Experiment: Gay and Straight played to enthusiastic audiences around the globe in the mid-2000s; The Reporters Inc. now hopes to re-envision the project for the next generation, with new participants.
Though opinion polls continue to shift in favor of homosexual rights in the U.S., discrimination, bullying, hate crimes, and intolerance remain every-day problems for many gays and lesbians nationwide.
In 2012, the University of Illinois-Chicago asked The Reporters Inc.’s Executive Director Mark Saxenmeyer to write about Experiment: Gay and Straight; his reflections were then published in the third edition of a textbook called Race/Gender/Class/Media. Below is the complete chapter Mark wrote for the book.
Exploring Gay/Straight Relationships on Local Television News: Can It Be Done in a Meaningful, Substantive Fashion?
By Mark Saxenmeyer
The author has been a television broadcaster for 23 years, 17 of them at FOX News Chicago (WFLD-TV). In the fall of 2002, he served as executive producer of a multi-part news series (and eventual documentary) that dared to meld journalism with the increasingly popular format of reality television. Experiment: Gay And Straight was made in an effort to attract viewers to controversial subject matter involving sexuality–material they might otherwise avoid. The result proved to be enlightening and provocative, but not without controversy and critics. The author explains how the project came to be, the enormous commitment required to complete it, and the hurdles that had to be jumped along the way.
Is it truly possible to mention the words “reality TV” and “meaningful dialogue” in the same sentence If you’ve ever watched these shows–the dating shows (The Bachelor, Rock of Love) or the competition shows (Survivor, Project Runway) or the lifestyle shows (The Real Housewives of Orange County/New York/Atlanta etc.)–you might easily answer with a resounding no. In recent years, reality TV seems to have become filled with over-the-top characters (or caricatures) dropped into increasingly contrived, staged, manipulated and even scripted scenarios in order to create outlandish drama for the viewer (a.k.a. voyeur).
Yet as an admitted connoisseur of this type of entertainment programming (a.k.a. ‘junkie’) at its purest levels, I’ve always appreciated the producers’ ability to turn on the cameras, to capture non-actors (a.k.a. ‘average Joes’) speaking their minds, and to weave the results into compelling stories. Reality TV, in many respects, is simply an enhanced, amplified version of traditional non-fiction documentaries. They’re fanciful embellishments of the kind of work television journalists produce every day. Yet they’re definitely representative of the craft. For me, watching this kind of programming has always been a kind of end-of-day reprieve for me after a hectic 12 hours or so of being a ‘news guy.’
And, as said news guy, there came a time when I felt as if I’d covered almost every imaginable story in every imaginable way, and I yearned to do something different, creative, original. Such was the case in 2002 when I pitched Experiment: Gay and Straight to my bosses at FOX Chicago News.
As someone who came of age when the granddaddy of all reality shows, The Real World, premiered in the early 1990s, I wanted to create something that harkened back to the first few seasons of that series (before it devolved, in my opinion, into a show devoted to binge drinking, ‘hook-ups’ and inanity) when the young strangers who were brought together to live, work and share their lives engaged in substantive conversations that shed light on their differences, revealed their similarities, and generally helped them grow into more fully-evolved human beings.
I also wanted to emulate components of Big Brother, a show that locks up a disparate group of people inside a home for a pre-determined period of time (but for purposes other than plotting to win a cash prize by deceiving, backstabbing and ultimately eliminating fellow contestants). My goal was a bit loftier. I wanted to create and encourage an environment for ordinary Chicagoans to openly and honestly discuss and debate the serious and sometimes explosive issues involving sexuality, human rights and discrimination. To make sure they stuck to the plan, I liked the idea of sequestering them from the outside world for one entire week.
My ultimate hope was that those watching this “Experiment” might then be prompted to engage in similar dialogue in their own lives–begin similar conversations with their own friends and family members, neighbors and co-workers.
I called it reality TV with a purpose.
BUT FIRST, A RACE RELATIONS EXPERIMENT
I must explain that Experiment: Gay and Straight had a predecessor The Experiment in Black and White. Using the same kind of format described above, I produced a multi-part series and documentary dealing with race relations in the spring of 2001. Five black and five white Chicago-area residents lived together in a home for one week and, with the guidance of myself (white) and another reporter from FOX Chicago (black), engaged in lively, eye-opening debates about everything from affirmative action, slavery reparations and racial profiling, to discrimination, crime, and stereotypes.
Many journalism critics and awards panels lauded this project. The Chicago Sun-Times called it bold and eye-opening. Rarely has local television news confronted real-life prejudices with as much courage and honesty. It won a national Emmy, the national Edward R. Murrow award, and the national Scripps Howard Foundation award, among others. A judge in the latter contest declared, It brings to light racial hot points so near the surface that the revelations are both alarming and enlightening.
