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Study: ABC Family and Fox are the most LGBT-friendly networks on television

The cast of Fox's smash hit "Empire"
The cast of Fox's smash hit "Empire"
Fox

When GLAAD launched its first Network Responsibility Index to evaluate the 2006-'07 television season, shows that included LGBT storylines were rare. The 2014-'15 season, however, doesn't have to reach quite as hard to find LGBT representation beyond Will and Grace or Ellen DeGeneres coming out. Slowly but surely, television that includes LGBT characters, plot lines, and reality show contestants is becoming more of a standard than a novelty, and GLAAD is thrilled.

It's also shutting down its annual Network Responsibility Index report for good. Matt Kane, GLAAD's program director of entertainment media, says that the NRI's emphasis on numerical strides makes it incapable of measuring LGBT representation "on a granular level." In ditching the more overarching NRI, GLAAD is looking to expand upon its existing "Where We Are On TV" study, which examines the coming year in television rather than the one that just finished in more detail.

To calculate its final reports, GLAAD issued a flat percentage for a network's LGBT-inclusive hours (for both scripted and unscripted programming), as well as an overall grade. The percentage is straightforward enough, but the final grade can sway one way or another depending on how GLAAD evaluates each instance of LGBT inclusivity. Is the LGBT representation for a major or minor character? Was there any "significant discussion of LGBT lives"? What kind of diversity, if any, does this LGBT person represent? Finally, GLAAD explicitly said in last year's report that no network could get an "excellent" score in future without some more "significant transgender content."

Only two networks passed the 2014-'15 NRI test with flying colors. The rest ... well, they weren't so bad, either, actually. Still, GLAAD doesn't believe its work is done here.

Fox is the first broadcast network to get a score of "excellent"

Jussie Smollett as openly gay singer Jamal in Empire.

Fox

This isn't just a first for the network, but for all broadcast networks. GLAAD calculated that Fox's 2014-'15 season had 423 hours of programming, 45 percent of which was "LGBT-inclusive." GLAAD pointed to the massive success of Empire — which included gay series regular Jamal (Jussie Smollett), multiple boyfriends, and Tiana (Serayah) — as a particularly big victory. The report also pointed to Captain Ray Holt of Brooklyn Nine-Nine as one of GLAAD's "favorite gay characters on television." Minor characters on shows like The Following, Red Band Society, Mulaney, and The Mindy Project also garnered attention.

Interestingly enough, the report hailed Fox's dancing competition show So You Think You Can Dance as contributing "most" of Fox's LGBT-inclusive hours for integrating several openly gay choreographers, even though the series has infamously avoided acknowledging that any of its participants are gay — a fact GLAAD's first NRI report acknowledged explicitly. Kane nonetheless defended the choice to count reality programming that includes LGBT talent, even if the show itself chooses to avoid that aspect of contestants' lives. "It's still representations of our community," he says, "even if it's not always made explicit." He went on to discuss how networks choosing to cast openly LGBT people in reality programming is significant, and that they want to "give credit to shows that make inclusivity an important part of their casting process."

One of the main reasons Fox got an "excellent" score, however, is because Glee's Unique Adams, played by Alex Newell, represented one of TV's only significant transgender characters. (Netflix and Amazon were not considered among the traditional cable channels.) Glee also featured several regular LGBT characters, four of whom even got married in a double ceremony by the end of the series. (Whether that actually made sense for those characters was not a factor in GLAAD's report.)

Fox's spike is remarkable, especially when you consider that it flat-out failed GLAAD's first two annual reports, as it hovered around 6 percent LGBT inclusivity. But looking back at the programs that get special mention reveals that Fox would need to commit to LGBT inclusivity in its ongoing shows to stay competitive, because almost all the shows that helped it out this year are toast. Glee is finished. Red Band Society, The Following, and Mulaney were canceled. The Mindy Project now lives at Hulu. Fox could certainly keep its excellent rating, but it will require significant effort now that those shows in particular have gone away.

For all Fox's progress, ABC Family still kicked everyone's asses

Pretty little liars full cast

The Pretty Little Liars, learning about some not-so-pretty little lies.

(ABC Family)

This is surprising for anyone who only knows ABC Family as the home of Pat Robertson's 700 Club. Even the GLAAD report sounds startled at how much ABC Family has prioritized LGBT stories:

This year, ABC Family posted the highest inclusive percentage of any network GLAAD has ever examined for the NRI. Of the almost 125 hours of original programming we tracked, approximately 74% included some kind of LGBT impression(s), which were usually made by regular characters. What’s more, ABC Family also featured one of the most diverse lineups of LGBT characters, with about 49% of those impressions made by people of color.

The report credits shows like The Fosters, Switched at Birth, and new transgender docu-series Becoming Us for helping the network to its record-setting number of LGBT-inclusive hours: 74 percent. It also makes a special note for Pretty Little Liars, which is ABC Family's single biggest source for LGBT-inclusive hours thanks to multiracial lesbian series regular Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell).

