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Canada’s gay TV network gets ready for U.S.

May 6, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Beating larger players to the punch, a small company in Canada has launched the first television service targeting the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
“It’s an absolutely amazing opportunity to disseminate information, entertain, and connect a community that’s enormous,” said John Levy, CEO of PrideVision TV and majority shareholder in Headline Media Group, Toronto, which owns the network. “There’s nothing else like this in the broadcasting world.”
PrideVision, which began broadcasting last September, got a boost from the Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission, which licensed the television service, guaranteeing distribution through cable and satellite companies that provide digital TV to customers in Canada.
“It speaks to some of the differences in the American system and the Canadian system,” said Phyllis Yaffe, CEO of the broadcasting group at Alliance Atlantis, a Canadian broadcaster, creator and international distributor that holds minority interest in the network. “The CRTC felt it was appropriate for distribution in Canada and gave it “must carry” [status], which has given it kind of a head start in Canada.”
Now Headline Media has its sights set on entry into the U. S. market. In Canada, there are 1.7 million gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The opportunity is much greater in the United States, with 17 million people that fit the demographic. The company has already begun the groundwork to catapult PrideVision into the States and beyond. “Stage 1 was to get it lit up in Canada,” said Mr. Levy. “Stage 2 is going to be to get it lit up in the States, and we’re in the process of doing that. Hopefully, it will leapfrog, and we’ll get this thing in Europe as well.”
Because of its controversial nature, PrideVision chose a stand-alone model, rather than being marketed in packages as with most cable networks. Subscribers pay $8 to $10 for the premium service, with additional revenue coming from advertising. Following its preview, which ended in January, the network had already achieved 50 percent of the 35,000 subscriptions targeted for its first year.
“This is the best of both worlds, because it’s a high-priced stand-alone, but with advertising,” said Ms. Yaffe. “If you can be successful in building the subscriber base with enough advertising, it is truly a very good model.”
Advertisers are clearly interested in reaching this very targeted market. The network has already signed companies such as PepsiCo, Microsoft and Rogers Communications. “We’ve got a whole bunch of blue-chip guys signed on with us, and they’re already champing at the bit for us to get this thing launched in the United States,” said Mr. Levy.
PrideVision has also taken a different route in its marketing efforts, choosing a grass-roots approach. Last summer, before its launch, the network made its presence known at gay pride parades and festivals across Canada. It also depends on a heavy Internet presence. “The Net is very important to us,” said Mr. Levy. “Historically, that’s where the [gay] community communicates. There’s a huge opportunity for us to tie that together.”
To further connect with the community, it built a studio in the heart of a predominantly gay village in Toronto that’s used as a marketing center as well as for programming. That same strategy will be used in the United States, with sites tentatively planned for New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, South Beach (Miami), Fla., and Chicago.
If negotiations with distributors go as planned, the U.S. version of PrideVision will launch this fall. While no deals have been finalized as of yet, Mr. Levy said no one has closed the door. “Cable operators are very enthusiastic,” he said. “They recognize that a product like this is going to help them drive digital technology, and they don’t want the other guys to come in there and eat their lunch.”
Surprisingly, finding programming for the network’s audience has not been problematic. “In the last 10 years, there’s been a real evolution of films being made about gay and lesbian issues,” said Mark Lieber, senior VP and head of programming for PrideVision.
The network offers dramas and comedies from around the world and three categories of movies, including major studio releases with gay and lesbian appeal, independent films, and classic films from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s that feature gay icons.
Original shows account for about 25 percent of programming and include “Shout,” a current-affairs show, “Bump,” a gay-oriented travel show, “Locker Room,” which looks at sports from a gay perspective, and “Undercovers,” a sex and relationship series that allows viewers to interact via phone or the Internet.
Though PrideVision is the world’s first gay-oriented television network to broadcast 24/7, Mr. Levy doesn’t expect that to last long. “Eventually, there’s going to be competition, but we’re planning to get there first,” he said. “And if you get there and you do it well and you’re respectful of the community and the community feels as if it’s their network, I think we’re going to be in a pretty good position regardless of what happens down the road.”