Still, The Experiment in Black and White was no bonanza for FOX Chicago in the all-important Nielsen ratings. Turns out that no matter how interestingly or differently or thought-provokingly the subject of race relations is presented, it’s still an automatic turn-off for some.
And, of course, the same could be said for homosexuality.
I ASKED AND, EVENTUALLY, WAS ALLOWED TO TELL
The general manager at FOX Chicago at that time was reluctant to proceed on two fronts, and perhaps surprisingly, the issue of The Experiment in Black and White’s lackluster ratings wasn’t really one of them. She and the other managers at the station were progressive thinkers who, like me, were always quick to back creative ideas. They didn’t deem the Nielsens to be the sole arbiter of quality TV or broadcasting success.
No, her first concern was monetary the cost to effectively facilitate the project. To rent a home, furnish it, and provide food for ten people for an entire week wasn’t cheap to begin with; then throw in the salaries of the staff who had to be diverted exclusively to this project for time frames ranging from five days to a month (for pre- and post-production), and the price tag grew well beyond original expectations close to $20,000 for The Experiment in Black and White. This was no drop in the bucket, even for a TV station in the third largest media market (and city) in the country during flourishing economic times.
Her second concern, however, surprised me. I’m paraphrasing here but I distinctly recall her saying something to me along the lines of: Do straight people really even have issues with gay people any more?
As a gay man myself, I responded (probably rather incredulously), Ah, yeah, they do.
In my general manager’s worldview, race relations (especially in an extraordinarily segregated city like Chicago) were much more tense and divided than gay/straight relations. She was someone who had many gay friends and had hired many gay employees who all seemed to work in perfect harmony with the straight people at our news station, so she wasn’t feeling the need for this project in quite the same way as the first Experiment.
To welcome her to the not-quite-as-enlightened world that I lived in, I rattled off some of the issues that I saw us discussing in this Experiment: gay marriage and parenting, harassment and violence, homosexuality and religion, genetic and environmental influences, whether or not being gay is a choice, whether or not gays can be “changed”, homophobia, gay sex leading to HIV and AIDS, gays on the ‘down-low’ or in the closet, gays’ impact on American culture, gays being rejected and disowned by their families, gay kids committing suicide.
I’m not sure if I just wore down her defenses, or that she ultimately just trusted me, but Experiment: Gay and Straight was given a green light.
THE PEOPLE MAKE THE PROJECT
The most important part in putting together this kind of project is the selection of the participants. I needed people who were smart, articulate, engaging, uninhibited, and unafraid to voice their opinions informed opinions. They also needed to know how to listen, and be willing to learn. This was a chance to let their guards down, to throw political correctness to the wind, to delve into subjects often considered taboo for polite discussion, and to cast away their fears about being labeled ignorant, or a hater, or perverted.
Perhaps most importantly, though, I had to make sure we weeded out closed-minded zealots or known activists with specific agendas, or this Experiment simply wouldn’t work.
It was also extremely important to me not to cast gay stereotypes, such as the overly effeminate man with a lisp, or the androgynous lesbian with a man-hating attitude. Too many reality-based programs seemed to be filled only with flamboyant, over-the-top characters that simply aren’t representative of the gay community as a whole. (Don’t get me wrong, those types do exist, and I mean them no disrespect. It’s just that reality TV seems insistent on always bringing the drama, courtesy of the drama queens.)
So, to find our participants, I put together a report announcing and explaining the project, and it aired on our newscasts. It encouraged interested viewers to apply via our station website. Within days, more than 800 people had filled out a lengthy application form I created and, from the answers they provided, I selected about 100 people to be interviewed (by both me and another FOX Chicago reporter who is straight) in person, on camera, in sessions lasting as long as 45 minutes in some cases. We then decided to introduce 28 of the strongest candidates (seven gay men, seven straight men, seven lesbians and seven straight women) to our audience through subsequent on-air reports and Internet biographies. More than 1800 viewers submitted on-line comments about the prospective housemates. And then, after extensive criminal background checks were completed, we selected our ten finalists.
The participants (all strangers to one another) were comprised of three gay men, two straight men, three straight women and two lesbians. They came from all corners of the Chicago-area, were of varied educational, socio-economic, ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds, and ranged in age from 23 to 47.
