Can OUTtv’s latest owners rescue the world’s first gay TV network?
On the corner of Church and Maitland, above the Village Rainbow restaurant, is a brick wall painted with the logo for PrideVision, Canada’s LGBT television network launched back in 2001. The ad, with its start date and “Outside the Box” slogan, has been partially covered over with black paint but the job was never finished. The old logo looms over the corner as it looms over the network itself, a reminder of its rocky beginnings.
Six years after a launch that nearly ended in bankruptcy, the channel now called OUTtv has wrestled with desperate budgets, changing owners, bitter court battles and corporate homophobes. Meanwhile, the mainstreaming of gay culture creates an increasingly competitive environment of media conglomerates and newer gay channels with deeper pockets. Outpaced, out-funded and outnumbered, OUTtv has fought to stay in the black and now, says co-owner Les Tomlin, “We’ve got a plan to move forward instead of putting out fires backward.” Can the world’s first gay and lesbian network become “must-see” TV?
“The first pioneer gets all the arrows,” says Brad Danks, COO of Shavick Entertainment, OUTtv’s current majority owner, as he praises the efforts of John Levy, a lawyer from Hamilton who cheerfully predicted that, in 2001’s explosion of new digital TV channels, “the true niche services are going to thrive.” If only. PrideVision immediately clashed with homophobic cable carriers (notably Shaw, with 70% of western Canada) and made the decision to sidestep the issue by operating as a pay-TV channel charging $8 a month. They’d hoped to start with 300,000 subscribers—they got 20,000.
By the end of its first year, PrideVision had lost millions of dollars, cancelled all but one of its locally produced shows and chopped its staff from 25 down to nine. “I was the first person ever hired,” says Wendy Donnan, who was head of programming before becoming head of marketing as well, doing double-duty ever since. “I had a small but really good team,” she says, “one that cared about the network and wanted it to work.” By Christmas 2002, however, PrideVision was up for sale and literally begging for subscribers with ads that read, “With only 20,000 subscribers we are impotent! Help PrideVision TV GET IT UP!” The channel continued to bleed money through 2003 and industry analysts predicted its imminent failure.
“Bill Craig saved the network,” says Donnan. “He went out there and took on the cable companies.” A broadcasting veteran, Craig was already infamous for his controversial iCraveTV.com, an early attempt to stream cable TV signals over the internet. Craig paid $2.6 million for the network and brought in partners like Pink Triangle Press, publishers of Xtra, and Peace Point Entertainment, creators of shows for Global and the Food Network. “We knew coming in that it was broken,” says Peace Point president Les Tomlin, “We bought it to fix it.”
Their first act was to start renegotiating deals with cable companies to package PrideVision with other lifestyle channels and charge viewers less. With little money for programming, the network’s biggest ratings were for its after-midnight porn—a deal-breaker for many of the cable providers. Donnan says, “People might be liberal on the outside but when it comes down to their homes, they act differently.” In early 2005, PrideVision became Hard, a 24- hour gay porn pay channel, and created OUTtv, a mainstream gay lifestyle network. “We saw an immediate, rapid growth in subscribers,” says Tomlin. These days, the channel hovers around 400,000 subscribers.
As the company’s white knight, Craig had succeeded but quickly got bogged down in new crises. In 1993, he had left his wife of 19 years and come out. Now in a long-term relationship with another man, Craig still owed her a whopping $1.4 million. A judge seized his assets, which consisted of 24% of the network, proceeds from a Bermuda lawsuit and a Jeep. “This is classic War of the Roses stuff,” Craig told The Globe and Mail. Meanwhile, despite OUTtv’s category 1 “must-carry” licence, Shaw Cable still refused to package it with other non-porn channels, then asked a judge to seize payments to OUTtv from other cable providers, claiming they were owed $25,000 a month from an old deal.
OUTtv filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2006. “It was insane,” says Tomlin, “It was all-consuming for about 18 months…a lot of lawyers, a lot of late nights but we persevered.” Throughout all this, Donnan says, “We always managed to pull some stuff off with very little money,” but it was clear to everyone they were floundering. Peace Point’s travel show Bump was one of the network’s few hits but its second season was cut from 26 episodes to nine.
“A lot of stuff got screwed around, including ourselves,” says John Simpson, who produced and starred in the popular Chris & John’s Road Trip. “We ended up not seeing any of that money, frankly.” Co-star Chris Carter says, “We were motivated to do a second season by fan reaction. We got a really great reaction. The network wasn’t well-off financially so going into season two was a bit of a risk.” And, Simpson says, “Every owner has blamed the previous owner.”
While crediting Craig as “the driving force” at OUTtv, Tomlin says his “bull in a china shop” persona had become a liability. “We realized that he was not the person to take this thing to the next level of development.” Pink Triangle Press moved to block Craig from selling off his share of OUTtv to other investors. “It was a weird situation,” says Tomlin. “We had invested heavily and we were just moving to protect our interests and keep the station alive.” [Craig did not return calls for this story.]
