.”
Root believes programmers in the U.S. are over-reacting. “They may be second-guessing problems that don’t exist for their audience,” he says. Many media buyers seem to agree. Chuck Bachrach of Rubin Postaer & Associates points out that 60 Minutes’ recent report on gay parenthood received huge ratings. “It’s part of today’s world,” he says. “All of our clients have particular program guidelines, but we look at each individual show and the content to see if we should be there.”
In another twist, the current debate over gays in the military has made advertisers even more cautious, says Kaitlyn Considine, national advertising manager for The Advocate. “The people we’re talking to are holding back for the moment,” she says. “July 15 is the target date for Clinton to sign the executive order. Once it’s set in motion, I think the atmosphere will be more open.”
Another difficulty Considine has found in getting advertiser support is the number of closeted gay agency buyers. “There are some that really push it and others that are really nervous,” she says. “They worry that if they make a gay market suggestion, it will backfire on them.”
It is the same double standard Maupin himself found among high-level gay entertainment executives, some of whom suggested writing out the gay characters for TV. “Tales of the City begins with the premise that gay people are a part of life,” Maupin says. “My work has succeeded because it reflects the way people actually live.” Hollywood, on the other hand, he says, is always trying to smooth out the rough edges– whether or not the majority of its audiences agree.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)