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Resurgence of Gay Roles on Television : Prime time: Complaints from fundamentalists had helped reduced their ranks, but now there's an effort for realism.

November 03, 1994|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Outcasts only a few years ago because of network fears that they would alienate advertisers, gay television characters have made a resurgence in prime time.

That point was made emphatically this season with the arrival of "Daddy's Girls," a CBS comedy co-starring the flamboyant Harvey Fierstein, a gay actor portraying a gay designer at the fashion firm owned by Dudley Moore's character.

And although "Daddy's Girls" has been put on hiatus because of low ratings, there are plenty of other gay characters to be found.

Series that feature gays on a weekly basis include "Melrose Place" (Fox), "My So-Called Life" (ABC), "Sisters" (NBC), "Roseanne" (ABC) and "The Real World" (MTV). Shows that intermittently feature gay characters include "The Simpsons" (Fox), "The Commish" (ABC), "Frasier" (NBC), "Friends" (NBC), "Northern Exposure" (CBS), "Murphy Brown" (CBS), "Dream On" (HBO) and "The John Larroquette Show" (NBC).

Although recurring gay characters were relatively commonplace on network series during the late 1970s and 1980s--on programs such as "Dynasty" and "Soap"--opposition from fundamentalists who complained to advertisers helped reduce their ranks to zero in the spring of 1991.

Paul Junger Witt, one of the executive producers of "Daddy's Girls," calls television's "rediscovery" of gays part of its attempt to be more relevant.

"The whole gay issue is one you have to put on blinders to avoid," Witt said, calling efforts to keep gays off the tube "an intentional distortion of truth--one of those truths being that our culture is influenced by the large number of gays."

Not to have included a gay character on "Daddy's Girls," which centers on the fashion industry, would have left it "without a reality base," he said.

Executive producer Darren Star similarly attributes "Melrose Place's" strong ratings among the 18-49 age group that advertisers prize to his show's "reality basis."

"Depicting real characters is something we have to do to retain our audience," he explained. "We don't want them to roll their eyes while they watch, asking if this is all they're allowed to see."

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Richard Jennings, executive director of Hollywood Supports, a group promoting positive gay portrayals in film and television, believes the resurgence of gay characters is due to the public's heightened consciousness about gay political issues. As gays have increasingly "come out," many viewers have become aware of gay brothers, sisters and friends. Together with gay viewers, they are increasingly asking for sympathetic gay portrayals, he said.

Most advertisers also seem to have become more accepting--at least up to a point. When Star wanted to show his gay character kissing another man on the season finale of "Melrose Place" last spring, Fox balked and asked them not to, afraid that advertisers would withdraw their commercials--just as they did for a 1989 episode of ABC's "thirtysomething" that showed two gay men in bed together.

There are no such reservations at MTV, however, where Thursday's episode of the pseudo-documentary "The Real World"--about a group of young adults living together in San Francisco--featured regular Pedro Zamora exchanging rings with his boyfriend in a "gay marriage" ceremony. The two men--who are not actors--hold hands and kiss no fewer than seven times in the half-hour cinema verite program.

Zamora's romance, which began spontaneously after the show had set up its seven principals in a San Francisco house, "is probably the deepest we've ever gotten into a relationship in our three seasons," said producer John Murray.

Not everyone applauds the trend. The Rev. Louis Sheldon, head of the Orange County-based Traditional Values Coalition, said, "Homosexuals should not be portrayed at all on TV."

Sympathetic gay role models confuse viewers, he argues. "If young males need to identify with someone, they should identify with Clint Eastwood," Sheldon said.

But Star said that "Melrose Place" viewers had been rolling their collective eyes at gay social worker Matt Fielding's stunted development.

"We received hundreds of letters, the writers asking why all the other characters are allowed to have a love life, but not Matt," he said. "Straight viewers identify with him as well as gay viewers. They feel he's part of their lives, and they want to know more about him."

This season, said Star, Matt will have a "greater presence on the show" when Jeffrey, the closeted gay sailor he had met--and lost--returns. Jeffrey's military affiliation will heighten the tensions when he "comes out," dramatizing the debate over gays in the military.

Despite the producers' belief that the upsurge in gay characters is here to stay, network officials are still skittish about going public on the matter. Although CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox all made their producers available for this story, each cited a different reason for not having a network official discuss policy.

Only MTV's executive vice president of programming, Doug Herzog, would go on the record.

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Given the relative lack of homophobia by MTV's mostly teen-aged and twentysomething viewers and the cable network's independence from FCC regulation, Herzog said that MTV has been able to treat gay and straight subject matters "alike. There is no stigma here. . . . We have a secret weapon: Our audience trusts us. They think we understand them."

The chief area in which Herzog sees MTV lagging is its rock videos. Although his network has aired videos featuring "straight" love stories and gay or lesbian fantasy sequences, no music company has yet provided MTV with a commercially viable gay or lesbian love story, he said. Should one come in meeting MTV's requirements, he pledged to air it.

"We don't spend a lot of time worrying about what the fundamentalists think," he said. "We prefer to think about how we can best serve our viewers."

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