‘In the Life’: Everywhere their cameras go, they seem to find gay people

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With the sound off, they look like an assortment of 35-year-old guys and a gal, standing by their barns, clambering over the fence into a hog pen, talking at the kitchen table. There are cutaways of cornfields.

Turn on the sound, and it’s still pretty subdued. In flat Wisconsin tones the people confess that they like the country life. One says he was attracted by his boyfriend’s conservative style.

With this segment, public TV’s national gay-and-lesbian newsmagazine, In the Life, “portrays Wisconsin in a very negative light and should be removed,” warned Wisconsin State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald in a press release this month. In its reply, Wisconsin PTV acknowledged Fitzgerald’s strong feelings, but stood fast in the name of “our commitment to presenting diverse voices.” In the Life went on as scheduled at 11 p.m. that Friday.

It doesn’t take much to inflame the opponents of gay civil rights. Naked dancing, rageful poetry and same-sex kisses will do it, as Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied proved in its July 1991 run on public TV, but so will six minutes of stolid interviews with hog farmers, if they’re gay hog farmers.

Parading gay activists have sent the same message with rainbow flags and rhymes — “We’re here and we’re queer” — but In the Life has specialized in presenting it in myriad variations through a newsmagazine so otherwise conventional and edgeless that it could be produced by a Rotary Club.

“More than any other program regularly airing, it presents gay and lesbian life not as a freak show or set-up for the star’s punch line but as a simple fact of life,” writes Chicago Tribune TV critic Steve Johnson.

In a season when dozens of continuing characters on primetime sitcoms and dramatic series — and soon the lead character of Ellen — are portrayed as gays or lesbians, In the Life is approaching its fifth anniversary on public TV, aired on more than 90 transmitters and rejected for twice as many.

The six hour-long episodes a year are produced by a small Manhattan nonprofit, In the Life Media Inc., and presented by WNET since the demise last year of WNYC-TV, its original co-producer.

Though In the Life’s carriage is sparse in the South, its producers have cheered as programmers picked it up in Dallas, Miami, Tampa, Houston and, most recently, Norfolk, and moved it from the wee hours to 11 p.m. in Philadelphia and Washington.

Programmers’ handling of the series demonstrates a wide range of approaches to hot-button issues and point-of-view journalism.

In St. Louis, the largest market where the show doesn’t air, KETC regularly reviews it but finds some episodes “almost like a call to action,” says Patricia Kistler, program director. KETC would have no problem with handling the topic as news, and carries one-shot gay-topic programs. “In terms of running a series,” she explains, “we feel it places the station in a position of advocacy. That is not our position on any topic.”

New Orleans also has said no. “Without question there has been great improvement,” says President Randy Feldman, echoing the view of every pubcaster who has seen the show lately. Parts are “just wonderful,” but the series is still uneven in quality and unbalanced when it gets into political issues, he says. In the Life’s political show last October “never gave the people on the other side of the issues any real chance to come back and say anything.”

Indeed, a segment about the North Carolina senatorial contest looked at it entirely from the viewpoint of activists working against anti-gay Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

The producers had written off Virginia, but Norfolk’s WHRO recently came around. In the Life debuts in Pat Robertson’s back yard next month at 12 on a Sunday night.

“It’s a program that serves a portion of the audience,” says Mary Pruess, station manager of WHRO-TV, Norfolk. “We’re not trying to take any political stance. It’s purely an audience decision” — like deciding to carry William F. Buckley’s Firing Line.

“Clearly the advocacy dimension of the program was more central [in earlier years],” Pruess said. “We reviewed it recently and felt the program had grown more inclusive, more of a magazine program and less of a political program.”

Only a few stations slot In the Life at 9 or 10, including Denver’s KBDI, a station that stands on the First Amendment, politely declining right-wing demands that programmers drop In the Life — as well as gay viewers’ insistence that they oust Rush Limbaugh’s show. (Limbaugh is off KBDI now, but only because he ended his TV show.) The station, which coproduces two weekly gay programs locally, often airs gay programs during pledge drives with great success.

“One of our strong statements in pledge drives during controversial programs is that if we don’t run at least one program a year that you strongly disapprove of, we’re not doing our job here at Channel 12,” says David Nash, director of on-air fundraising and promotions.

