Starting in April of 2019, the Nielsens began tracking same-sex couple viewership. That is, they began to publicize what self-identified LGBTQ households were watching on TV.
Note: Nielsen is very specific in that they are tracking same gender couples (married or partners). This is not yet fully inclusive of the entire LGBTQ spectrum.
A popular takeaway from this was that queer families watch pretty much the same thing every other family watches. Ratings showed that everyone likes Game of Thrones and basketball.
That seems strange, however, when compared with the obsessive attention to fandom that many queers have. For example, at ClexaCon it was clear that 25 years later everyone still loves Amber Benson. This experience amongst fans suggests that niche TV would be more popular. Looking at the stats from Nielsen, this appears not to be the case. Or at least, not significantly.
Who are these people?
While the concept of Nielsen monitoring may seem archaic to many, the company touts itself to be a global measurement and data analytics company that “provides the most complete and trusted view available of consumers and markets worldwide.”
In short, they’re a reputable third party who counts everything everyone watches, organizes that data into something digestible, and spits it back out to tell you that, yes, 11 million people actually watched Game of Thrones.
These metrics are useful to TV companies because they know if 6 million people are watching God Friended Me but only 1.8 million watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine, then they can adjust their spending accordingly charge more for the first show. By the way, those numbers are real so please go watch B99!
Not everyone is counted
It’s important to note that there are only around 25,000 Nielsen households. That means their sample is roughly 0.02% of the actual TV owning population. There’s a great deal of extrapolation that has to happen here, but Nielsen groups people in panels in order to understand the data better. Basically they make sure they have a representative slice of America.
They have a lot of information about being a Nielsen household (no you can’t volunteer, and no you can’t tell anyone you are one), and a new Ratings Academy that explains what they do with the data and how they derive their ratings. Sadly, TV 101 isn’t complete yet.
In order to understand to make sense of the value of this data, you do need to know what ratings are. A rating is the percentage of households with a TV that watched a specific show. For example, if Will & Grace has a rating of 1.3, then 1.3% of all TVs tune in to watch it each week.
By the way, a share is the percentage of households with TVs that were turned on and watching that specific show. This means if Will & Grace has a share of 6, then 6% of all TVs that are already turned on are watching the show.
We’re only going to concern ourselves with ratings for the moment.
What do we watch?
As mentioned before, a big takeaway for many people was that everyone pretty much watches the same big shows. The problem with this view is that it was simply comparing the top ten shows overall and relating them to same-sex audiences. And the flaw in that view becomes evident once we limit the data to only network television, scripted shows.
Anyone can go and look at the top 10 shows for a week and get an idea as to the break down there:
|Show||Overall||African American||Same Gender Spouse/Partner|
Here we can see, yes, the overall popularity of NCIS and Grey’s Anatomy but also there’s a big jump in content watched by African American viewers. 12.7% of African American viewers watch Empire. There’s really nothing that same-sex couples watch that come close to the overall rating for NCIS (let alone the one for Empire amongst African American viewers).
This means that a smaller percentage of same-sex couples are watching the same shows as everyone else. And if there’s no one clear runaway winner (like Empire or Star), where are we and what are we watching?
What are we watching?
Turning the data on its head, the number one show for same-sex couples is The Conners, followed by Will & Grace. Those shows aren’t even in the top 50 overall.
Here are the top 10 scripted shows on network television for the week of April 8, 2019:
|RANK||PROGRAM NAME||OVERALL||SAME GENDER SPOUSE OR PARTNER|
|2||Will & Grace||1||5.4|
|6||The Big Bang Theory||4.2||4.8|
|22||This Is Us||2.7||3.2|
The rank column on the left is the relative rank for same-sex couples, including all shows (scripted, unscripted, sports, etc). There’s a significant disparity between the number 2 show for same-sex partners. In fact, the two datasets don’t hit parity really until you look at Young Sheldon and The Big Bang Theory.
But again we can see that the numbers are noticeably low, especially when compared to such clear hits as seen in the African American community. This is likely due to the fact that there simply isn’t a show that compares to Empire or Star on network television for the queer community. That is, there’s no show on network television that is queer centric.
What about cable?
There’s actually nothing on cable either at the moment. The reason all the articles tout ‘everyone watches Game of Thrones‘ is because:
- The premier for the final season was that week
- It was the only non-re-run television show on cable at the time
Seriously. You get Game of Thrones, Law & Order: SVU, Bob’s Burgers, and M*A*S*H. That’s it for television on cable watched by same-sex couples.
If we had the data for the heyday of Queer as Folk or The L Word, we might see dramatically different data. In fact, when the revival of The L Word comes out, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a 10% or more percentage of queer viewers flock to one scripted show on cable.
Where are we then?
The ultimate question is that without a clear cut winner, what are the same-sex couples actually watching?
It’s clear that we are significantly diverse. We like a wide variety of shows. We do like queer-centric shows like Will & Grace or RuPaul’s Drag Race, but in lieu of a show aimed at us, we watch what everyone else watches.
This is actually good news for production companies. They don’t need to create a new ‘genre’ of shows in order to attract queer audiences. They can make a show just like they always would, have queer characters, and know it will be watched. Take Brooklyn Nine-Nine for example. While 1% of overall audiences watch it, 1.2% of queer audiences do. In other words, a larger percentage of the queer audience is watching. And while everyone watches NCIS, it’s more clear everyone likes Grey’s Anatomy in higher percentages.
With that in mind, instead of saying “everyone watches Game of Thrones“, a more accurate reflection would be “everyone watches Shondaland shows.” The intersectionality of that statement gives a person hope. Maybe we’ll get that queer-majority show one of these days, but it’s not bad to have a high number of shows to enjoy.