3 min

On the air, but out of reach

The world's first gay & lesbian TV network is born

I’d be a lot more excited about PrideVision if it were a little more accessible.

Canada’s first all-queer TV network launches Fri, Sep 7 – but only as a digital service and that means out of sight, out of mind and out of reach.

The problem is not with the content. To the surprise of many people (including myself, who expected non-stop repeats of Kids In The Hall) the Pride programmers have cobbled together a distinctive schedule filled with gems not available anywhere else. Among the highlights:

* Shout!, a half-hour Canadian newsmagazine hosted by two guys and Rachel Giese, former Xtra features editor and ex director of the Inside Out lesbian and gay film fest. With the unfortunate demise of City’s QueerTelevision (whoops, sorry, it’s merely “on hiatus”) this should fill the current affairs slot nicely

* Metrosexuality, a British series about straight and gay characters from the screenwriter of Stonewall, Rikki Beadle-Blair

* So Graham Norton, an award-winning British talk show with an outspoken gay host

* Plus a couple of interesting documentaries: Got 2B There, about the circuit scene, and Metamorphosis, about a “coloured” gay man turned white drag queen in apartheid-era South Africa.

But with a minuscule programming budget ($5-million for the first fiscal year) and a commitment to 61 percent Canadian content, PrideVision inevitably features lots of reruns (the British Queer As Folk) and lots of cheap lifestyle programming (What’s For Dinner).

Shows like Two Fat Ladies and Savoir Faire add a subtle gay/not-gay zing to the proceedings and suggest PrideVision has its finger on local tastes. But it also raises an interesting question: How much gay programming do you want?

Three decades after Stonewall, there’s not exactly a dearth of gay content on the tube. In coming weeks, you can watch the return of Ellen DeGeneres (The Ellen Show, Mon, Sep 17, CBS), the season premiere of Will And Grace (Thu, Sep 20, NBC) and brand new episodes of Absolutely Fabulous some time in October on The Comedy Network.

James Wilby stars in a gay-oriented installment of the fabulous British mystery series, Trial And Retribution, penned by Prime Suspect auteur Lynda LaPlante (Wed, Sep 19, TVO.) Newsworld is showing a six-part series, Masters Of Style, on male fashion designers starting Thu, Sep 20 (with the out gay couple Dolce and Gabbana on Oct 4). The third installment of Armistead Maupin’s popular San Francisco soap, Further Tales Of The City, debuts Sun, Sep 30 on Showcase and, of course, the second season of the US Queer As Folk premieres in January, also on Showcase.

And all of this is available on standard analogue cable.

PrideVision is available only on digital and that means it’s just one of several dozen new channels competing for your attention and your cash. It’s one of 21 category one channels, meaning digital distributors have to offer the service (unlike the 262 channels relegated to category two status), but of course people don’t have to subscribe and there are several reasons why they might not: Homophobia, technophobia and a well-founded aversion to shedding copious amounts of cash.

Rogers is offering a three-month “free” preview of all the new digital channels, but it’s only “free” to digital subscribers. To access the new channels, you need both basic cable ($21.29 plus tax) and a digital converter that costs $10.95 per month.

If, like me, you’re already paying close to $50 a month for “basic” plus those few groovy channels willing to broadcast Oz and Sex And The City, that’s $60 a month just to take a peek at the new networks. (Try to imagine a bookstore that charged you $60 to flip through a book before you bought it.)

And that’s before the cost of programming kicks in. Rogers won’t announce the price of PrideVision and the other digital channels until October or so. The cable operator expects to offer it as both a stand-alone service and as part of a package, but either way, count on an extra $10 to $20 a month. (A stand-alone TSN cost $9 per month 17 years ago.) Total estimated cost: $70 to $80 a month. That’s cheaper than some megamusicals but, on the other hand, I don’t go to megamusicals.

People with access to one of the satellite services might be able to get a cheaper deal, but the network’s impact will still be limited. We’re used to thinking of television as a mass medium, but in terms of reach and influence, PrideVision will be closer to the alternative press than a conventional broadcast network. Slick but marginal, it will be a comfort to the converted and invisible to those who need it most: homophobes and those just coming out.

To some extent this is the inevitable effect of digital technology, niche marketing and the rise of “narrowcasting.”

The more stations there are, the less influence any one station exerts. But PrideVision deserves a more prominent place and the CRTC could do something about it simply by rejigging the cable line-up. Basic cable is not infinitely expandable. It’s subject to both technical and political pressures. But if there’s room on basic for a women’s network and an aboriginal people’s network, surely there’s room for another part of the Canadian mosaic, the homo network.