They included Darlene, whose grown son had recently been gay bashed; Larry, whose family was unwilling to acknowledge his relationship with his male partner; Frank, a new father who said he’d find it virtually impossible to accept his newborn son if he grew up to be gay; Chris, an out-and-proud college senior who refused to live his life in the closet despite finding many of his gay peers felt otherwise; Jennifer, who despite her friendships with gay men found lesbian relationships both offensive and unrealistic; Deo, a lesbian mom in search of a suitable sperm donor to father another baby for her and her partner; Brandon, a divorced father of two teenagers struggling to come to terms with the fact his wife left him for a woman; Kyla, a devoted Christian with an unwavering belief that homosexuality is a sin, as determined by God and the Bible; Andrea, an unapologetic young lesbian searching for both love and her father’s approval; and Greg, an HIV patient who had tried and failed to exorcise his homosexuality through a religion-based ‘ex-gay’ program.
LIGHTS, CAMERAS, HOUSE, ACTION
In the fall of 2002, the ten participants moved into a three-bedroom, three-bathroom house in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood on the city’s north side for seven straight days. Inside the home, they ate, slept, cooked, cleaned and socialized together; they entered the arrangement fully aware that they would be entirely cut off from the outside world–no phones, computers, newspapers, radio, television, etc.
The participants were also given daily assignments, tasks, and challenges, and were guided through in-depth conversations about sexuality–every hot button topic imaginable.
The ensuing results were recorded 24 hours a day literally– by several videographers, audio technicians, and mounted cameras. Were the housemates influenced or affected by the constant presence of these people and this equipment (the Orwellian ‘Big Brother’ angle) in their faces At first, most definitely. But after a while, they truly became accustomed, if not oblivious, to them. (The crew was not allowed to speak to, or interact with the participants.)
For me, the most moving and memorable moments of the week included:
THE IMPACT OF ISOLATION
Was it really necessary to rope this group off (the reality TV ‘Big Brother’ angle) from their normal, every day lives? Absolutely. This way, the ten participants were forced to continually confront the issues because there was truly no place for them to run or hide. (Well, except maybe into the bathroom. We didn’t allow cameras in there.)
In real life, people can up and leave a frustrating or stressful environment. Had this project instead asked participants to meet for, say, eight hours a day but allowed them to return at night to the safe haven of their homes to vent to their friends and family people who most likely shared their long-held beliefs–that allowance would have simply helped them further enforce and solidify their pre-Experiment opinions. It would have been detrimental to the mission at hand.
In our admittedly manufactured home, this makeshift family had no choice but to keep talking, keep learning, and continue evolving. And when all the other aspects of living together were thrown into the mix, like sharing a bathroom, or making dinner, or playing cards, the contentious issues and animosities eased into the background as the participants got to know each other on a personal level.
As they shared stories about their children, hobbies, jobs, and travels, the discussions about sexuality would then take on a different perspective. Differences remained, but a deeper appreciation for each other grew.
SEX SELLS, BUT DOES SEXUALITY
When the taping was completed, we left the house with 164 hours of digital Beta tapes and camcorder cassettes and began logging, examining, and molding them into the multi-part series that aired on our main newscast, and later, in an hour and a half documentary. It was an enormous and daunting challenge.
Because of the lackluster ratings that the first Experiment received, I felt pressure from the news director to make this project sing, right out of the gate. My preference would have been to start the series by introducing the participants to viewers, one by one, taking time to develop a sense of who they were and what they stood for before they even entered the house. But the boss wanted to delve immediately into some of most heated discussions and most controversial issues.
When I watch the completed project today, eight years later, I’m frustrated by some of the editing and pacing choices that were made as a result of this pressure. There is a cloying urgency to the first parts, especially. It’s as if I’m trying to convince people who might have absolutely no interest in watching to stay tuned–almost tugging at their shirt sleeves saying, Hey, this is gonna be worth your while, really! If you don’t like this part, you’re sure to get a kick out of what’s coming up in just a second! So don’t turn that channel, buddy!?
Such are the limits and drawbacks of local television news. On one hand, there’s a built-in loyal audience of thousands, accustomed to tuning in at the same time, and the same station, night after night. But in its fickle, trigger-happy hand is a remote control ready to explore umpteen other channels should boredom, unease or annoyance set in.
Even though FOX Chicago News at 9 p.m. is an hour in length (a fact that always enabled my reports to run much longer than those on competing channels), it was still difficult to bring the appropriate and necessary context and pathos to each of the individual news segments (which aired over five nights, at a total running time of nearly one hour). Experiment: Gay and Straight resonates much more strongly as a self-contained documentary, shown uninterrupted (and with an additional 45 minutes of material).
