Jeff Gaspin On the Spot

“They told me I have too many buttons buttoned up on my shirts,” says Bravo’s president of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s Fab Five. Maybe that’s because the TV exec behind one of 2003’s biggest pop phenomena is a finance guy by training. Gaspin, 43, whose programming résumé also includes hits such as Behind the Music, Dateline NBC and I Witness Video, started out at NBC, put in a stint as programming chief at VH1 and now, along with running Bravo, oversees alternative series, specials, long-form and program strategy at NBC. Q. Bravo has become a household name. How will you maintain the momentum?

A. We started from a point of obscurity, so getting us on the map was the first step. Relative to where we were a year ago, even a next hit not being as big as Queer Eye is still a great achievement for us. As long as you are consistent and you have some stability in your ratings, that’s all you can really hope for in this business. There’s such an open playing field for us, so many opportunities to have original programming, which the channel has been lacking for so many years.

Were you surprised by Queer Eye’s success?

I was surprised by the size of the success and how fast it became part of our pop culture. I knew it would get attention. I knew the title alone would get attention.

How has Queer Eye affected the image of gays—and men—in America?

From what I’ve heard from the gay community, they have five additional voices out there, and they’re pleased about that. In terms of men in America, I think it’s just taking them back to when they were 17, 18 and looked in the mirror as much as women did.

What was the initial advertiser reaction?

Some were skittish, but the truth is, it was more a wait and see, which is what tends to happen in the advertising community when something is so new and something is potentially controversial. Since its success, it hasn’t been an issue at all. It was the title more than anything that scared them. The title was a statement, and one of our goals this year for Bravo was to get people talking about it.

What have you taken away from the show?

What every other man has learned: that you put on gel from the back to the front.

What’s your forecast for the longevity of reality TV?

I think as long as you keep it fresh, it’s here to stay. The thing about reality TV as opposed to scripted television is, you do have to turn it over a lot more. Fear Factor and Survivor do quite fine, but if you look at Joe Millionaire and some of the other fleeting hits, it does seem like you can reach tremendous peaks but you’ve got to keep reinventing it.

Network TV has been losing young male viewers. What should the programmers do?

We don’t know if they’re losing young male viewers or Nielsen’s sample is incorrect. If you are working under bad assumptions, then unfortunately you probably make incorrect decisions. I remember, several years ago, when it was young women viewers that weren’t coming to the set, and all of a sudden they started to come in droves when the programming was geared to them. So I think we have to try some young-male programming and see if that makes a difference.

What would you do first if you were put in charge of programming for a network?

I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it might incriminate me.

What was the best show on TV this year?

Other than Queer Eye, I have trouble picking a best. I got addicted to poker on TV. I was not a fan of poker, and after we did Celebrity Poker Showdown, I started watching the shows. I can sit and watch them for four straight hours.

What’s the worst show?

Oh, I can’t say. There’s so many.

What’s the biggest challenge in integrating advertising into programming?

I guess it’s more of a perception challenge than anything. I think if it’s organic, it works just fine. I’d rather someone drink a Coke than something called “Cola,” because we don’t drink Cola, especially on reality TV. If you use American Express or Visa when you pay for a bill at a restaurant, then I have no problem with that. You want to be careful that it doesn’t seem too phony, that you’re not forcing it down people’s throats. Product placement is more effective when it’s subtle.

What three adjectives best describe you?

Fair, predictable and ambitious.

How do others perceive you?

Definitely predictable, shy and creative.

What inspired you to get into television?

I was certainly a product of television growing up. I don’t want to sound too nerdy, but I was excited when the fall-preview TV Guide issue was coming out. I loved St. Elsewhere, but I also loved The Brady Bunch—it depended how old I was. Every Saturday night when I’d go to my grandparents’, it was All in the Family and Carol Burnett, all those CBS shows. I went to business school, so it was the last place I thought I’d actually work. I didn’t know you could have a career in television or movies; I thought that was a dream, a fantasy. When I was in business school, NBC recruited finance people. Over time, those around me knew I was creative and gave me the opportunity, and that was about 14 years ago.

What’s your wish for Bravo in 2004?

To become a brand that matters.