'Life': Bridging Gays and the Heartland : Television: As the New York-based show has greatly increased affiliates, it has sought to heighten understanding and show the contributions of gays and lesbians in society.

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When "In the Life" first kicked up its heels in 1992, only six public television stations in the United States chose to air the trailblazing gay and lesbian program.

But as the New York-based magazine show enters its third season this weekend, it can now be seen on nearly 60 PBS stations in cities as diverse as San Francisco, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Louisville, Ky. This growth in exposure--particularly in America's heartland--is no small feat for the first and only nationally broadcast television series reflecting gay and lesbian culture.

"A lot of (public television) stations are being run by conservative people, so it's quite a step for them to run our show," says John Catania, a producer and publicist for "In the Life." "They know they're going to get that heat (for broadcasting a gay and lesbian series), but still they've made the decision to air us. That really says something about the merit of the program."

Nevertheless, the show's more pronounced national profile hasn't made fund-raising significantly easier for its producers. Though it has received corporate funding, "In the Life" is subsidized largely through contributions from viewers and a few small foundations. Indeed, budget considerations were partly behind the decision to air four one-hour episodes this season rather than the eight half-hour programs that were broadcast last season.

"It's fund-raising from show to show," offers producer Charles Ignacio. "But miraculously, we've been able to get it done by the skin of our teeth. This new format gives us more breathing time to concentrate on fund-raising between production periods, as well as an opportunity to present some issues more in depth."

It's hardly a surprise that "In the Life" has been roundly criticized by some conservative religious groups and political figures. Before the first episode had even aired in 1992, then-Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) erroneously chastised PBS on the Senate floor for funding a gay and lesbian program. In fact, PBS has never endorsed or helped to finance the show.

One of the principal goals of "In the Life" is to heighten understanding of gays and lesbians by exposing them as a socially, vocationally and ethnically diverse group whose members can be found in all aspects of society. Included in this season's premiere episode are interviews with two employees from AT&T; and Time Warner, who discuss their experiences of being openly gay in the workplace. There is also a feature on Native American gays and lesbians and a segment on Amanda Bearse, an actress on the popular Fox sitcom "Married . . . With Children."

"It's important to show the contributions of gays and lesbians in society," remarks Catania, who is part of the do-it-yourself program's small but versatile five-person staff. "We are constantly battling (anti-gay sentiments) and all those things out there that tell us we're a drain on society. We're breaking down those stereotypes. We are in more places than people think."

"In the Life," which is hosted by Katherine Linton, a professional clown and educator who is one of the show's producers, has elicited a variety of responses from the gay and lesbian segment of its audience. Some have found the program too mainstream and wish it would flash more of the irreverent spirit that lesbian comedian Lea DeLaria brought to an early episode. But for other viewers--particularly those in areas like the Midwest and South--this type of gay and lesbian magazine show for the whole family is something of a godsend.

"I recently got a letter from a 16-year-old who sat down and watched the show with his parents," says John Scagliotti, the show's founder and executive producer. "He said the program allowed his parents to see that there's more to being gay or lesbian than sex. We've tried to develop a show that's not sensational. We want to be able to bridge the generational differences too."

* "In the Life" airs Sunday at midnight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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