By Me.[Don't steal]
Take a British TV series that drummed up impressive ratings, add a young, beautiful cast, throw in some steamy sex scenes and you have a recipe for success sure to attract the major networks, right?
Wrong, if the show centers around a group of sexualized gays and lesbians.
Despite the controversial subject, Showtime’s decision to Americanize the original “Queer As Folk” has proved golden as the debut episode drew in the best rating for a Showtime series premiere in three years.
With 1.2 million to 1.6 million viewers each week- making it the most watched series on Showtime – the network wasted no time ordering an additional 20 episodes for next year, when “Queer As Folk” will join the returning Latino-themed show “Resurrection Blvd” and the African-American drama “Soul Food.”
The future of “Queer As Folk” is top secret, but Peter Paige, who plays Emmett, said viewers could see characters of color next season.
The show, which has no minority or transgendered characters, is trying to represent as many facets of the diverse gay community as possible, said Daniel Lipman, co-creator and writer.
“We’re just one show,” he said. “There’s a lot of responsibility, but we just try to do the best we can.”
For Showtime executives, “Queer As Folk’s” best is enough. Developing television’s most homocentric show was an easy decision, Stephanie Gibbons, vice president of advertising at Showtime, said at a panel discussion with the cast and creators of “Queer As Folk” at this weekend’s Gay and Lesbian Business Expo in New York City.
“Simply, this is a show whose time has come,” she said.
Showtime went all out in its advertising campaign, taking the gay-themed show past traditional gay media and into mainstream publications.
The $10 million campaign permeated the United States during the six months leading up to the series’ December debut.
Showtime bombarded potential viewers with direct-mail brochures, promotional items and a Web site. The network drew coverage from media outlets ranging from Time Magazine to TV Guide.
Prime Access, a New York City-based ad agency that coordinated the campaign, also generated interest by making “Queer As Folk” a presence at community events such as the Millennium March.
Gibbons said she also relied on one of the gay community’s most powerful advertising tools: word of mouth.
After letting the buzz from the British series pervade the gay community, Gibbons used ads and articles “to say that there’s going to be something huge coming out for the gay audience, so get ready. Just the phrase ‘Queer As Folk’ is very powerful.”
The cast began a long series of interviews about three weeks before the debut, “putting a face to the hype,” Gibbons said.
Popular and critically acclaimed series such as “Ellen,” “Will & Grace” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” brought gay characters to the screen, but “Queer As Folk” is taking them a step further, co-creator and writer Daniel Lipman said.
The show, which HBO courted as a film project, is the first American television series to present gay and lesbian characters as sexual beings and as flawed individuals, said Stuart Elliott, a columnist for the New York Times who moderated the discussion.
“It’s important for us to see our lives sexualized,” said Ron Cowen, the show’s co-creator and writer. “Male sex is a joyful thing we can talk about, not a shameful thing.”
Hollywood doesn’t share that belief, though. Rounding up the cast, which features Emmy-winner Sharon Gless of “Cagney and Lacey” fame, and “Talk Soup” alumnus Hal Sparks, was a long, frustrating task, Lipman said.
“We got everyone we wanted, all the first choices, but it was very hard getting major agencies in Los Angeles to send out clients,” he said. “The three biggest agencies sent one actor.”
Hollywood remains fearful of the “Is he or isn’t he?” rumor mill, but the cast of “Queer As Folk” is more concerned with show’s universal themes than the sexuality of their characters or their fellow cast members, said Paige.
“[Sexuality] hasn’t really ever come up in any way,” he said. “As a gay actor, I’ve played straight roles and I intend to again.”
Casting Debbie, the mother of Sparks’ character, Michael, was particularly difficult, Lipman said.
But for Gless, whose role in the 1980s police drama “Cagney and Lacey” broke barriers for women, deciding to take the part was easy, she said. “I thought, ‘I smell trouble and I love trouble,’ ”
To the surprise of the cast and network executives, the show has received minimal backlash, although not everyone has warmed up to “Queer As Folk.”
“I’m sure there are many people who feel outraged about it, but great television promotes controversy and dialogue,” Gibbons said.
The coming-out process of Justin, a 17-year-old new to Pittsburgh’s gay scene, has helped teens and their families understand the difficulties of coming out, said Randy Harrison, who plays Justin.
“I’ve gotten a lot of great reaction from gay teenagers,” he said. “I definitely believe seeing Justin on TV … is helpful.”
Michelle Clunie, who plays Melanie, a lesbian whose partner gave birth to a baby during the first episode, said she has received many letters thanking the show for its depiction of a lesbian family.
“We received a letter from a fan and a picture of her 9-year-old kid. She said, ‘Thanks for making the world a little bit better for our son’s life,’ ” Clunie said. “That makes everything so worth it.”