Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Political Economy of Queer Eye

Posted by AmishThrasher at 8:25 am
Edison: Founder of GE: The parent of NBC.
In my first analysis of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” (Queer Eye), I looked at it from the textual perspective of discourse. In this second analysis, I want to look beyond the text, and look at the broader socio-political environment that can shape a show like Queer Eye. Thus, I am posing myself the question “Going beyond the outrage, what is the broader economic and political environment that shapes a show like Queer Eye, both in the USA and Australia?” I will divide this essay into two halves. In the first, I will look at the socio-political environment in the United States, where the show originates from, and is filmed. In the second half, I will look at the socio-political environment in Australia at Network Ten, and why it would air it.

In popular discourse about the media, one of the main recurring questions is how media ownership affects media content and bias. The Marxist and political economy frameworks allow us to ask such questions about a media form like ‘popular factual entertainment’ (PFE), or the context of a particular text like Queer Eye. Certainly, if we want to ‘look beyond the outrage’, we need to examine why texts are constructed in a particular manner, and media ownership is a possible factor in this. Out of these two possible frameworks, I chose the latter for several reasons. The Marxist framework has a tendency to assume texts have a fixed message, with a ‘hypodermic needle’ approach to how ‘viewers’ ‘receive’ meanings. I believe that the public is sophisticated enough to construct their own meanings for texts, however there may be a degree of economic determinism in the construction of such texts, or in media companies choosing to produce and air certain texts over others.

To produce this political economy analysis, I will use the archival method. This is primarily due to limited resources(1), and because use of business documents and articles appears to be generally acceptable for political economy research. Due to the internet, access to such documents is also greatly improved, thus it is a practical methodology.

In the United States
Queer Eye airs on a channel named Bravo. I will first look at this channel, and then its parent companies.

According to Bravo’s website(2), “Bravo, an NBC Cable Network, was the first service dedicated to film and the performing arts. Launched in December 1980, Bravo is now seen in more than 75 million households... Its schedule features original programming, feature films, theater, dance, music and documentaries. The network boasts groundbreaking original programming including Queer Eye…”(3). In other words, Bravo is a channel dedicated to ‘high brow’ entertainment; it is a performing arts channel. According to Jerry McKenna(4), “Bravo does have good demographics. As long as they focus on that high-end demographic, NBC ownership can help Bravo's prime ratings”(5). David Zaslav(6) has stated “We don't see Bravo as a broad entertainment service”(7), and that “The challenge for cable services in the future that don't have a niche, that aren't true to a brand, is going to be lot more difficult and torturous than services that have a clear identity and a brand”(8). So Bravo is a niche, performing arts and culture channel, positioned for an upmarket audience. It is a channel targeted at an audience of educated, upper-middle class professionals with large disposable incomes; assumably a lucrative audience for advertisers.

This positioning of Bravo does impact its programming, even according to Bravo / NBC executives. According to Zaslav “Jeff Zucker and the NBC programming crew are really going to focus on and figure out how to enhance what Bravo is today”(9). Given this, it is not too much of a logical leap to suggest that an American cable network, undertaking a concerted effort to enhance its image as an upmarket, niche performing arts channel, chose to air Queer Eye to further this end. So to some degree – perhaps even to the point of primary and secondary discourses used – was shaped by this economic end. Such a view is backed up by Jeff Gaspin(10), who stated “…I've developed some shows that are quite alternative. I'm not quite sure they're going to work on the [NBC] network. Then I think to myself, for Bravo, they could really be interesting”(11). Certainly, Queer Eye was developed in-house at NBC / Bravo; “The series was created by David Collins, a gay man, and developed by David Metzler, a straight man – ‘David & David’ as they are referred to in-house at Bravo”(12). If the goals were those stated above, according to Stacey Lynn Koerner(13), Queer Eye has achieved its aims. Koerner stated “Bravo is on the map because of Queer Eye. With Queer Eye, they became known as a place for more high-profile series original series”(14).

