Historical Primetime Popularity

Historical Primetime Popularity

Last week I talked about how the reality of popularity is an unknown, unless we have unbiased data sources and transparency about collection and coalition. In light of the unknown, we do have some data we can review.

The Nielsens

Since 1950, the Nielsens have collected data on the most popular TV shows and have made it relatively easy to get an idea of the top primetime shows per year.

I took the top scripted shows in 2015-16 season and made a list of which had queers and if those characters were dead. Since some shows have queers of the week (NCIS for example), I chose to mark the difference between no queers in the season with ‘None’ and no queers ever as ‘Never’. I compared that to the last solid list available, which happens to be 2018-19 (the 2019-20 season is technically over, but the data is not yet collated).

2015-16

ProgramQueers?Dead?
NCISNoneN/A
The Big Bang TheoryNoneNever
EmpireRegularYes
NCIS: New OrleansRegularNever
Blue BloodsNoneN/A
Grey’s AnatomyRegular, Recurring, GuestNo
Criminal MindsRecurringNever
ScandalGuestYes
The BlacklistRecurringNo
How to Get Away with MurderRegularNo
BlindspotRegular & GuestYes
Chicago FireNoneNo
Code BlackRegular, RecurringYes
Chicago MedGuestYes

2018-19

ProgramQueers?Dead?
The Big Bang TheoryNoneNever
NCISNoneN/A
Young SheldonNeverNever
This is UsRegularNever
Blue BloodsNoneN/A
FBIGuestNever
The Good DoctorGuestYes
ManifestRegularNo
Chicago FireRegularNo
Chicago MedNoneNo
BullNeverNever
Chicago P.D.NoneNever
New AmsterdamNeverNever
NCIS: New OrleansRegularNever
Grey’s AnatomyRegular, GuestYes
MomRegularNever
Hawaii Five-0NeverNever
NCIS: Los AngelesNeverNever
9-1-1Regular, RecurringNone
The ConnersGuestNone
God Friended MeRecurringNever

Key:

  • None = No queers appeared (or died) this season
  • Never = No queers appeared (or died) ever to date

Also of note: The reason there are more shows listed in 2018-19 is because scripted TV outperformed reality TV (and sports) significantly more in that season than compared to 2015-16.

Growth or Decline?

I went ahead and took the data from between those years as well to more clearly show the differences. Or rather… the lack there of.

2015-162016-172017-182018-19
Shows with Regulars6877
Shows with Recurring4432
Shows with Guests4334
Shows with Death5312

Other than 2015-16 having a bit more death, the numbers for linear TV are surprisingly flat. There’s really very little variation for the last four years.

What about Streamers?

This is where it’s ugly. Netflix did release some data, and technically the Nielsens have been tracking them since 2017, the two sources disagree greatly on the conclusions. Also if you look at the various reports (Forbes, Time, etc) on what’s popular, it changes.

So here’s, according to Netflix, the popular scripted shows and how they’re doing from this most reason year compared with 2017 (the first year we had data):

2017

ShowQueersDead?
American VandalNoneNone
Suburra: Blood on RomeNoneNone
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the LifeMentionedNone
3%RegularNone
13 Reasons WhyRegularYes
Marvel’s Iron FistGuestNone
Anne with an EGuestNone
IngobernableRegular, Recurring, GuestYes
TravelersNoneNone
The KeepersNoneNone
The CrownNoneNone
Neo YokioNoneNone
A Series of Unfortunate EventsNoneNone
GLOWNoneNone
Friends from CollegeNoneNone
OzarkNoneNone
Big MouthRegular, RecurringNone
Dear White PeopleRegular, RecurringNone
DisjointedNoneNone
Orange is the New BlackRegular, RecurringNone
Stranger ThingsNoneNone
NarcosNoneNone
OzarkNoneNone
Marvel’s The DefendersGuestNone
MINDHUNTERRegularNone
Black MirrorNoneNone
Grace & FrankieGuestNone
Fuller HouseRegularNone
AtypicalRegularNone

2020

ShowQueers?Dead?
Orange is the New BlackRegularYes
The WitcherNoneN/A
Stranger ThingsRecurringNo
The Umbrella AcademyRegularNo
Money HeistRegularNo
YouRecurringYes
Sex EducationRecurringNo
Dead To MeRegularNo
EliteRegularNo

This is a notable departure from Linear content already. Only one show (The Witcher) this year has no queers, and that’s based on a book series that was turned into a video game, and you can look up criticism on the portrayal of BIPOC, disabled characters, and women in general from the source material. In opposition to Netflix’s other high-fantasy series that came out this year (Cursed based on the Arthurian legends), The Witcher lacks the nuance of representation. And both fall flat with ‘historically accurate costumes.’

But the point is that with regards to scripted TV, Netflix absolutely has success with queer content. In fact, six of the shows in the 2017 list went on to add queer female, trans, or non-binary characters. That means out of 28 shows over half (20) eventually added queer characters.

Queers Make Good TV

Okay, okay, I’d love to say this is obviously proof that queers make good TV. But I think, from Netflix at least, we can see that part of their driving success can be found in embracing queerness. Of course, they have some room to do better, as the recent collapse of peak TV is showing us. If you go back through those shows and identify the BIPOC or female led series, you will be sorely disappointed.

But.

By our reckoning, the top ten shows on Netflix that were on air in 2020 are significantly different.

  1. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
  2. The Politician
  3. Atypical
  4. Valeria
  5. Dear White People
  6. Trinkets
  7. Feel Good
  8. Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings
  9. Teenage Bounty Hunters
  10. Family Business

Our list? A lot more diverse than theirs, and includes more non-English series. It’s also a lot more niche, which has been the bane of queer content for a long time. That said, we’re also limited by the offerings that have queer content, and that speaks more towards what we’re given. Is queer content found in more niche shows simply because more niche shows have queer content? It’s a little chicken-egg.

The ultimate conclusion though is that quality queer content will not hurt your show. Popularity will come regardless, so take a chance.

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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