Both the report and Kane, however, emphasized that this report is about the previous season of television, and so it did not take into account the recent reveal that Pretty Little Liars' psychotic villain A is an unstable trans woman. Kane pointed out that this particular trans character has "an unfortunate legacy in Hollywood," highlighting the historical horror examples of Psycho and Silence of the Lambs as reasons why it's dangerous to evoke the "psychotic trans woman" trope. "I don't know that we're at the place yet where you can just have a trans psycho and have it not evoke some of those old memories," he said. "Hopefully one day, but not yet."

Ultimately, Kane hopes that trans characters will shift in the next few years so that they just "happen to be trans, [and that] they're not there to be the trans character."

Not many networks were "excellent," but GLAAD still found more "good" on television than otherwise

Jack Falahee and Conrad Ricamora in How to Get Away With Murder.

ABC

The CW, which kicked off the year GLAAD launched the NRI, has more consistently received a "good" rating thanks to America's Next Top Model's nonchalance regarding gay judges and talent. For 2014-'15, GLAAD determined that 45 percent of The CW's original hours were LGBT-inclusive but that most of those characters were ultimately minor. (The biggest exception is The 100's Clarke, who's too busy trying to keep a post-apocalyptic survivors' group together to inform everyone that she's bisexual.)

MTV also got a "good" rating for shows like Faking It, even though its representation was down 19 percent since last year (which GLAAD credits to the lack of LGBT contestants on the Survivor meets Real World reality competition show The Challenge). Other networks garnering a good rating include Showtime (41 percent inclusivity), HBO (31 percent), and FX (54 percent, but no trans characters).

I was surprised to see Fox ranking above ABC, but a closer examination of the results reveals why I had that initial response. ABC had 812 original programming hours total last year, the most of any broadcast network. Fittingly, ABC also had the most LGBT-inclusive hours total, with 258.5. GLAAD also points out that Shonda Rhimes is responsible for plenty of these hours, and writes, "There is probably no single person who oversaw more LGBT-inclusive hours of television than Shonda Rhimes."

Still, GLAAD's estimations say ABC's programming was 32 percent LGBT-inclusive, which means Fox still beat it proportionally by a significant 12 percent. This divide does, however, reveal one of the bigger problems with relying on a system that was created circa 2006. At that point, mere LGBT representation was noteworthy. Now there are enough LGBT people on television — for both scripted and unscripted programming — that the quality and significance of their storylines deserve more scrutiny. Fox might have had more LGBT representation statistically, but the relative breadth and diversity of ABC's should count for more than its basic numbers.

Kane agreed, saying that while the increasing numbers of LGBT people on screen is encouraging, GLAAD would like to focus more on the character content and diversity therein — which is one of the main reasons GLAAD is "retiring the NRI" moving forward.

For all the progress made, though, there are still two networks that failed GLAAD's report

Neither A&E nor the History Channel mustered up enough "LGBT-inclusive" programming to earn a passing grade. The History Channel got particular flak for receiving a failing grade four times in a row, even with a new shift toward original programming with series like Vikings and Texas Rising.

A&E, meanwhile, got a couple points for a gay relationship on The Returned, but the show has since been canceled, and the network is now mostly limited to uninspired reality shows. In GLAAD's words:

We hope to see more LGBT people appear on [AMC's] reality shows who are not incarcerated on Beyond Scared Straight. On that show in particular, we also hope the network will also use greater care in how LGBT people are depicted.

Still, the fact that the only two networks to fail GLAAD's standards are two less-than-prolific cable networks is significant progress from the first few reports.

As television's scope has expanded, so has its representation of LGBT people

Kane and the GLAAD team combed through 5,191 hours of television programming to issue their verdicts. The sheer amount of programming GLAAD had to examine to get there might be why the organization has decided that this year's report is also going to be its last retrospective study.

When GLAAD issued its first Network Responsibility Index in 2007, it only covered the major broadcast networks in detail because "broadcast networks continue to make up the bulk of television viewing in this country." It devoted just a page and a half to cable networks, including MTV, HBO, Showtime, FX, Comedy Central, Bravo, and The N, MTV's now-defunct network for teens. The entire 2006-'07 report ran 22 pages.

The 2014-'15 report clocks in at 48.

"The sheer volume of inclusive hours is very different than it was when we first started this report," Kane admits. "I'm not going to lie ... it's far more work than it used to be." As far as problems go, though, he maintains that having too many hours in which television can be LGBT-inclusive is a pretty good one to have.

And at the end of it all, Kane insists that he and GLAAD still believe there is an opportunity for GLAAD to make its research count in the long run if it can get the networks themselves to listen. "It's not simply a matter of checking a box or getting their numbers up," he says. "We really want them to create these characters, with a lot of care and thought."