Why Doesn’t It Feel Like It’s Getting Better?

Let’s talk about numbers, my friends. Because in order to understand if things are getting better, we have to look at the numbers. And while, anecdotally, we wonder why doesn’t it feel like it’s getting better, we can’t know if it’s getting better or not without numbers.

One way to factor in if it’s getting better is to see if we’re getting more over all representation on shows or not. When I talked about the big picture in US network TV, I pointed out how overall representation was up, and so was the diversity of those things. But for a lot of people, the bottom line is simple. Are we getting more shows, yes or no?

Yes, We Are Getting More Shows

Let’s be direct here. We are getting more shows, internationally. And if you just look at 2000 through 2018, you can see this really was a big jump starting around 2012, which coincided with an uptick of deaths.

Shows On Air Shows Gained Shows Ended Dead Characters
2018 294 31 44 9
2017 357 101 91 35
2016 325 93 77 45
2015 299 95 67 38
2014 253 75 49 20
2013 214 57 36 24
2012 181 37 24 14
2011 171 39 27 12
2010 150 31 18 11
2009 133 20 14 7
2008 127 20 14 8
2007 116 21 9 9
2006 107 9 12 9
2005 108 23 10 7
2004 92 15 7 14
2003 86 10 9 4
2002 94 11 18 7
2001 101 16 18 8
2000 99 20 14 0

 

You can see there that the number of shows on the air are going up. People who learn visually, don’t worry, I’ve got your back:

Chart of all shows on air, the gains and losses
Shows with at least one queer character (2018-2000)

And for the death:

Chart of all shows on air, the gains and losses and deaths
Shows with at least one queer character (2018-2000) – with death stats

Do More Shows Mean More Queers?

There’s a flaw in the numbers that we must address. Those numbers are for all shows (TV shows, miniseries, TV movies, and web series). In addition, they don’t actually mean the show had a queer character in that year. In fact, most don’t. An extreme example is Doctor Who. Love the show, but it’s been on forever, and it’s only had queers relatively recently. Also consider Law & Order: SVU, which has no regular queer characters, but certainly has had a lot of merry murderers and victims over the years.

In general, more shows having even one queer character means more queers overall. But in order to have actual progress, we need to make sure things are going up properly. So let’s look at it in a different way:

Percentage of
shows gained
Percentage of
shows ended
2018 10.54% 14.97%
2017 28.94% 26.07%
2016 28.62% 23.69%
2015 31.77% 22.41%
2014 29.64% 19.37%

 

When you think about losing 26% of shows on air with queer characters, it’s incredibly daunting. But that same year, 28% of the shows on air were new. So really this demonstrates that there’s a lot of turnover, and that is not a good sign.

The Turnover Is The Reason

Remember the original question here. Why doesn’t it feel like it’s getting better? Look at the numbers again. We are getting an increase, but most years it feels like it balances out. That is, we lose as many as we gain, with a generally small jump. But … What happens if I look at the numbers as percentage of increase or decrease, and throw in a trend calculation.

Trendline of losses and gains
Trend line of show losses and gains, as percentages, from 1961 to 2018

The bolder lines are the trend lines. A trend line is a line that shows you the general course of a thing. In this case, looking at the trend for shows gained, we can see it’s trending downward. At the same time, shows lost are trending upwards. They’re going to meet, probably by 2020 at this rate.

Which means if you think that representation isn’t getting better, you’re not insane. You’re noticing that we’re actually not getting that many more shows. It’s much easier to see if you only look at US based TV shows:

Trendline of losses and gains - US shows only
Trendline of US show losses and gains, as percentages, from 1961 to 2018

Yikes, indeed. Since 2007, it’s been getting worse.

What caused the false positive?

So why do the numbers look like it’s getting better? Web series. And Canada. But yes, we’ve crossed over into the not so great world where the loss is becoming more and more apparent.

We’re getting more queers, but we’re getting them on mostly the same shows. This may be indicative of trends in television anyway, wherein there’s a regression in ‘diverse’ TV shows (unless you’re a Shondaland show). But also it reflects how many long running shows exist, and how they too skew the metrics.

If you want to see the raw numbers, I’ve compiled them on Google Sheets. Feel free to make use of them. Numbers are accurate as of May 20th 2018.

About Mika A. Epstein

Mika has been deep in fandom since she could say 'Trekkie.' With decades experience in running fansites, developing software, 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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