The programmers at NBC deserve praise for their decision to feature a downsized 30-minute episode of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” last week on the broadcast network. The offbeat reality show, which focuses on a team of gay men who provide a lifestyle makeover to a straight man, premiered earlier this month on NBC’s cable channel Bravo, where it became a surprise hit in the context of the cable universe.
Gays are a substantial minority group. Although they have become more vocal and visible in recent years, they continue to be controversial for some people and are largely overlooked by network television. The pattern is somewhat reminiscent of TV’s reluctance in the past to embrace African Americans, Latinos and other groups.
But unlike the minorities identified by race, ethnicity or religion, gays are identified by sexuality, which remains a moral lightning rod among some potential viewers. While attitudes toward general sexual content on broadcast TV have relaxed enormously over the past 15 years, there is still a considerable uneasiness when it comes to depicting homosexuals. Some viewers, including members of the religious right, interpret any positive representation of homosexuality on TV as the advocacy of an unacceptable “lifestyle”-and advertisers remain sensitive to the possibilities (and headaches) of boycotts and bad press.
We are not advocating any lifestyle, but we do believe that television should reflect the diversity and richness of all legitimate groups within American society. Only by reflecting all segments can we achieve a mutual understanding, which will lead to the kind of tolerance our complex society needs to practice if we are all to live and work together.
With NBC’s “Will & Grace” standing almost alone as a highly visible exception, the rule on broadcast TV has been that gay subject matter is suitable at best as sitcom fringe material, whether it takes the form of a supporting character or a joke. More typically, gay references are avoided altogether. From the groundbreaking 1972 ABC TV movie “That Certain Summer” to Ellen DeGeneres’ character’s coming out amid much hoopla (and criticism aimed at ABC parent Disney) on her hit sitcom “Ellen” a few years ago, the occasions when that mold has been broken stand out because they are so few and far between.
And, of course, it took “Queer Eye’s” success on a cable channel to give it a shot on a broadcast network.
Compared with most recent media moves, NBC’s experiment is unusually freewheeling. It appears to be one of those rare times when network executives are willing to throw a show on and see if it finds the kind of immediate acceptance it enjoyed on cable. It is refreshing to see a network willing to take such risk.
Clearly NBC, thanks to its success in recent years, is in a better position than most networks to take a few chances. The strategy is worth watching and emulating, especially when it helps break up an otherwise far-too-homogenized broadcast programming landscape.