But, if Queer Eye was shaped by Bravo, several other questions emerge. Obviously, Bravo does not exist in a vacuum, and there are three reasons why Bravo exists as a niche culture channel rather than as ‘a broad entertainment service’. The first is basic supply and demand: a lucrative demographic demands a channel, and if it doesn’t get supplied by NBC, it will be supplied elsewhere. The second is contractual obligations to cable TV providers, whereby “NBC has to keep insisting it won't change Bravo's format or do a lot of repurposing, because affiliation deals with distributors could be reopened in the event of major changes in programming”(15). And the third may be its parent company, NBC Universal (recently formed through the merger between NBC and Vivendi Universal) and its parent company, General Electric (GE).

NBC Universal
In the months prior to writing this essay, Bravo’s parent company, NBC, had been involved in a multi-billion dollar merger. According to Reuters, “GE moved to merge its television network with Vivendi's Universal Studios, theme parks and cable networks during October 2003, in a deal worth about $43 billion”(16). According to a press release, “The new company is 80-percent owned by [GE], NBC's parent company, with 20 percent held by Vivendi Universal”17. The newly formed NBC Universal would be “under NBC control. It would be the world's sixth-largest media company”(18). Prior to the merger, NBC was the “only broadcast network without major film and TV production units”(19). In short, the NBC – Vivendi Universal merger is a near textbook example of media consolidation.

Bravo being owned by NBC has had implications for Queer Eye in the past, and NBC Universal may have further implications in the future. According to the LA Times, NBC has been known for cross promotion:

“When it comes to lavishly promoting its own shows, General Electric Co.'s NBC has pulled out the stops — even using news programs like ‘Dateline’ and ‘Today’ to feature segments from sitcoms, including ‘Friends’ and ‘Frasier.’ And that was before GE officially closed its acquisition Wednesday of Vivendi Universal's U.S. entertainment assets.”(20)

The article notes that “the management of the combined company seems delighted with the promotional firepower of its enterprise”(21), indicating that there will perhaps be more cross promotion in the future, given that Zucker noted it “is one of the things that we have proven we know how to do and we're good at”(22). Some previous examples of cross promotion involving Queer Eye in the past include “Back-scratching references built into dialogue including… the ‘Law & Order’ detective team making a crack about Bravo's ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’”(23). Another example is when “double play for several episodes of ‘Queer Eye,’ first on the cable channel, then NBC, a strategy that helped make it a cable hit”(24). So, at the level of Bravo’s parent company, there are factors that can shape a PFE show like Queer Eye. But even NBC-Universal exists in a broader context – that of perhaps the world’s largest transnational corporation, General Electric.

General Electric
As of March 7th, 2004, General Electric was the world’s largest company in terms on market capitalization(25),(26), and brand equity(27). Aside from its investment in NBC Universal, it also owns residential appliance, lighting, consumer electronics, storage, and home security businesses(28). Secondly, it also owns military and commercial automotive, aviation, energy, healthcare, retail, and transportation businesses(29). Finally, it also has a major financial services business(30); it is a very diversified transnational corporation. And it is a corporation that, given its businesses, would benefit greatly from a culture of consumerism.

As stated above, General Electric has a massive investment in its brand. In fact, their brand apparently represents 17.74% of their market capitalization, at a value of US $25.25 Billion(31), and part of maintaining such a brand is good public relations. To this end, a section of their website proclaims “GE recognizes that part of being a successful and well-respected company is being socially responsible”(32). While many may argue the ‘social responsibility’ of owning weapons divisions, it is clear that GE wants to present themselves as being ‘socially responsible’. Note that choosing to construct such a representation for the company may be a reaction, in part, to identity politics; and as such can be viewed as both a political and, an economic decision.

Part of this image of social responsibility they want to portray includes diversity, stating “The company thrives on sharing information across borders to gather feedback from all employees in the countries where we do business”(33), and “GE offers numerous leadership programs, networking groups and forums - all help GE stay on top of the game when it comes to diversity and social responsibility”(34),(35). Another section of their website proclaimed “GE is proud to sponsor ‘The Battle for America's Schools: How the Children Won and Lost,’ a one hour special airing Sunday evening at 10 p.m. EDT on MSNBC. The program tells the story of the school children who risked everything they had by initiating a walk-out at their high school in Prince Edwards Country, Virginia, in 1951”(36). The last quote is particularly interesting, as it shows that General Electric – the parent company – is willing to ‘sponsor’ programs, on its cable networks, that present it as ‘supporting diversity’. Particularly interesting, given that its Bravo network airs shows like Queer Eye, which could be read as promoting consumerism, and ‘supporting diversity’. Perhaps Bravo is more valuable to its parent companies as a niche channel than as another ‘general entertainment’ channel?

