Ryan White Interview: ‘Visible: Out on Television’
Ryan White had a daunting task when he joined Apple TV+’s “Visible: Out on Television.” The five-part documentary series chronicles the complicated evolution of LGBTQ+ representation on TV, spanning 80 years, and had already been in the works for a decade before producers David Permut and David Bender recruited White to direct.
“They finally talked to Apple before Apple TV+ had even launched and Apple loved the idea and bought the idea from them, and they brought myself on board to direct the project,” White told Gold Derby during our Meet the Experts: Documentary panel (watch above). “It was covering 80-plus years of television history that luckily Apple gave us a complete open real estate and said, ‘We don’t have a mandate on how short or long it needs to be. Just deliver us a project that you think is the appropriate time,’ so it ended up being a five-hour series.”
Each episode has a theme — “The Dark Ages,” “Television as a Tool,” “The Epidemic,” “Breakthroughs” and “The New Guard” — and mixes old footage with interviews with prominent LGBTQ+ figures and allies, such as Ellen DeGeneres, Janet Mock, Tim Gunn, Wilson Cruz and Wanda Sykes, the latter two of whom also served as executive producers. White conducted about 100 interviews, many of whom were famous names, but he also wanted to shine a light on the lesser-known activists who “were using television as a tool.”
In the ’70s, activists would storm live news programs — called zapping — weaponizing the medium for their message. “We interviewed a couple activists who stormed live news, one was the ‘Today’ show with Barbara Walters and one was Walter Cronkite’s ‘Evening News,’ where an activist named Mark Segal would sneak his way into 30 Rock like a spy, sleep in a janitor’s closet overnight, and then while Walter Cronkite was reading the nightly news, would storm in front of the camera and interrupt live television for maybe six or seven seconds until the live feed would go black,” White explained. “You have to remember, tens of millions of people were tuning into that evening news. At that time, there were only four television stations, so that type of interruption really started a dialogue around the country — positive and negative dialogue — but it was at least starting to bring visibility to the movement itself. “
While there has clearly been lots of progress in queer representation on TV since the ’40s — when so-called experts appeared on shows to denounce homosexuality — and the series ends on a hopeful note, spotlighting “Pose,” among other groundbreaking contemporary shows, White, a two-time nominee for “The Case Against 8” and “The Keepers,” hopes viewers realize that the crusade is far from over.
“I get really frustrated when our series is described as a love letter to television. I’m like, ‘If you really look at this with a microscopic lens, almost every other story is about how detrimental television was to people’s identities.’ So we were very careful about it not being a victory lap, like we’ve reached the finish line,” he said. “The LGBTQ+ spectrum is as diverse as any demographic can be and there are so many parts of that community that are completely underrepresented on television. … I think we need to see a lot more of that, especially trans men [who] are still virtually nonexistent on television, so I still think there’s a lot more work to be done, and it’s not time to be patting ourselves on the back.”