In December, after 20 years on television, In the Life Media will air the last episode of its pioneering LGBT-focused show In the Life.
Premiering in 1992 on six public television stations, In the Life entered a media landscape with little to no portrayals of LGBT individuals. Melissa Etheridge had yet to come out; Roseanne had yet to air its controversial lesbian kiss episode, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell;" Pedro Zamora had not yet appeared on The Real World; and it would still be five years before Ellen DeGeneres would come out.
"Just the idea of putting LGBT people on TV was radical," explained Ellen Carton, In the Life Media interim executive director.
Carton said that LGBT individuals were practically invisible when the show was being developed. If an LGBT character or real-life person was shown, it was typically as a spectacle or during sweeps week.
In the Life was a way to begin to bring real-life LGBT people and their families into living rooms across the country through in-depth portrayals, with the people behind the show hoping the exposure would serve as a catalyst for change.
Today, In the Life airs on 76 public TV stations. It has shared the lives and stories of many different types of LGBT people, and has tackled numerous issues, including HIV/AIDS, bullying and trans-related issues. Carton said it was also the first to expose the high rates of homelessness among LGBT youth to a mainstream audience.
It is a two time Emmy Awards nominee, was a 25th Annual Webby Award nominee, is the recipient of The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Ribbon of Hope Award, of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's 2011 Excellence in HIV/AIDS Courage Award, among other awards and nominations.
In addition, the show has saved at least one life, probably more.
Carton shared the following email from Dan Karslake, former In the Life producer, "The day after my first In the Life piece aired, I got an email from a gay kid in Iowa. I don't know how old he was, but I had the sense that he was a teenager. And it was five lines long. He said, 'Last week, I bought the gun. Yesterday, I wrote the note. Last night, I happened to see In the Life on PBS, and just knowing that someday I could go back into a church with my head held high, I threw the gun into the river. My mom never has to know."
As the show prepares to say goodbye, Carton mentioned that this year's fall prime-time television line-up includes several shows with LGBT characters, and is being tagged as "gay is the new normal."
GLAAD's 2012-2013 "Where We Are on TV" report proves Carton right. The report came out earlier this month and notes that this year is set to have the highest representation of LGBT characters on primetime television. In 2011-2012, LGBT characters made up only 2.9 percent of regularly featured characters on the five broadcast stations; this year that number has climbed to 4.4 percent.
Still, there is room for improvement, Carton noted. She points to the disproportionate portrayal of gay white men and the overwhelming focus on gay marriage over other LGBT-related issues, which she said go mostly ignored.
There is no doubt that In the Life will leave a hole in the media landscape. However, the show will not entirely disappear. Instead, In the Life Media plans to create a media hub where thousands of hours of footage from the show will be available and people will be able to add and share their own stories. Carton said the site would be an open source, interactive resource for the LGBT community.
The final In the Life episode is still being developed, but Carton said it will be a retrospective and will feature comedian Kate Clinton, who also appeared on the very first episode of the show.