Possible Impact on Discourse
At this point, we have seen how channels, media conglomerates, and transnational corporations can shape media texts. Before examining why Network Ten airs Queer Eye, we should first examine how this may have affected discourse, both at the level of discursive repertoire, and product placement in individual lines. Note this is based on my first assignment.

For instance, the discursive repertoires of ‘socio economics’ and ‘how to present yourself as being of a class through brand’ could be seen as a bi-product of Bravo’s market positioning. Similarly, the primary discourses of homosexuality and heterosexuality may be the product of a network owned by a transnational corporation keen to present itself as being ‘socially responsible’ when it comes to diversity.

Similarly, when the discourses of brand, and unbranded materials and fabrics are examined line-by-line, we can see some potential economic significance. One glaring feature of Queer Eye’s emphasis on brand is that it presents opportunities for product placement, both for GE, and for advertising. An example of this is the Thom line “The lighting in this house costs less than a pack of cigarettes”(37); interesting taken in the context that GE owns a lighting division.

In Australia
Now we have seen how economic and political (in the form of the public relations of a transnational corporation) have shaped a PFE program like Queer Eye. But what corporate politics, and economic circumstances, have seen the show on Network Ten in Australia?

Queer Eye, like other NBC Universal content, is formatted and distributed internationally “under the watch of distribution division NBC Enterprises” (NBCE) (38). According to Leslie Jones(39), “David & David will be involved in choosing the talent in all the territories in which we (format) the series, but we can't spread them too thin. ... In some territories, they will play more of a consulting, back-seat role”(40). So even overseas, where the show format is sold, the creators of the original Bravo series play some sort of role.

Where this story, in Australia, becomes interesting is when we note that NBCE has a working relationship with Seven Network. According to Jones, “NBCE has a program output deal in Australia with Network Seven under which the bulk of its product goes to Seven. But, Jones said, ‘This was one of those shows that did not automatically fall under the output deal.’ NBCE negotiated with Seven for an extended period before looking to offers that had come in from other networks”(41). Tim Worner, Seven’s programming and production director, in a comment he probably now regrets, told Variety Magazine at the time that “Given we have the rights to a makeover program, ‘What Not To Wear’, which is performing strongly in the U.K. and the U.S., and other concepts which we believe offer significant potential, we have taken the view that the cost of ‘Queer Eye’ outweighs the eventual value of this concept -- in particular its viability as a long-term franchise”.(42) My reading about what Worner meant by this is that ‘What Not To Wear’ was a better fit for Seven’s brand image, and came at a better price.

Seven’s loss was Ten’s gain as, in spite of the NBC Entertainment deal, Queer Eye ended up going to the CanWest Global(43) (CWG) controlled Network Ten. It is interesting to note that Worner’s counterpart at Ten, Tim Clucas, notes that Queer Eye is “aimed at and very effectively hits a straight audience”(44). According to Helen Razer, “reminds us that commercial television programs are made and purchased for their appeal to a broad audience and not for astute things they may have to say about contemporary queerness”(45). So, to this end, Ten’s motivation (while economic) is quite different to what the original motivation of Bravo / NBC Universal / General Electric was in creating the program, and thus may be presented to Australian audiences differently to how it is presented on Bravo.

Ten, like Bravo in the United States, has also been shaped by a conglomerate in CWG, and (in turn) its former controlling party, Israel (Izzy) Asper. A quote acknowledging this came from Nick Faloon(46), who stated “It was Izzy Asper's vision, entrepreneurial flair and determination which laid the foundations for Ten to become Australia's most profitable television business”(47).

Returning to the question, then, what is the broader political and economic environment that shapes a program like Queer eye? We have seen several. First, there is the parent company – or main shareholder – of a media conglomerate (like GE, with its multi-billion dollar brand), and the original network (in this example, Bravo) with its brand, and niche. Its media conglomerate (NBC Universal) cross-promotes the program, and distributes / formats it overseas (NBCE). If the program and format is rejected by one foreign network (Seven), it may be picked up by another network (Ten), whose owner sees a fit with its budget, and network placement. Each of these steps may shape a text in its construction, discourse, marketing, or whether it airs in a particular market at all, and in what timeslot.

