GLAAD recently launched the annual Where We Are on TV report, and alongside that release, Nielsen announced that it has expanded its reporting of ratings to count same-gender spouses or unmarried same-gender partners and their household television viewing habits.
Together, we have worked closely with Nielsen over the past 18 months to create the best practices for inclusion of queer families and couples in the company’s nationally representative panel of households, and the results are likely going to change the game for shows with powerful LGBTQ characters and stories. Here’s why.
GLAAD's Where We Are on TV report found a record-high percentage of LGBTQ series regular characters on broadcast at 8.8 percent of all regulars. Notably, for the first time this year, LGBTQ characters of color (50 percent) outnumber white LGBTQ characters (49 percent) among regular and recurring LGBTQ characters on broadcast. This same group of characters is also at gender parity this year with equal percentages of men and women characters (49.6 percent) and one non-binary character. LGBTQ inclusion is also up in scripted primetime programming on both cable and streaming (Amazon, Hulu, Netflix).
But LGBTQ visibility can only find its full power and potential on television when we can demonstrate that our stories are being seen, particularly by our own highly valued community. It's critical that advertisers, network executives, and the industry at large know LGBTQ American audiences are connecting with LGBTQ characters, stories, and shows. These Nielsen rating numbers directly influence the executives making programming decisions — which shows are being put into production, greenlit, and renewed. We know that advertisers are increasingly trying to reach our highly influential LGBTQ audience, but up until recently, there was no way of knowing how many LGBTQ people were watching these programs. Nielsen’s new commitment to counting queer families and couples could help save series that are popular with LGBTQ people, even when they may not have the highest overall ratings numbers among the general public.
It’s true that counting same-gender spouses or unmarried same-gender partners are an important step in the right direction, but there is more to do to ensure that all LGBTQ viewership is being fully and accurately counted. To that end, GLAAD and Nielsen are now working together to include the wider LGBTQ community in Nielsen reporting, beyond just same-gender couples. Part of this work includes creating best practices for identifying LGBTQ people among Nielsen households and growing the number of LGBTQ people in the Nielsen sample to be representative of the U.S. population. By including a proportionate number of LGBTQ people in its survey, Nielsen will finally be able to share definitive numbers on viewership of LGBTQ- centric programs — numbers that may well prove higher than previously understood. Such inclusion could prove critical to LGBTQ shows fighting for a green light or a season two.
As has been the case throughout LGBTQ history, truth and openness are the paths to better understanding, acceptance, and liberation. An accurate count of all LGBTQ viewership in the Nielsen survey is just the kind of truth the LGBTQ community needs at this moment in our history. In this tumultuous time, when more than 81 attacks have been launched by the Trump administration against our community since January 2017, diverse LGBTQ stories shared on our television screens have the power to correct the discriminatory lies being touted from such places of power — to humanize our struggle, our families, and our lives. For LGBTQ lives to continue to be seen, LGBTQ viewership must be fairly counted.
GLAAD is calling on the industry to make sure that within the next two years, 10 percent of series regular characters on primetime scripted broadcast series are LGBTQ. In a cultural and political climate when anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policies are on the upswing, LGBTQ depictions on television are key to ensuring that the public continues to stand with LGBTQ people and is not swayed by the distortions of anti-LGBTQ politicians and activists. GLAAD’s 2018 Accelerating Acceptance survey found a drop in LGBTQ acceptance for the first time since the survey began. Visibility is key to combating this rollback. These characters and storylines are reaching people in their living rooms, affirming our humanity, and shaping a culture of acceptance here in the U.S. and around the world.
More LGBTQ inclusion on television will not just benefit viewers. Inclusive shows have paid off in the ratings with NBC’s season nine premiere of Will & Grace. Even before Nielsen’s commitment to counting LGBTQ viewers, it estimated 15 million viewers in the first week of release, and ABC’s Modern Family ranked in the top 20 broadcast series among 18 to 49-year-old viewers for the entirety of its last season. These shows are also paying off with critical acclaim and over-indexing on social media. Nielsen's new information on ratings for queer households could bolster such numbers and further prove that inclusion is not just the right thing to do — it is good for business.
SARAH KATE ELLIS is the president and CEO of GLAAD. DUSTIN LANCE BLACK is an Oscar-winning writer, director, and producer known for the film Milk and the ABC miniseries When We Rise.