E. Winter Tashlin

What Do GLAAD's New NRI Numbers Really Mean?

Filed By E. Winter Tashlin | September 05, 2012 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media, Politics
Tags: ABC, CBS, FOX, GLAAD, LGBT history, LGBT in media, NBC, Network Responsibility Index, NRI, television, TLC

Modern-Familytigtlecard.jpgGLAAD released their sixth annual Network Responsibility Index, right into the teeth of a long weekend and the Democratic National Convention. If West Wing taught me anything, it would seem that this is a case of dumping a story in the proverbial trash, and I can see why, even if I don't entirely agree.

This year's conclusions can best be summed up with one word:

"Meh"

2011-12's NRI contained no breakout information. There were no stunning conclusions, and no surprising disappointments.

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the hard work and dedication that goes into creating the responsibility index, and I do believe that it's a valuable resource. It certainly isn't GLAAD's obligation to entertain us, the NRI is a report on a state of affairs, and in 2012 those affairs have changed little.

If you're keeping score:

  • The CW stayed the top ranked network for LGBT inclusion despite a four percent drop in inclusivity. They were especially praised as being the only broadcast network to have broad representations of LGBT people of color.
  • ABC & Fox swapped places, with ABC moving into 2nd and Fox dropping to 3rd. Five percentage points separated them.
  • NBC picked up four points off the 2010-11 season, to stay in fourth place.
  • And with a two point drop in programing, CBS remained dead last among broadcast networks.
  • Showtime, ABC Family, and FX scored highest among cable networks, while this year GLAAD added TLC and The History Channel to the list with somewhat predictable results. TLC did reasonably well in its first outing, while The History Channel's terrible showing put them decisively in last place of all networks profiled, at three percent.
  • Perhaps the most interesting and uplifting news in this year's NRI was that trans* representation has seen an uptick from virtual erasure in 2010-11, to making up five percent of LGBT inclusive programing, hopefully telegraphing positive growth moving forward.
  • It's also important to note that the report shows some inequality regarding how LGBT representations break down across gender and racial divides, not to mention in what segments of the LGBT community are, and are not portrayed regularly on television.

But what does it all mean?

Television is fickle, and over the last year we've seen losses and gains in LGBT visibility across the industry, although no network received an excellent rating this year, which is a disappointment. Unlike the similar HRC Corporate Equality Index however, I don't know that the networks are really working to win a good rating from GLAAD.

As a population and a market, the LGBT community likely doesn't have the force behind it to seriously impact the TV industry, and the importance of getting more LGBT people into America's living rooms is a harder sell to our straight allies than securing workplace protection.

LGBT inclusion in media is clearly an important issue for our community. To quote the GLAAD report:

. . . 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. In fact when Vice President Joe Biden endorsed marriage equality this year, he cited the NBC sitcom Will & Grace as one of the factors that led to a better understanding of the LGBT community by the American public.

Although this year's Network Responsibility Index numbers are not exciting or revolutionary, they are still important. If there's a conclusion we can draw from them, it's that the growth of LGBT visibility in media may have hit a wall. The 2011-12 season has been a turbulent one for the social and political landscape, with LGBT issues continuing to be a driving wedge in our fractured society. Not only the raw percentages, but also the nature of LGTB representation described in the report points to a level of skittishness within the TV industry to be seen as "choosing sides" in the perpetual American culture war.

Yet looking beyond the last two years, improvements in LGBT presence on TV have been considerable. Growing up as a kid in the 80s and early 90s, the only people on television I could relate to as a queer boy for a long time were Samantha and her family on Bewitched. I've tried to explain to LGBT people from the generation after mine just how immense a moment Ellen DeGeneres' very public coming out was to me as a queer teen, and been met with bafflement.

Granted, the 2011-12 NRI doesn't have anything really new to say, which is probably why its release got dumped in the media trash. No big wins/no big losses is a hard story to sell in the midst of one of the most important elections of our days, but it doesn't mean that it isn't important. We need to remain aware of our place as a community in the media landscape, lest we find ourselves slowly relegated back to invisibility.

Note: as someone who has been featured on The History Channel representing queer issues, their terrible showing came as no shock whatsoever.

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