James Shavick, president of Shavick Entertainment, is OUTtv’s latest owner, having purchased a 52% stake in the network last summer. His wife Joy McPhail is a former leader of the NDP party in BC and a longtime advocate for gay rights, while his Vancouver-based company had produced Dante’s Cove and the Donald Strachey mystery films for Here, the U.S. gay channel launched in 2002. It seemed a perfect fit. One of the stars of Dante’s Cove is Saskatchewan-born Charlie David, who also joined Bump in season two as co-host. “He’s a busy man!” laughs Tomlin.
New COO Brad Danks says successful in-house shows like Bump are OUTtv’s “lifeblood…We cannot survive if we do not produce for our own network. One of the most fortunate things was that our producing partners were creating highquality content. We looked at the shows on OUTtv that were doing well, like the Chris & John show, Bump and Coverguy, that had an audience and some brand identity. We’re going to do new seasons of each because once you get a show going, there’s an intrinsic value to keeping it going.”
But only if there’s money behind it, say Chris and John, frustrated by low budgets. Simpson says, “With all these owners coming through, it’s like they’re waiting for it to make money, then they’ll spend it. It doesn’t work that way!” Carter says, “Brad talks a lot about ‘inventory’ but from our perspective as producers, we’re thinking only about storytelling.” Simpson says the duo won’t “churn out 14 episodes on X amount of dollars” but “five really good episodes instead…You can’t just throw on stuff that’s useless and then hope it’ll make money.”
“I don’t get the passiveness,” says Carter, especially in regards to OUTtv’s marketing. Simpson is “annoyed” by OUTtv’s “one generic ad. They don’t even have a marketing department—it’s only Wendy! She can only do so much!”
Donnan doesn’t seem to mind, as she points out that Logo, the other U.S. gay channel (launched by MTV owner and media titan Viacom in 2005), “isn’t doing that well either. They’re not attracting the advertising dollars they thought they would. They axed Noah’s Arc and then Scott Thompson’s wedding show—one of their highest draws.” She’s pleased that OUTtv, despite its woes, “has sold Coverguy to Here and it looks like we’ve sold it to a channel in the Netherlands. Chris & John’s Road Trip is also a marketable show that we’ve been able to sell.”
Marketing shows to other networks, says Danks, is as important as marketing to viewers: “When you have little or no value for your content in the marketplace abroad, it affects your production values and how much you can spend.” This is OUTtv’s Catch-22: if they don’t have good shows to attract subscribers and sell elsewhere, they won’t be able to afford to produce good shows. “There hasn’t been much buying in the last couple years,” Danks admits, having been forced to turn down some “really strong proposals.”
Tomlin says, at this point, OUTtv is “basically playing catch-up” to other networks but jokes that, with the channel’s recent turnaround, the reruns are easing up a bit: “We’re only running it 16 times this week!” Danks is pleased as well but worried: “One of the long-term challenges for a gay channel like this is that, as gay becomes more mainstream, are you going to be able to compete with that?” It’s the looming question: even Disney’s ABC network is airing gay-friendly shows like Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives and Brothers & Sisters. And in Canada, the gay market is so tiny and so accepted—is there even a need for gay channels anymore?
Danks notes that Canadian conglomerate Alliance Atlantis “owns a huge library of movies like Brokeback Mountain but will that continue? Historically, the larger the company, the more conservative they are because their advertisers are the big corporations who aren’t that interested in the edgier content.” Donnan says the trend towards bigger, amalgamated media companies “means less variety for viewers in the long run.” While Alliance Atlantis “can afford to pay more” for gay shows, owning a program doesn’t equal offering it—Showcase, she notes, is “not as gay-focused as before.” They may own Queer as Folk but when was the last time they aired it?
“Here’s a shocker for you,” says Danks, “The Here network is the largest advertiser on Logo.” The rival U.S. gay channels know it’s better for everyone if they help one another, he insists and is pleased by the relationship OUTtv has formed with Here through Shavick Entertainment. The U.S. network has “gifted” 26 hours of programming to OUTtv. But though it’s true that episodes of Dante’s Cove and The DL Chronicles would attract viewers to OUTtv, Rogers Cable has just launched Here as a “video on demand” channel. Danks envisions a complementary relationship between the two—with viewers having the option of paying more to see a show first on Here. But it’s still easy to see how OUTtv’s new asset could become its biggest obstacle: if Dante’s Cove is sold on its sexiness, wouldn’t viewers prefer Here’s uncut, commercial-free, first-run version?
Whatever happens next, not much can surprise the OUTtv staff at this point. “This channel has been nothing but drama for six years,” says Donnan, “There’s no other network in the world that has a more tumultuous history…but it’s a labour of love.” That’s what drives them, says Tomlin—the thought of reading headlines in the press saying, “World’s first gay and lesbian channel is a big flop.” And all through OUTtv’s trials and tribulations, the PrideVision logo on Church Street waits to be painted over.