GLAAD is publishing an extensive report on the state of LGBT representation on television this morning. It’s become a major part of the organization’s media advocacy over the last decade — and after this year, it’s being replaced.
When GLAAD published its first Network Responsibility Index (NRI) in 2007, it was with the understanding that the medium hadn’t always done a great job depicting the lives of LGBT people. They were ignored for years, then treated as pariahs, tokens, and caricatures for decades. The mission of the NRI was to "evaluate the quantity and quality of images of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people on television," and it consisted of a report on five broadcast networks and a one-page summary of representation on cable. At the time, ABC led all of its peers with 15 percent of its total primetime programming being rated as inclusive; the great majority of all LGBT characters were white, male, and gay.
The recent improvement in TV's inclusivity is staggering
When this year’s results are compared to those figures, the improvement is staggering on multiple fronts; a fascinating snapshot of an industry that’s become much more inclusive over the last decade. The least inclusive broadcast network (CBS) was at 27 percent, almost twice as much as ABC in 2007. The highest-rated networks, FOX and the CW, managed to render almost half of their programming LGBT-friendly. The scope of GLAAD’s coverage has expanded, too: it has added 10 selected cable networks and 16 other minor cable channels and streaming services to its report.
According to its findings, all of the networks are more diverse along lines of gender identity and race, and they’re starting to incorporate trans characters in small proportions. They’re also less reliant on stereotypes than they used to be: instead of using LGBT people as vehicles for people’s hatred, joke fodder, or one-trick ponies, they work as doctors, professors, and policemen. At their best, they’re fully realized characters whose sexual orientation or gender identity just constitutes one piece of their personal puzzle.
The NRI has reflected tremendous change over the last decade — and has helped to convince networks of the validity and value of LGBT-inclusive programming. So why is GLAAD leaving it in the past?
GLAAD is focusing on reports that are "more detailed and granular."
"Over the years, we’ve seen a remarkable increase in LGBT representation on most of the TV networks we track in our report," says Matt Kane, GLAAD’s programs director for entertainment media. "We may have the numbers, but [networks] still aren’t quite representing the LGBT community in a way that’s accurate… There are still people who are starved for representation in popular culture." Having achieved some progress on a quantitative level, GLAAD is focusing its efforts on broadening the kinds of LGBT people depicted on TV, namely people of color and transgender people. The NRI is a macro-level analysis, one that’s not particularly well suited for those tasks; the organization can get more done with reports like Where We Are on TV and Transgender Images on TV, documents Kane calls "more detailed and granular."
The NRI is also ill-equipped to deal with both new technology and the impact of LGBT inclusivity on a given show’s performance, two objects of interest for GLAAD. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are all mentioned in passing in the 2015 NRI, but they merit more intense coverage given the scale of their original programming arms; together, they also produce some of the most obviously inclusive shows currently airing, including Orange Is the New Black and Transparent. "That’s one of the things we’ve been thinking about, and I don’t think the NRI is useful when it comes to addressing what’s on streaming services," says Kane. "We’ve been impressed by the majority of the LGBT-inclusive programming we’ve seen on those services."
The NRI also fails to shed light on the existence of a relationship between LGBT inclusivity and ratings, data GLAAD could use when dealing with networks. Finally, the NRI can’t account for the tone or content of storylines involving LGBT characters or performers. A good example from this year’s reports involves televisual whoopie cushion Two and a Half Men: the show is counted as part of CBS’s inclusive portfolio because of a storyline in which Walden (Ashton Kutcher) and Alan (Jon Cryer) pretend to be a married gay couple to facilitate an adoption.
Many of TV's best shows are impossible to imagine without LGBT components
The NRI may have outlived its usefulness, but it has served as a valuable metric and catalyst for network action over the last decade. After flipping through all nine reports, I couldn’t help but feel excited about the progress that’s been made in terms of LGBT representation; I felt hopeful about my TV becoming more diverse and richer in trans characters and stories in the years to come. Some of my favorite shows are impossible to imagine without LGBT components. An Empire without the relationship between homophobic patriarch Lucious Lyon and his son Jamal would be a soap opera without a heart; an Orange Is the New Black without inmates of every race, gender identity, and orientation would be sterile and sleepy. And even after a decade, GLAAD has just one simple request for TV creators: "Use some forethought and care when you’re including a LGBT character," says Kane. "It’s not enough to check off that box. They need to be fully realized, multi-dimensional people that all audiences can find some commonality with."