The Big Picture: US Network TV

When you get a lot of data, you’re able to generate a lot of statistics. Sometimes looking at them help us see how far we’ve come, and how far we have left to go. US Network TV is not the only source of queers on TV, but it’s small size and depth of data made it perfect to look at when determining if representation on TV was getting better or not.

The five major over-air (i.e non-cable) channels that make up US network TV are: ABC, CBS, Fox, The CW, and NBC.

They have the most history of consistent representation. That is, they have constantly had a catalogued character since they introduced any queer characters. In addition, they’ve had a lot of characters which gives us a better depth of data to draw from. For each of these stations, I’m going to look at the number of shows, the average score of those shows, the number of on-air shows, and the scores of those on-air shows.

ABC

While ABC had a surprising number of qualifying characters between 1975 and 1985, we only go back to 1972 to get Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law and the episode “Words of Summer” where a lesbian comes out to save her friend (and lose her own job). Not a great ending, but she lived.

Overall, ABC has aired 69 qualifying shows, with an average score of 33.96.

Currently they have 15 on air, and a score of 33.4.

ABC Stats - The same as was explained in the paragraphs above

[Read more details on the gender/sexuality breakdown of shows on ABC]

CBS

At first I thought the first sighting would be October 9, 1977, when Edith’s cousin (the lesbian) died on All in the Family. But then I remembered that George Jefferson, of The Jeffersons, meets his old naval buddy, Eddie, who is now Edie, on October 1st of the same year! They both lost out to Executive Suite, and the very first dead lesbian ever: Julie Solkin, who died in December 1976.

Wow. Wasn’t expecting that trip.

Since 1976, CBS has aired 56 shows with qualifying characters, and has an overall average score of 31.84.

Only 12 are currently on air, but it has a healthy score of 35.4 for those shows.

CBS Stats - The same as was explained in the paragraphs above

[Read more details on the gender/sexuality breakdown of shows on CBS]

FOX

Being considerably younger than some of the other stations, FOX’s first character showed up in 1987 on the much lamented Women in Prison series. There wasn’t another until 1990 on 21 Jump Street … and she died. Not a great start, considering other stations had already jumped past the dead-queer trope. Overall, we’ve documented 46 shows on FOX, with an average score of 31.3.

Currently 16 are still on the air, with an average score of 34.92.

Fox Stats - The same as was explained in the paragraphs above

[Read more details on the gender/sexuality breakdown of shows on FOX]

The CW

Our babiest of network stations, the CW is a little harder to quantify since it used to be two other stations. It accidentally loses points because it lost Xena. But the CW has Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and has since day 1, so you know it’s alright. Overall, 30 shows have been tracked from The CW, with an average score of 33.28.

Currently 12 are on air, with an average score of 36.66.

The CW Stats - The same as was explained in the paragraphs above

[Read more details on the gender/sexuality breakdown of shows on The CW]

NBC

NBC is actually the home of one of our earliest queers. The Eleventh Hour was a medical drama in 1962! Since then, NBC has aired 64 shows with at least one recordable character, with an average score of 30.94.

Currently 11 are on the air, with an average score of 34.79.

NBC Stats - The same as was explained in the paragraphs above

[Read more details on the gender/sexuality breakdown of shows on NBC]

The Results!

Looking at all that we can make the following determinations for US network TV:

  • Best On-Air Score: The CW with 36.66 (CBS is second with 35.4)
  • Best Overall Score: ABC with 33.96 (The CW is a close second with 33.28)
  • Most Shows On-Air: FOX with 16 (ABC is right behind with 15)
  • Most Shows Total: ABC with 69 (NBC is catching up with 64)

Some interesting points about all this, in running the data we found that:

  • The CW has the most bisexuals (40) and the fewest characters (93) overall and are the most diverse sexually
  • NBC has the most diversity of gender representation
  • ABC has the most characters over all
  • CBS has the most trans-female characters
  • FOX is remarkably average in everything (they only rank first for on-air shows)
  • There are no asexuals on network TV (I’m still hoping for Jughead on Riverdale)

If I had to pick an overall winner, based on all data, it’s ABC. If I look at everything relatively, based on their own data, it’s The CW.

I did not see that coming!

Visually

For gender, NBC has the most colors, which means the most diversity. The CW has the least (followed by ABC and CBS), and indeed, has the least types of gender represented.

Gender Breakdown - same as the explanation above

For sexuality, The CW has the most colors, which means the most diversity. NBC is a little hard to read, but it and CBS have the only characters who identify as ‘queer’ for their sexuality.

Sexuality Breakdown (same as the paragraphs above)

What Does This Mean?

In all cases except ABC, the average show scores for US network TV are moving up. Given that ABC, NBC, and CBS were pretty much the only stations on US Network TV for a long time, it’s not surprising that their scores are so low overall.  While ABC is the only station with a downward trend to show scores, they’re also the best overall score, and have had the most shows over all. Shondaland’s tenancy towards soaps messes the score up in a way that I don’t think fully reflects the depth of her contributions.

From this we can begin to mathematically prove that representation on US network TV is increasing. And that, I think, is a good thing.

About Mika Epstein

Mika has been deep in the fandom world since she could say 'Trekkie.' With over two decades experience in running fansites and organizing communities, she's taken on the challenge of delving into the recesses of television for queers long forgotten. Making this site with Tracy is nothing short of serendipity. Mika lives with her wife and their cats in Southern California. Of course she has a hybrid, but she'd rather ride her bicycle.

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