In 1990s America, which is surely as close to paradise as the world's gay community will come, it may seem absurd that the sexuality of a sitcom star has sparked a national debate. When homosexuality is tolerated in all but the most backward parts of Little America, and openly celebrated in San Francisco, New York and certain neighbourhoods in most urban areas, one may wonder what the fuss regarding the TV show Ellen is all about. Nowhere else in the world can gay men and women enjoy such personal and legal liberation, including having their same-sex partners included as if they were legal spouses on employment benefits such as health insurance. Even the most liberal parts of Western Europe seem two decades out of date in comparison. While gay activists will argue that homosexuals are the target of severe discrimination in the United States as in the rest of the world, they could hardly deny that the fruits of personal liberty as guaranteed under the US Constitution have made America the place where persecuted gays tend to flock from their countries of birth. But here is the scenario: Ellen DeGeneres, a comedienne-turned actress who for years was assumed to be gay, persuades her bosses at ABC to revive the fortunes of her successful - but recently flagging - prime-time sitcom by adding a plot line where the main character discovers she is a lesbian. ABC, owned by Disney - whose business mainstays Mickey Mouse and Pluto have no sexual demons to exorcise - is keen on the idea, if only to boost the show's ratings in time for the spring sweeps, the period where high viewer figures are manipulated to boost advertising revenues. But executives dither for months, their brows furrowed in many a Hollywood smoke-free room, until they finally give the green light. The resulting media furore has made the April 30 episode where the 'Pauline Conversion' takes place one of the biggest TV events of the year; a veritable Superbowl and O J Simpson verdict rolled into one extravaganza of hype. Having belatedly signed off on the idea, ABC/Disney is now ploughing enormous resources into the show - turning it from the regular half-hour into a 60-minute programme, and having big name stars such as Oprah Winfrey, Demi Moore and Laura Dern (as the object of Ellen's lust) to play cameo roles. And this week, DeGeneres makes her own metamorphosis from one of the many celebrities merely whispered to be gay to one who emerges from the closet on the cover of Time magazine, which makes its own bid for tabloid status with Ellen's 'exclusive' admission on the cover. Whether the public really care a fig for Ellen's simultaneous fact-and-fiction conversion, or whether the whole episode is a quick-buck deal manufactured in collusion with the media and ABC is open to question; what is certain is that it says a great deal more about the entertainment industry, and particularly the fickle world of TV, than it does about the public perception of homosexuality. Countries which have a less liberal attitude towards homosexuals than America very often are much more candid about portraying gay people in their various media. This paradox is created in the US, where TV has often lagged way behind the changing morality of the nation as a whole. In the 50s, when America was already well on the way to the great sexual liberation movement of the next decade, producers of the iconic I Love Lucy would not let the stars even use the word 'pregnant' to describe the plot in which Lucille Ball was, euphemistically, 'having a baby'. Then, in 1968, jaws allegedly dropped when Captain Kirk's log was changed forever by the on-screen kiss the Star Trek commander shared with his black crew member, Uhura - even though mixed-race relationships had become a fact of life years before (just ask Thomas Jefferson). As recently as 1991, the Murphy Brown sitcom belatedly recognised the reality of one-parent families; although on that occasion, the man who looked particularly foolish was vice-president Dan Quayle, for trying to raise moral fire and brimstone for electoral purposes. TV companies are not completely behind the times and, in the name of the obligatory political correctness, have populated many prime-time dramas and comedies with gay characters; however, the placing of a gay theme at the centre of the plot is what is seen as daring. Some TV executives have not forgotten the US$1 million (HK$7.74 million) loss ABC took on an episode of the drama Thirtysomething after sponsors pulled ads from a show depicting two gay men talking in bed. But it is almost certainly this usually-unfounded fear of advertisers' revenge which has so often held the men with cigars back from taking risks. Had DeGeneres not wielded such power as executive producer of her show, it is unlikely her bosses would have taken kindly to what is, after all, a fairly mild plot twist. And the same executives seem to mistake the conservative whims of a few family-values companies for the general view of the corporate world and the public, just as liberals tend to assume that bible-bashing Christians comprise the majority view in the Republican party. Even though a couple of companies refused to be associated with the April 30 show, ABC and Disney know that other advertisers will step into the breach in what will be a top-rated broadcast, that they can already taste the end-of-year profits. Quite what happens next for Ellen is unclear, and how the lesbian theme matures over time is likely to be an interesting test case. And not all commentators are positive. Luckily, DeGeneres' sense of humour is keeping everyone down to earth. 'Maybe I'll find something even bigger to do later on,' she told Time magazine. 'Maybe I'll become black.'