Yet sadly, that was never to beat least not on FOX Chicago. Despite all the time, the effort, the money and the hard work put into the project, the top brass at the station seemed to want to back peddle as far away from it as possible after the news series aired. The honchos chose not to have me produce a documentary version, at first asserting there were no time slots available to air it (as if we couldn’t pre-empt reruns of ‘Home Improvement’), and then later claimed it was simply too tough a sell for advertisers to support.
I was furious. The facts, I felt, suggested otherwise.
THE VIEWERS AND THE CRITICS REACT
The all-important newscast Nielsen ratings for Experiment: Gay and Straight were decent, especially in the coveted, advertiser-desired younger demographics (highest in women ages 18-34, and all ages between 12-24). As for total household numbers, the final segment of the series garnered a 4% share of the audience watching television at that time, and a 5 rating (one ratings point in Chicago was equal to about 35,000 households translating into about 175,00 homes tuned into Experiment: Gay and Straight). And most importantly, there was no perceivable drop-off of viewers during the newscast when the segments aired (over the course of five straight nights in November 2002).
Overall, the viewer response was phenomenally supportive. The housemates each received hundreds of personal e-mails (we set up individual addresses for them on our website), and the station received well over a thousand. These are numbers that are virtually unheard of, in terms of reaction to a single subject.
Here’s a sampling of quotes from positive viewer e-mails:
Following the broadcasts, the ten housemates and I were invited to speak about the project on radio stations, at high schools, universities, and at a wide variety of gay and lesbian organizations.
Coverage of the series by other media was extensive, with generally favorable articles written about it in gay publications such as The Windy City Times, The Chicago Free Press, She, Instinct and The Advocate (which called it a milestone in TV’s treatment of the issue), as well as mainstream print and web-based press like the Chicago Sun-Times, Red Streak, Electronic Media, People, and USA Today.
In a statement, The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) weighed in, writing, Shows such as Experiment: Gay and Straight are important because they offer those outside the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) and allied communities the opportunity to contemplate issues they otherwise might not.
The news series won regional awards from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (the Emmy award), the Associated Press, and the Society of Professional Journalists. The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association also honored it with one of its annual Siegenthaler broadcasting awards.
American Journalism Review (AJR) wrote, Reporter Mark Saxenmeyer knows full well the traditional news brigade will scoff themselves silly over this and he doesn’t seem to care. What matters, Saxenmeyer says, is that people actually watch the thing, and maybe even lose a prejudice or two. A reality show, he says, is the bait to lure viewers to the substance.
And sure enough, those traditionalists did indeed weigh in. The Chicago Tribune’s media columnist, Steve Johnson, told AJR, It’s as if I enlisted somebody to run through downtown Chicago in a chicken suit, then presented it as a news story. There are probably more responsible ways to address gay versus straight issues rather than jamming people together and waiting for the fireworks.
Of course, some viewers weren’t fans either:
My final response to the critics: Yep, I definitely took an unorthodox approach. It’s because I believed (both then, and most definitely now) that most television news and its coverage of serious-minded subject matter is usually stale, dull, and redundant. Experiment: Gay and Straight was a fresh voice, an intriguing alternative, delivered with integrity, and poised to redefine the parameters of substantive journalism.
One might call the Experiment a gimmick, and I will readily cop to that assessment, but it’s a gimmick that helped both our participants and our viewers scrutinize their belief systems and thought processes in a way never before attempted by a local television news station.
SO, I’M DOING IT ANYWAY
Just because FOX Chicago didn’t want a documentary didn’t mean I wasn’t going to make one. On my own time I poured through the logs of all our tapes and wrote the 90-minute version of Experiment: Gay and Straight over the course of several weeks. Out of my own pocket, I spent thousands of dollars to pay videotape editors to help construct it, and to advertise and promote it. It eventually aired (with FOX Chicago’s permission), on CAN-TV, a cable access channel in Chicago. It was shown several times. (There was interest from the local PBS affiliate to air it, but FOX refused calling that station competition– whereas CAN-TV was deemed to be essentially irrelevant.)
I then entered the documentary into gay and lesbian-themed film festivals around the world. It was accepted and shown in Auckland, Austin, Breckenridge, Brussels, Cape Town, Dallas, Denver, Durban, Erie, Johannesburg, Memphis, Montreal, Orlando, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C. Experiment: Gay and Straight was named by audiences as one of the “Best Documentary” winners in Indianapolis, and both Best Documentary and Best “Feel-Good Film” winner in Sydney. It won the jury prize for best documentary in New Orleans.
As a result of the exposure from the festival circuit, I was approached by three different home video companies, and once by Canadian Television executives, interested in both buying and re-broadcasting the program but, unfortunately, due to the usage of contemporary music in the production, it would have been cost-prohibitive to attain the rights to those songs for widespread distribution.