No taxpayer funding

Wisconsin State Sen. Fitzgerald, much like Sen. Bob Dole back in 1992, asserted that taxpayer dollars were being spent unwisely to “normalize the gay lifestyle.”

Not true, at least regarding production funds, says In the Life producer/publicist John Catania. The producers receive no money from taxpayers, CPB, PBS or the stations. Unimpressed, Fitzgerald objected that his Wisconsin PTV donations are helping broadcast the program.

For this year’s $825,000 budget, In the Life draws about 60 percent from major donors (notably the H. van Ameringen Foundation), 20 percent from a national membership of more than 4,000, and the remainder from videotape sales and other sources, says Executive Director Ben Prayz. Some donations come from “TV dinners” — fundraiser screenings in the homes of backers around the country. Playwright Terrence McNally and NPR commentator David Sedaris have thrown benefits.

John Scagliotti, producer of the gay movement documentary Before Stonewall and former program director of Pacifica’s WBAI-FM started the project, advertising for a staff in 1991 and bringing the first program to air June 9, 1992.

Just six stations carried the opener — then a musical variety show taped in front of an audience.

“When it first went on the air, it looked like Wayne’s World on PBS,” says Philadelphia Inquirer TV columnist Gail Shister. Production values were so low, the show was “painful to watch.”

Even the initial variety format had interview segments, and the show switched entirely to newsmagazine style for its second season. And in 1994, when the producers auditioned for co-hosts, they found Catherine Linton, its appealing host. “We were looking for two people,” says Chuck Ignacio, executive in charge of production. “We found the best.”

The program long ago broke away from New York and travels widely: to Montana, where gay people are daring to attend Helena’s first-ever gay pride parade; to South Bend for interviews with theologians about homosexuality and Catholicism; to Westport, Conn., where Linton looks at attitudinal changes in her old high school; to Detroit, where Chrysler workers are agitating; and to Savannah, where a local drag queen, The Lady Chablis, has sashayed into national celebrity.

Produced at first under the fiscal umbrella of the Media Network, the series has matured considerably in the last two years.

“We were operating as if we were an independent film production company, with deferred salaries and pro bono work,” says Ignacio. “As an ongoing series, it’s hard to keep asking favors.”

In mid-1995, the nonprofit put together a real board of directors, began serious fundraising and made the paychecks reliable, reducing staff turnover. The staff of nine works with freelance camera crews and sometimes with public TV stations. Milwaukee’s WMVS worked on the Wisconsin farmers segment, for instance.

And the program entered another phase of life last August when Scagliotti left his role as executive producer. Ignacio, a former HBO and WNET staffer who had been with the show all along, took charge of production. Colleagues say Scagliotti is writing a memoir of his lover, journalist Andrew Kopkind, who died three years ago.

Up ahead, the producers want to expand the series from six to eight episodes a year to qualify for scheduling as a monthly, though that would require raising at least an additional $300,000 a year.

The program today is nothing like the chaotic variety show of 1992. “We learned over the years, ‘let’s look at where we’re broadcasting the show, and tailor the program to that audience,’” says Ignacio. Not surprisingly, the producers imitate the tone of mainstream PBS nonfiction. “We’re not going to show explicit nudity or sex,” says Ignacio. “Neither would Frontline or Jim Lehrer.”

With many audiences, gay and straight, the producers “really walk a fine line to keep the stations happy, to keep the gay community happy, and quite frankly to know what our own mothers or fathers respond to,” Ignacio adds.

Linton, who handles station relations in addition to her hosting and production duties, has gotten some chilly reactions when she called programmers in the past: “You can hear the hesitancy: ‘Oh, that In the Life again, they’re still alive.’ “

But most program directors’ attitudes have shifted tremendously toward a routine producer/programmer relationship, just as mainstream television’s treatment of gay and lesbian people has changed.

She’s eager to see how Ellen DeGeneres handles her coming-out episode on ABC’s Ellen, April 30, and where the series goes from there.

“I’m coming from a family that was extraordinarily homophobic but is now extremely welcoming. I operate from there,” says Linton. “If this is happening at home, this is happening across the whole country.”