GLAAD’s Network Responsibility Index is one of the most fascinating and comprehensive looks at the on-screen diversity of American television, examining not just gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters, but racial and gender diversity as well. And the version of its report released today says a lot not just about which networks are doing well at integrating LGBT characters into their programming, but about generation gaps between viewers and which kind of gay people are most integrated into the American imagination.
On broadcast television, there’s a striking gap between the network aimed at the youngest viewers and the one that targets the oldest. The CW consistently leads its rivals in programming that includes gay characters—in the 2011-2012 television season, 29 percent of its program hours included gay characters or gay people, bolstered substantially by its reality programming. 62 percent of those impressions were of LGBT people of color. During the same period, CBS only had gay people or characters in 8 percent of its original programming. The CW, of course, is so dangerously at the bottom of the ratings that it’s at risk of actual extinction, while CBS leads the ratings by a significant margin. The attitudes of young viewers should drive LGBT-inclusive programming, but their actual consumption behaviors mean they’re creating a less strong market than their rising consumption power would indicate.
It’s also important to note that, while more LGBT characters and people are appearing on television, their numbers are still small enough that a single character or program can significantly shift a network’s performance. Reality programming is the major driver of LGBT representation on NBC and ABC. CBS has so few LGBT characters that Kalinda Sharma, the bisexual investigator on The Good Wife, ends up accounting for almost one third of the hours of representation of non-straight people on the network, and that show provided 48 percent of those hours overall. Diana Berrigan, the FBI agent on White Collar, made the USA Network the leader in representations of black LGBT people and lesbians all on her own. White gay men remain the most popular kind of LGBT people on television.
These small numbers mean both that the cancellation of a single program can significantly decrease a network’s representation of LGBT characters. But it also means that a few chances can make a network get better quickly. FX, a network that’s been defined by its explorations of heterosexual masculinity, for example, went from 19 percent of its programming hours including LGBT characters to 34 percent on the strength of Archer and American Horror Story. That’s a blessing and a curse. Progress is fragile. But it’s also relatively easy to accomplish.
And this year’s NRI has an interesting finding about the impact of popular culture on public opinion from its Pulse of Equality survey, which is conducted by Harris Internactive. “Among the 19% who reported that their feelings toward gay and lesbian people have become more favorable over the past 5 years, 34% cited ‘seeing gay or lesbian characters on television’ as a contributing factor,” the report says. That doesn’t mean television works for everyone, of course: Ann Romney’s love for Modern Family hasn’t exactly made her any more amenable to marriage equality. But if popular culture makes 6.5 percent of Americans think more favorably about LGBT people over a five-year period, that’s a significant contribution, and one that’s worth fighting for.