Now that there has been official confirmation that this season will be the last for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, rumors are rampant about spin-off possibilities–including one revolving around Alyson Hannigan's character Willow, the lesbian witch on Buffy.
Buffy creator Joss Whedon has publicly confirmed that he is currently considering spin-off possibilities, saying "I think ideally the best thing to do would be to wait and not rush anything. There are paradigms that I've posited that could start next year … (but) whatever came next, it would have to have at its center an idea as worthy as (Buffy and spin-off Angel) were" (Yahoo News, February 21).
Although Whedon has indicated that he would offer the spin-off to UPN first, he has also made it clear that he would shop it around to the other networks if UPN passes.
The leading possibility for several weeks was rumored to be a Faith the Vampire Slayer-type spin-off, based around Eliza Dushku's character Faith. But that idea became unlikely when it was announced on February 24th that Dushku had signed up to star in the pilot for a still-unnamed Fox series (about a woman who graduates from college and discovers that she's able to save lives by changing the course of events.)
With the most obvious spin-off choice eliminated, that leaves a few other characters on which to base a spin-off, with Willow as the most logical choice among them. First, however, there are a lot of issues that would have to be resolved for a Willow spin-off to happen: Whedon & company would have to decide to go this route, UPN or another network would have to be willing to take it on, and Hannigan would have to agree to star in the spin-off. She has been publicly noncommittal, expressing a desire to continue working with Whedon but also to explore new characters in other series/films; there have also been rumors that Hannigan has already passed on the idea.
But regardless of whether a Willow spin-off actually happens, it raises an important question: is network television ready for a dramatic series which revolves around a lesbian?
If she were a new character, I believe the answer would definitely be no. Network television shows have almost never launched a new show with a lesbian character, preferring to wait until after the show is established to introduce lesbian characters (e.g. Buffy, Once and Again, ER, and NYPD Blue). Notable exceptions include Dark Angel and 1996's Relativity, but considering how poorly both of these shows did in the ratings, they're unlikely to be held up as models by the networks.
But Willow already has a strong and loyal (if small) fan base, which mitigates the risk somewhat. This gives the show a level of built-in security that a brand new series would not have (although that by no means assures its success.)
On the other hand, the networks might argue that if Willow is popular enough to carry her own show, why didn't we see that reflected in substantial growth in the number of viewers who watched Buffy over the years? Because while the show had enough fans to keep it on for seven years, it has never been a ratings giant.
Lesbian characters on dramatic series so far have always been part of an ensemble (ER, Once and Again, NYPD Blue), or the sidekick to the main character (Dark Angel), and while any Buffy spin-off is still likely to have an ensemble feel to it, a lesbian Willow as the lead would be new territory for the networks.