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TELEVISION REVIEW : S.D. Program on Gays Shows Advertisers Still Shun Topic

A young man blackmailed, tormented by an older brother. A mother and son not talking to each for more than two years. Sad stories, horrible stories, but hardly the stuff of controversy--except where gays are involved.

Even in these modern times, when television touches on gays, no matter what the context, it is enough to frighten advertisers. As of Thursday, advertising space was still available for KGTV’s (Channel 10) special “Growing Up Gay,” airing at 10 tonight.

“The advertising community thought it was a great show and they applauded us for doing it, but there was reluctance to support it from a financial point of view,” said Howard Oleff, Channel 10’s local sales manager.

To many advertisers, “gay” still spells controversy, regardless of how the subject is handled.

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“Everybody knows that, with this type of program, the first thing the audience does is blame the advertisers,” said one local media buyer, a representative of advertisers, who asked not be named.

Even though the special, a product of Channel 10’s “Signature Series,” will probably attract decent ratings because of its subject matter, it is the kind of issue advertisers would rather avoid.

“We have advertisers who would feel uncomfortable with this type of show, and that doesn’t mean they have anything against gays,” said the media buyer. “It’s just that the association is too controversial. They don’t want to offend anybody. They’re afraid to be perceived as taking a stand on this type of thing.”

But this is the ‘80s. Haven’t people’s attitudes toward gays changed through the years?

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“Institutions don’t change as quickly as individuals,” said the buyer. “They’d rather take the easy way out.”

The program did not deter all advertisers, though. Rick Haux, president of Waterbed Emporium, said he bought advertising time on the program because he thought the subject was “timely” and he was offered a “good deal.”

“If people today are so close-minded, then there is nothing we can do to help,” Haux said. “We’ll obviously get some publicity for it, and it will be highly rated. It’s topical and it’s about time someone did a feature on the subject.

“We like to be on the cutting edge of things in our community.”

“Growing Up Gay” is the indirect result of a tough question put to Channel 10 general manager Ed Quinn at last November’s “Ask the Media” conference. A gay activist angrily asked why a gay rights demonstration in Washington received little television coverage.

“Ed kind of tossed off the question, and we got calls and letters,” said news director Paul Sands. After meeting with members of the gay community, Channel 10 developed the concept for “Growing Up Gay.”

The program focuses on gays as individuals more than on any so-called controversy concerning the gay life style. Several gay San Diegans are interviewed. They talk about growing up, discovering their sexuality and the emotional trauma of “coming out of the closet.”

The program asks tough, and for some viewers, uncomfortable questions.

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“What if your child said he was gay?” asks narrator Michael Tuck.

Parents of gays are interviewed about how they reacted, just as the children tell their stories. Most of the program consists of cold, matter-of-fact, passionless interviews. Psychologists are even interviewed, to give a clinical perspective on the traumas of growing up gay.

There is little overwhelming emotion to the program, nobody breaks into tears. But the stories alone are often enough to shock, such as the childhood experiences of many of the gays. They tell of discovering their sexual differences as early as 5 or 6 years old. One young man tells of kissing other boys in the first grade, which may make even the most modern viewers squirm a bit.

“Growing Up Gay” doesn’t sensationalize the issue, it simply presents the reality. Some people are gay. They are part of our society, and they have been part of society for hundreds of years. It touches on the homophobia that still exists in America, and the viewpoint of many who feel homosexuality is unnatural, a sin. The issue of AIDS is also touched upon, but primarily as to how it affects the gay community and attitudes toward gays.

The program primarily strives to break down stereotypes. Not all the lesbian women interviewed are “butch,” nor the men effeminate.

“We have the same goals, wants, needs and desires that straight people do,” says one young man.

The success of the program will certainly depend on the preconceived attitudes of individual viewers. “Growing Up Gay” may or may not alter viewers’ points of view, but it will add to their understanding.

“You can’t understand people if you don’t listen to them,” Tuck says.

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There is no doubt the program, even in its relatively detached manner, is sympathetic to gays and the day-to-day problems their sexuality presents to them at home and in the workplace. It is a view rarely expressed on any television program, much less one produced locally.

“If AIDS is the No. 1 enemy in the gay community,” Tuck says, “intolerance is not far behind.”


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