Thanks to shows like “The New Normal,” “Glee” and “Happy Endings,” gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters were given bigger primetime roles than ever before last season, but broadcast networks will have a hard time matching those record-breaking results as a new television year kicks off.
Following a record high last season, an analysis by advocacy group GLAAD found that 3.3 percent of series regulars on the 2013-2014 scripted primetime broadcast television schedule will be LBGT. This is down from 4.4 percent in 2012, but still higher than the 2.9 percent recorded in 2011.
“It was disheartening to see a decrease, but the numbers are still higher than they were two years ago,” Matt Kane, associate director of entertainment media at GLAAD, said. “We’ve seen it hover around a similar level, which is what we’ve seen with other minority groups. There’s no backlash, it’s just a leveling off and it’s a sign that there’s a glass ceiling for gay and minority characters that needs to be broken through.”
Among the 796 series regulars characters popping up across 109 primetime scripted television programs on the five broadcast networks, 26 are LGBT, while 771 are straight. The number of LGBT characters fell from 31 in the previous season.
Yet those gay characters were more diverse than the lily white gay men on “Will & Grace. ” Half of the 46 LGBT characters on broadcast networks are women and 28 percent are minorities. Moreover, though last year’s programs failed to feature any prominent transgender characters, “Glee” will have one with the addition of Wade “Unique” Adams, a young transgender woman in the singing club, to the regular cast.
Wilson Cruz, who played the openly gay teenager Ricky on the ABC drama “My So-Called Life” (1994-95) and now works for GLAAD as its national spokesman, knows firsthand the power that positive representations of homosexuals and bisexuals can have on public opinion.
“Some 20 years later, I still have people come up to me and say that I was the first gay person they knew when they watched ‘My So-Called Life,” Cruz told TheWrap. “It’s a powerful medium and it has the ability to change lives.”
That influence was clear in the shift in public support over the issue of marriage equality, which Vice President Joe Biden attributed to the popularity of “Will & Grace.” In 1996, two years before the NBC sitcom kicked off its eight seasons, public approval for gay marriage hovered at 27 percent, according to Gallup. Today, a majority favor allowing same sex marriage. Clearly a number of factors were in play, but seeing non-threatening gay characters on primetime may have softened prejudices, GLAAD argues.
“That’s why it’s so important that we increase the representation of transgender people, because so few people know a transgender person in their personal lives,” Kane said. “We need to change views so people react from a place of empathy and don’t just read exploitative headlines about the community.”
Despite the decline in broadcast roles, it’s a brighter picture than the one emanating from the silver screen. Of the 101 films released by the six leading studios last year, only 14 contained LGBT characters, a recent study by GLAAD found. Moreover, the kind of gay roles being written for television are far more nuanced than those on film.
“It’s not really comparable to film where gay characters are usually just given a few minutes on screen and there’s nothing more than a punchline to justify their existence,” Kane said. “These TV characters are coming back week after week, so you have to give a reason for them to come back or the shows would become unwatchable.”
The drop in LGBT representation on TV has a lot to do with some high profile cancellations. For one thing, “The New Normal,” a widely hyped show from “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy about a gay couple using a surrogate mother was axed after 22 episodes, while “Happy Endings” said good bye after three seasons. This year’s crop of sitcoms and dramas primarily feature LGBT characters in supporting roles.
On cable, the situation is better, thanks to programs like “True Blood” and “Shameless,” which feature recurring gay characters, who are given romantic plotlines and whose struggles are treated sensitively, and TV movie events like “Behind the Candelabra,” about closeted Vegas entertainer Liberace.
The number of LGBT characters on scripted primetime cable television continued to rise this year with an additional seven regular characters, for a total of 42 in the 2013-2014 season. The cable networks also boasted 24 recurring LGBT characters.
Looking ahead, GLAAD projected that HBO is poised to field one of its most diverse seasons yet with the debut of “Looking,” which centers around three gay men in San Francisco, and “Open,” a show from Ryan Murphy that features a lesbian couple. Last season, the number of hours of programming featuring LGBT characters on the network fell from 33 percent to 26 percent, the pay TV channel’s worst showing since the 2009 to 2010 season.
GLAAD threw darts in addition to handing out laurels in its study. The group continued to rate the various broadcast and cable networks on their inclusiveness, and held out History and TBS for demerits. History shows like “Vikings” and “Ice Road Truckers,” it noted, may offer high-voltage action, but no gay characters, and while TBS did offer up a few marginal gay characters, only 10 percent of its total primetime programming hours were deemed “LGBT-inclusive.” Both channels received “failing” grades.
Although no networks received “excellent” ratings, ABC, ABC Family, CW, FOX, MTV, NBC and Showtime all earned “good” ratings. Sliding in with “adequate” ratings were CBS, FX, HBO, TLC, TNT and USA.
ABC and FOX were the only networks that will field a larger percentage of LGBT characters this year, with 5.4 percent each, while NBC dropped to last place among the networks with a paltry 1 percent of its characters identifying as LGBT.
Beyond the boob tube and the cable box, streaming networks like Netflix and Hulu are frequently offering up more diverse characters than can be seen on network and cable shows. Netflix programs like “House of Cards” and “Hemlock Grove” feature gay characters, as does “All My Children,” which has decamped from the world of broadcast TV for Hulu.
Those are just an appetizer, however, for “Orange is the New Black,” which launched on Netflix this past summer and likely boasts more lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters than any broadcast or cable series on the air. It also has a flexible definition of sexuality that seems to be aligned with a more open and accepting climate.
“If you look at the Millennial Generation, there’s less willingness to label sexuality and there’s just more fluidity to it,” Cruz said. “It’s a reflection of a generational shift.”