Is Streaming Doing a Better Job at Diversity Than the Rest of TV?


This morning, GLAAD released its annual report on representation in television. Titled “Where We Are on TV,” it’s a useful summary of not just sexual and racial diversity on the small screen, but also how different entertainment providers and sectors of the industry stack up against one another.

The 2015-2016 season — GLAAD compiles the reports prospectively, looking forward to the season ahead rather than tallying up the current one — marks the eleventh year in a row the organization has compiled a more comprehensive report, tracking the quality of LGBT roles, and how LGBT representation intersects with other identities, as well as quantity. (It’s a policy in keeping with GLAAD’s name change in 2013, from Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation to an SAT-esque acronym that doesn’t actually abbreviate anything , in the interest of inclusion.)

It’s also the first year GLAAD has included hard data about one of the most buzzed-about portions of the TV landscape: streaming. Given that so much of the last few years’ conversation surrounding diversity in television has revolved around shows that don’t air on, well, traditional television, it’s interesting to see how Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix stack up to their broadcast and cable peers in terms of numbers, not just the editorialized write-ups GLAAD has offered over the last couple years.

The report reflects notable developments in broadcast and cable, of course; 33% of all primetime broadcast characters are people of color, and 16% of all primetime broadcast characters are black, and all-time high in GLAAD’s decade-plus of publishing its report. And year over year, LGBT series regulars increased on both broadcast (32 to 35) and cable (a more significant jump — 64 to 84). There are no comparative numbers for streaming, and GLAAD only offers general statistics on black, Latino/a, and API characters — as opposed to statistics on people of color as a percentage of LGBT characters — for broadcast shows, not cable or streaming shows.

Still, GLAAD’s data on streaming series leaves plenty of room for analysis, particularly on the issue of whether really is as representative, at least relative to broadcast, as the hype surrounding Transparent or Orange Is the New Black might lead the casual observer to believe. The answer, the report suggests, is a strong “maybe.”

First and foremost, LGBT characters do make up a much higher percentage of characters on streaming than they do on broadcast. GLAAD opens the report with a striking pie chart comparing the proportion of LGBT characters on network television with the proportion of straight, cisgender ones. At just 4%, the section labeled “LGBT” makes up a measly one twenty-fifth of the pie.

While GLAAD doesn’t provide similar charts for either cable or streaming, the hard numbers alone are telling. Out of 881 regular characters on broadcast TV, 70 identify as LGBT—though really just LGB; we’ll get to that in a second. Streaming, meanwhile, boasts 59 LGBT characters, despite being comprised of just 23 scripted shows to broadcast’s 109 (reference: this chart from FX president John Landgraf’s infamous “too much TV” presentation). That’s nearly the same number of characters across about one-fifth as many shows.

Cable, too, puts broadcast to shame, with more than twice as many LGBT characters (142 vs. 70) across just slightly more shows (135 vs. 109). The contrast between broadcast and streaming, however, is even more stark, and streaming boasts a higher LGBT-character-per-show average (2.56) than either broadcast (0.64) or cable (1.1).

There’s also evidence that, by some measures, streaming does a better job at internal diversity within the extremely broad label of “LGBT.” Broadcast, unsurprisingly, proves a perfect example of the common complaint that LGBT frequently boils down to just the “G”; nearly half of its LGBT characters, a whopping 47%, are gay men, and none of them are transgender. Cable has a lower percentage of both gay men (41%) and lesbians (22% to broadcast’s 33), with a much higher proportion of bisexual characters (36% to broadcast’s 20).

Streaming, however, has the lowest percentage of gay men as a percentage of total LGBT characters, at 39%, and the highest percentage of lesbians, at 36%. But most importantly, and least surprisingly, streaming is the clear standout when it comes to trans representation. Thanks to Sense8, Orange Is the New Black, and Transparent, streaming has both the highest proportion of trans characters, at 7%, and number of trans characters overall, at 4. That’s still not a whole lot, as GLAAD notes, but it’s way more than traditional outlets.

But streaming isn’t a panacea, or even an industry leader, in all forms of representation. In the “Looking Ahead” segment for all three sections of its report, GLAAD notes that it’d like to see more racial diversity among LGBT characters — but streaming, interestingly, is the furthest behind, with people of color making up just 27% of its queer and trans casts. That’s not a staggering difference from cable (29%) or broadcast (31%), though it’s still disappointing, not to mention a worrying sign that streaming might be replicating some forms of inequality in television even as it makes strides towards rectifying others.

There’s plenty more to take away from GLAAD’s report, which you can read in full here. The peek it offers into streaming, however, is especially informative given how much attention online shows receive for both quality in general and representation specifically. According to GLAAD, some of that attention is certainly warranted — but so is some of the scrutiny GLAAD applies by including streaming in its annual update.