The documentary won national awards like the “American Scene” prize from the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA); the National Accolade Competition (honoring outstanding craft and creativity in film, video, TV and commercials) gave it top honors in the category of contemporary issues/awareness raising. It also won the Gracie Allen Award from the American Women in Radio and Television (best reality television program), a Hugo Award from the Chicago International Television Competition (educational/adult audience category), and the national Unity Award in Media from Lincoln University of Missouri (outstanding public affairs/social issues reporting).
When all was said and done, I felt more than vindicated. To bring this vision to such incredible fruition was not only empowering, it was–without a doubt–the high point of my broadcasting career thus far.
A LASTING IMPACT
More than eight years after this groundbreaking project premiered, it continues to have an impact, resonating with people all over the globe.
In the 2006 book, The New Queer Aesthetic on Television, contributing author Christopher Pullen, a lecturer and researcher in media, gender and performance at Bournemouth University in England, wrote a chapter entitled ‘Gay Performativity’ and Reality Television: Alliances, Competition, and Discourse. In it, he postulates that In order to build upon the ‘anthropological bedrock’ provided by shows with gay participants like The Real World, the gay performative presence of shows needs to be contextualized within a more welcoming environment. In this way, the inheritors of gay performance and transgressive reality television may be shows like Experiment: Gay and Straight.
He continues, Rather than being tension- or formula-based Experiment: Gay and Straight emphasizes education and understanding as the operative element in producing harmony.
In fact, hundreds of educators from churches, workplaces, schools and universities throughout Chicago, Illinois, across the nation, and around the globe (in places like England, Holland, Australia, Poland and Venezuela) use the program in sexuality, psychology, sociology, journalism, conflict resolution, and diversity/sensitivity training classes. (Yes, it’s been translated into other languages or subtitled.) And PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapters around the country keep Experiment: Gay and Straight in their libraries, hold showings, and facilitate discussions about it at their meetings.
As Pullen noted in his own 2007 book, entitled Documenting Gay Men: Identity and Performance in Reality Television and Documentary Film, Experiment: Gay and Straight positions the relationship between parent and child as the essential building block in attempting to reform dominant ideas concerning the acceptance of homosexuality.
Pullen’s assessment of the production in this book also includes this nugget: While religion is foregrounded as a sensitive topic of concern for those opposed to gay rights, the (documentary) reveals that those who use such debates as a tool for subjugation do so in a simplistic manner, and consequently ideas surrounding opposition to gay integration cannot be built on such emotional and contested ideology.
At the same time, Pullen acknowledges my concerted attempt to be fair, and give equal time to every housemate’s opinion. He writes, Experiment: Gay and Straight presents a range of disparate individuals who engage in discursive exchanges which do not necessarily result in any conclusion; it is a free-flowing exchange.
There’s no doubt that many issues were left unresolved when the participants ended their week together. But there’s also no doubt that rational compromises were made. And there’s absolutely no doubt that both the gay and straight participants in this project, and the gay and straight audience members that watched it (and continue to watch it), gained a better understanding of one another. In the end, Experiment: Gay and Straight was simply about bridging a divide. Reality television, sprinkled with a healthy dose of journalism, can indeed have a purpose.
IT’S YOUR TURN: WHAT DO YOU THINK WHAT WILL YOU FIND
1) Does this kind of reality TV-based project truly have a place on a nightly local television newscast? Why or why not?
2) What other divisive social issues and subjects, if any, could you see the Experiment format tackling in a meaningful way?
3) What do you consider to be the benefits, as well as the drawbacks, of sequestering the participants for this project?
4) How do you think the constant presence of cameras, microphones and producers (and the knowledge their views and actions would be televised) might have affected the participants discussions and reactions?
5) What is your perception of the way gay and lesbian participants on reality television shows are typically depicted?
Feder, R. (2001, July 13) Why Barbarians killed Bozo; Fox reprises racial Experiment (p. 53). Chicago Sun-Times.
Lehoczky, E. (2002, October 29). Reality TV gets serious. The Advocate.
Young, M. (2002, November 14). Chicago FOX Affiliate to Highlight Gay Issues in The Experiment: Gay & Straight. GLAAD Call to Action E-Newsletter.
Rosen, J. (2002, October). Dose of Reality. American Journalism Review.
Pullen, C. (2006). Gay Performativity and Reality Television: Alliances, Competition, and Discourse (p. 173). The New Queer Aesthetic on Television. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.
Pullen, C. (2007). Documenting Gay Men: Identity and Performance in Reality Television and Documentary Film (pp.174-175). North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.