Referemces and End Notes
(1)Note: if anyone wants to sponsor me on a ‘research’ trip to New York and New Jersey I will happily attempt another method.
(3)Bravo, “About Bravo”, , Upload date not supplied, Downloaded 17th / 5 / 2004.
(4)Cable company CableOne’s Vice President of Strategic Marketing.
(5)Moss, Linda, and Umstead, Thomas, “Ops: We don’t want a ‘dumping ground’”, MultiChannel News, , Uploaded 11 / 11 / 2002, Downloaded 20/5/2004.
(6)The president of NBC cable.
(7)Moss, Linda, and Umstead, Thomas, op. cit.
(10) An NBC programming executive.
(11) Moss, Linda, and Umstead, Thomas, op. cit.
(12) Brennan, Steve, “'Queer': Fab 5 go global”, Hollywood Reporter, , Uploaded Sep. 09, 2003, Downloaded 20/5/2004.
(13) A researcher for media firm Initiative.
(14) Keveney, Bill, “Bravo has eye for ‘Straight Girl’”, USA Today, , Uploaded 6th / 4th / 2004, Downloaded 20/5/2004.
(15) Moss, Thomas, and Umstead, Thomas.
(16) Reuters, “NBC, Vivendi merger gets FTC nod”, Reuters,§ion=news , Uploaded Tuesday April 20th, 2004, 4:32 PM US ET., Downloaded 17th / 5th / 2004.
(17) PR Newswire, , New York City, NY, USA, Uploaded May 12th, 2004, Downloaded 17th / 5th / 2004.
(18) O’Donnell, Jayne, “NBC, Vivendi merger hits possible snag”, USA Today, Uploaded 21st/12th/2003, Downloaded 17th / 5th / 2004.
(19) ibid.
(20) Jensen, Elizabeth, “NBC welcomes promotion synergy”, Los Angeles Times,,1,3048046.story?coll=la-headlines-business , New York City, NY, USA, Uploaded May 14th, 2004, Downloaded 20/5/2004.
(21) ibid.
(22) ibid.
(23) ibid.
(24) ibid.
(25) Glassman, James K., " Dividends more dandy", Washington Post,, Uploaded Sunday, March 7, 2004; Page F01, Downloaded 20/5/2004.
(26) Wikipedia, “General Electric”, , continuously uploaded, Downloaded 20/5/2004.
(27) Callahan, Sean, “Highest brand equity: General Electric”, BtoBOnline.COM, , Uploaded May 03, 2004, Downloaded 20/5/2004.
(28) GE, “General Electric: Products and solutions: For your home ”, , Upload date not supplied, Downloaded 17th / 5 / 2004.
(29) GE, “General Electric: Products and solutions: For your business”, , Upload date not supplied, Downloaded 17th / 5 / 2004.
(30) GE, “General Electric: Financial services”, , Upload date not supplied, Downloaded 17th / 5 / 2004.
(31) Callahan, Sean, Op. Cit.
(32) GE, “General Electric: Our commitment: Social performance”, , Upload date not supplied, Downloaded 5/6/2004.
(33) GE, “General Electric: Our commitment: Diversity”, , Upload date not supplied, Downloaded 5/6/2004.
(34) ibid.
(35) They might sell weapons that can blow you up, but they care about your culture while they do it.
(36) GE, “General Electric: Focus on education”, , Upload date not supplied, Downloaded 5/6/2004.
(37) Bravo, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”, 2003, New York, NY / New Jersey, as aired on Channel Ten, April 12th, 2004.
(38) Brennan, Steve.
(39) NBCE international sales director.
(40) Brennan, Steve, op. cit.
(41) ibid.
(42) Rogers, Steve, “NBC licenses Australian rights to Bravo's 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy' to Network 10”,, , Uploaded 09/09/2003, Downloaded 5/6/2004.
(43) AAP, “Ten watches numbers grow”,,,4057,7498229%255E462,00.html , Upload date not supplied, Downloaded 5/6/2004.
(44) Razer, Helen, “Noticed anything queer?”, The Age, Uploaded December 31, 2003, Downloaded 5/6/2004.
(45) ibid.
(46) Ten’s executive chairman.
(47) AAP, “Ten watches numbers grow”.