It all started last Christmas, when Luke and Noah, the young gay couple on "As the World Turns," were about to kiss. Though fans had seen them kiss before, this time the camera panned up to the mistletoe.
Over the next few months, while heterosexual couples were kissing, Nuke (as fans call the couple) was restricted to holding hands, playing with one another's neck scarves and sharing meaningful looks.
Ensuing complaints of discrimination to CBS and the show's producer and sponsor, Procter & Gamble, had no effect. And the last straw apparently arrived on Valentine's Day, when every other couple but Nuke shared a kiss. They hugged instead.
Online fans began a nationwide media blitz Feb. 20 to bring attention to the show, which has been twice nominated for an award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). "Presenting a gay couple on television only to relegate them to insulting hugs and slaps on the back is the 21st century version of putting African Americans on the back of the bus," wrote one disgruntled fan named Tony. "We're simply supposed to be happy that we got the ride at all. This is 2008, and yet CBS and Procter & Gamble are clearly stuck in the past."
GLAAD media spokesman Damon Romine agreed with them that, "while tremendous strides have been made on soaps, it's clear that we're not at a place where gay and transgender people are treated the same on daytime as they are on prime-time or cable."
At the same time, the American Family Assn. urged its members Thursday to contact Procter & Gamble to ask that it stop sponsoring "overtly pro-homosexual television programs." The group's research showed Procter & Gamble to be the top sponsor of gay content on network television. Others they listed were Verizon, Target, Ford Motor Co., Sears and Macy's.
Jeannie Tharrington, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble Productions, denied that the show's writers were discriminating. "We're trying to be sensitive to all the different audiences who watch our show. We do make our decision based on what we think is best for the show's diverse audience and what's best creatively."
She said their story has been unfolding deliberately in a slow manner to keep interest alive. "That's the thing with soap operas," she said. "They're always trying to keep people wanting more."
She said the sponsors are very committed to continuing the story of the pair, who are coming of age in a small Midwestern town. "It's a very authentic kind of story."
CBS spokesmen said the show's ratings have increased since the pair were introduced last year. "CBS supports the producers' vision for the Luke and Noah storyline," according to a statement. "We have not censored it or asked them to hold back in any way."