Don’t Panic: The Number of LGBT Characters On Television Isn’t In Real Danger Of Falling


These folks may be gone from television, but that doesn't mean LGBT characters are doomed. Credit: NBC

GLAAD’s annual reports on the representation of LGBT characters on television have become an important part of the start of the new fall season. So I’m glad to see the most recent set of figures, released on October 11, getting a lot of attention. The number that’s generated the most press has been a report that, between the 2012-2013 season and the 2013-2014 schedule, the number of LGBT series regulars fell from 4.4 percent of broadcast TV characters to 3.3 percent.

That’s not a good thing, and it’s a reminder of how precarious gains in any area of the entertainment industry have a tendency to be. Whether the minority group in question is women, people of color, LGBT people, or people with disabilities, and whether their function is as writers, directors, showrunners, or actors, gains in the entertainment industry tend to happen in isolated enclaves. A show like Desperate Housewives may end up employing a surprisingly high percentage of female writers, while a comedy like The New Normal, which is set in a significantly gay social circle, may single-handedly bump the number of gay series regulars on broadcast television. It speaks poorly of the state of television and the reach of its storytelling that a single show can have such an impact on TV demographics. But at the same time, I wonder if we might have to accept some of these sorts of fluctuations to get the kind of television stories we actually want.

Let’s back up for a moment. It’s worth remembering that GLAAD publishes two separate reports, its Network Responsibility Index, which tracks the number of hours on broadcast and cable television that include LGBT characters, be they regulars or guests, and Where We Are On TV, which tracks the number of series regulars on broadcast and cable television shows. These are different metrics, and it’s worth considering them both when assessing the overall state of LGBT characters and issues on television.

From the Where We Are On TV report, the number of LGBT regular characters on broadcast television may be down to 3.3 percent from 4.4 percent, but that’s a decrease of 5 characters overall, rather than some sort of wholesale rejection of LGBT characters. And the number of LGBT characters on cable is up by 7, for a net gain of two characters across the networks that the report is summarizing. This isn’t a sign of an epochal shift in interest towards or away from LGBT characters and storylines, but rather a general stability. And the Network Responsibility Index suggests that LGBT recurring characters and themes have a firm foothold in the television landscape. In 2012-2013 GLAAD explained that “The four largest [broadcast networks] (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC) all posted their highest percentages of LGBT-inclusive primetime programming hours ever. At 42%, Fox also achieved the highest percentage ever recorded for a broadcast network since the report was introduced in 2006. On cable, GLAAD tracked the same 10 networks as the previous report, and found that six of them had also improved over the last year.”

So should we panic that the number of LGBT characters fell slightly on network television, or attribute it to a natural fluctuation of shows getting cancelled and replaced? Should we cheer that television networks, even if they aren’t telling stories that are specifically about LGBT people’s lives, have embraced LGBT characters and LGBT issues as part of the tapestry of modern life? The answer, I think, is no to the former, and yes to the latter.

At the end of the day, if we’re going to have shows that are set in gay enclaves, like HBO’s upcoming Looking, we’re going to have to accept that their arrival on air will increase the number of LGBT series regular characters, and that when they depart the air, the resulting decline will be part of a creative life cycle, rather than a signal of major social change. As more LGBT writers get credentialed, we may have a healthier supply of those shows, and networks may be more willing to develop them and put them on air, and that’s absolutely a good thing. But that’s a separate goal from permanently increasing the day-to-day representation of gay characters on shows that aren’t specifically concerned with gay life, and acknowledging the reality that LGBT people and straight people occupy the same world. Both of those outcomes are desirable, and the numbers suggest that LGBT characters and issues have achieved a sustainable foothold in both areas.

I’m all for television censuses. GLAAD’s data collection, particularly given its focus on the race and gender balance of LGBT characters, is a model for other data-gathering operations. But I think this year’s numbers and the way they’ve been reporters are an important reminder to look at representation on television in a multi-dimensional way. LGBT representation isn’t a matter of only getting white gay men on TV, or of only locking up series regular shots, or of only appearing in one-off storylines. There’s no one kind of character or one kind of story that can make our television landscape as rich as it can be.