And assuming that Willow's new girlfriend Kennedy (played by Iyari Limon) comes along for the ride, things get even dicier for the networks–since then the series won't just revolve around a lesbian, but a lesbian in a relationship. And if there's anything scarier to the networks than a recurring lesbian character, it's a recurring lesbian character having sex.
Kennedy has gradually emerged as a strong character on Buffy over the second half of the last season, however, and the increasing amount of screen time devoted to her character is an indication that Whedon may be considering Kennedy for inclusion in a Willow spin-off, as well–or even revolving the spin-off around her instead (i.e. Kennedy the Vampire Slayer).
Regardless, either a Willow or a Kennedy spin-off would present similar challenges to the networks in terms of estimating the risk and reward, since it would be the first lesbian-led series on primetime network television.
Some may be tempted to gauge the likely success of Willow (or Kennedy) the series by comparing it to Ellen Degeneres' attempt at a lesbian-centered show in 1997, but it is the difference between these two shows that provides hope for Willow.
First, Ellen was a sitcom, while Willow would be a drama–and dramas are traditionally allowed much more leeway in terms of risque content. Also, Buffy fans (the demographic for Willow) tend to skew younger and thus more gay-positive than Ellen's did.
Then there is the cable factor: during Ellen's heyday, networks did not yet have to compete with the cable and premium stations for viewers, and envelope-pushing shows like Queer as Folk and The Shield had not yet debuted. Add the reality-TV show craze into the mix, and you have an environment where the networks are desperate for viewers in an increasingly fragmented market.
And, finally, it's 2003, not 1997, and American attitudes towards homosexuality on television have improved somewhat in the last five years–thanks in part to network shows like Ellen, cable shows like Queer as Folk, and reality shows like MTV's The Real World. The upcoming premiere of the all-lesbian series The L Word on Showtime is further proof of this–although it remains to be seen whether Earthlings will be successful, it was unthinkable five years ago that anyone would even try to sell a show about a bunch of lesbians.
The bottom line is, when on any given night you can turn on the TV and see ex-porn stars wooing fake millionaires, "good" cops bribing judges and blackmailing other cops, and gay men participating in orgies, monogamous lesbian characters just don't seem so risque anymore.
Of course, if the current climate was really all that pro-lesbian, the lesbian relationship on ER wouldn't be getting less and less screen time, the lesbian teen on All My Children would actually have a girlfriend, and you wouldn't continue to see every lesbian couple on TV reduced to a storyline about trying to have a child.
But in this increasingly competitive and increasingly permissive environment, a Willow-type spin-off is more likely than it has even been to be accepted by the networks, or at least tested. It's probably not their first choice, though–in fact, UPN is probably right now trying to convince Whedon to come up with another option, or to stack the spin-off with so many straight characters that audiences won't notice the lesbian part.
It's worth remembering, however, that when Whedon first shopped Buffy around, the networks laughed at the idea that audiences would respond to a show revolving around a teenage girl who battled evil; seven years later, no one's laughing anymore and the networks have since scrambled to copy this formula (with shows like Alias and Witchblade and female-led crime dramas like Crossing Jordan and a few pilots currently in development for next fall).
If Whedon creates a Willow or Kennedy spin-off and the actresses are on board, maybe in a few years we'll be looking back at this series in the same way–as the one that proved it is possible to create a successful drama around a lesbian character, after all.
March 13 Update: TV Guide just published an article speculating on whether Willow's cross-over appearance on Angel this month is a sign that Whedon & co. are considering her for a spin-off. Although Whedon agrees that "the concept sounds cool," he insists "There's nothing to suggest [a Willow spin-off in this episode]."
March 21 Update: it's sounding increasingly unlikely that a Buffy spin-off of any sort will premiere in the fall, but that doesn't rule out a mid-season start date—if Whedon even decides to do a spin-off. In a recent talk at a university (recapped on Ain't It Cool News), Buffy writer Jane Espenson "mentioned a possible 'Slayer School' spin-off, using some of the Potentials (who would be recast), but that did not seem that likely as it doesn't feel right, and would most likely not happen unless Joss changed his feelings about it. No mention of the Willow spin-off, but the feeling was that there will be no spin-off."
May 19 Update: In a recent TV Guide interview with Whedon, the interviewer commented "I heard a rumor that UPN and 20th Century Fox balked at a Willow spinoff because the character was a lesbian." Whedon's response was "(Laughing) I've never heard that. [Alyson Hannigan]'s got her movie [American Wedding] coming out, and we never really discussed the idea of a Willow-centric spinoff, although I've thought about it. She's talked about doing sitcoms and other things. So, nobody told me they didn't want to do it, and they certainly never told me that that was the reason."