NEW YORK -- Animal lovers, soap opera fans and science fiction aficionados - all have their own cable channels.
Homosexual viewers have never had one devoted to their interests, but that's about to change. There's suddenly a race to reach that market.
Two Viacom outlets - MTV and Showtime - are collaborating on a plan for a new gay-oriented premium service. Meanwhile, Canada's existing Pridevision TV is looking to expand into the United States.
Showtime, whose successful "Queer as Folk" drama helped change the business climate, has scheduled homosexual-oriented movies and programs on its Showtime Two service on Wednesday nights. "Night Out on Sho Too Wednesdays" begins on May 22.
Homosexual activists say it's about time.
"Despite the progress the gay community has made in the mainstream media, it is still underserved as a television audience," said Scott Seomin, spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
MTV and Showtime's prospective gay channel has been talked about since 1994, but only recently have executives started outlining their plans to cable and satellite distributors.
Although Viacom still hasn't given the official go-ahead, "we wouldn't be going through all this if we didn't think the channel, as a consumer proposition, wasn't going to be a home run," said Gene Falk, senior vice president of digital media programming at Showtime.
Their plans - even the channel's name - have been kept under wraps. But Falk said Viacom's other successful niche networks, like MTV and Nickelodeon, should hint at the mix of games, reality shows, talk shows and movies that the channel will include.
John Levy, chairman of Canada's Pridevision, believes his network has an advantage over Viacom.
"First of all, we exist," he said. "We have a commitment to do this thing on a full-time basis. We're not testing or doing a block of programming once or twice a week."
Pridevision's fare includes "Locker Room," a comedy show about homosexuals in sports; "Undercovers," a phone-in sex advice show; "[filtered word] TV," a news and commentary show about lesbians; and "Urban Fitness TV," a lifestyle show. Its on-air hosts are called "gay jays."
Seomin said he's been impressed. Pridevision's range of original shows is strong for a start-up, he said, and its executives show savvy in scheduling - airing the camp classic, "Mommy Dearest" on Mother's Day.
Both prospective networks want to be premium services, meaning cable or satellite customers would have to request and pay for the channel. It wouldn't come as part of a general movie package.
One important area where they diverge: Pridevision offers late-night erotic films, and the Viacom venture won't.
"You almost can't launch the network if you don't have some form of erotica as part of it," Levy said. Otherwise, he said, "you're not being true to the community."
Falk said that most homosexuals can easily find erotica. What they can't find is other quality programming geared to their interests.
"As a gay man, I resent the notion that the only way you're going to sell me something is if it has porn on it," Falk said. "To say that it's the only way the audience is going to respond is, I think, offensive."
With some cable and satellite operators likely to be nervous about offering a network aimed at homosexuals, the decision to screen X-rated material could be suicidal, Seomin said.
"There are certain segments of the gay and lesbian community that would like to see the adult fare late at night," he said. "However, if they do offer it, they will be shooting themselves in the foot with operators. Let's get it on the air and change the programming down the road."
The conservative American Family Association plans to oppose any effort to get a gay-oriented channel established, whether it offers X-rated movies or not, said Ed Vitagliano, its spokesman.
"I have reviewed 'Queer as Folk,"' he said. "From our perspective, that was pornographic."
Vitagliano is concerned that, despite current plans, a gay channel will eventually be offered as part of a general premium package and it would be seen by unsuspecting eyes.
After years in which the homosexual audience has been ignored, why have the forces now been unleashed for competition?
"Queer as Folk" proved to many television programmers that a gay-oriented program could be a ratings winner without a damaging backlash from cultural critics. GLAAD believes that since more homosexuals are coming out, ratings services are counting them as a visible audience.
At the same time, cable has shifted to the belief that niche networks are easier to establish and be profitable than those that offer general entertainment. Homosexuals are considered a loyal audience with money to spend.
The expansion of digital service also means there is more "shelf space" available for new channels on cable and satellite systems.
Even though its plans are still a mystery to the public, Seomin believes the Viacom venture is the most likely to succeed.
Both Showtime and MTV have a solid reputation in the gay community, he said. What is more important, Viacom's string of successful networks means the company has strong relationships with cable operators.
"There's also interest in having somebody new step forward to provide a service like this to counterbalance the power that exists in a company like Viacom," Levy responded. "I think it works for you and against you when you're talking about a big media company."
Pridevision also broadcasts "Queer as Folk" and some MTV programming in Canada. Presumably, for competitive reasons, an American version of the network couldn't. The movies it licenses may also be limited.
Pridevision hopes to get on the air this fall. Viacom offers no timetable. Neither network has announced an agreement by a cable or satellite provider to carry their service.
"We're not going to throw something on the air and put it out there and market it as if it were a race for the market," Falk said. "This is a smart, discriminating audience and when we do launch, we need to deliver on the audience's expectations."
While they wait, Showtime's Wednesday programming block will soon be on the air. Stephanie Gibbons, Showtime's senior vice president for advertising and promotion, insisted this wasn't an effort to test the market.
In addition to "Queer as Folk," Showtime will air the animated series, "Queer Duck," and bring in new talent for comedy sketches.
Gibbons is bemused by the attention from others.
"It's just a continued evolution of something we've been doing for a long time," she said. "I don't know why everyone else has chosen his moment. We've always seen it as an underserved audience."