On Thursday, GLAAD released its ninth annual Network Responsibility Index, which rates TV networks on their LGBT-inclusive primetime content, and announced that it would be the last such report. As GLAAD CEO and president Sarah Kate Ellis explained in a slightly less than crystal-clear column in Variety, the organization decided that counting the TV queers wasn’t a satisfactory way to measure the medium’s gay-and-trans-friendliness.
She’s right. As I wrote last year, calculating the percentage of a network’s primetime output that has an LGBTQ individual somewhere on the screen is pretty useless as a test of the quality of queer representation. Of course, that doesn’t mean the report is completely pointless: Fox and ABC Family, the two networks that received “excellent” grades in 2015, really do deserve praise for supporting shows like Empire, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Glee (which in its final season was the gayest thing I’ve ever seen on television and ever expect to see), The Fosters, and Becoming Us. But creating non-straight, non-cisgender, non-white TV characters is only the beginning. It’s important to look at what those characters do.
What’s more, technology is changing the way television is made and consumed—streaming services, with their combination of original series and extensive archives of previously aired material, have made the concept of current programming less relevant. It’s also impossible to calculate the percentage of LGBT “impressions” on services like Netflix, home of Orange Is the New Black and Sense8, or Amazon, whose original series include Transparent, since the very concept of “primetime” isn’t relevant there—and since there’s no way to calculate how many hours of programming they “aired.”
Still, GLAAD’s Ellis is right to claim that historically the NRI “has been a critical tool for holding networks accountable.” And I wonder if the number of minor TV characters who are queer people of color will decrease when the report disappears. In some ways, that wouldn’t be an altogether terrible thing. As AfterEllen’s Trish Bendix recently noted: “when the only person of color is also the only queer one … it’s more often than not diversity for diversity’s sake and not thought through enough to create a three-dimensional character.”
As much as I have criticized GLAAD’s annual counting of the TV queers, in recent years at least, it has incentivized the networks to increase diversity. In the future, the organization will continue to produce its “Where We Are on TV” report on the diversity of broadcast networks’ scripted series (here’s 2014’s), but its analysis tends to be pretty unreliable because it is a forecast based on the networks’ plans for the coming season—plans that often change with cancellations or as writers reconceptualize their shows.
The Network Responsibility Index has also been an opportunity for GLAAD to praise networks for creating LGBT characters. I worry that the organization will seem like a bunch of scolds if the only time they are heard from is when they’re complaining about negative portrayals. Pointing out inaccurate, clichéd, and unfair representations of queer people is a key part of the organization’s mission—but it’s good to applaud as well as criticize the organizations you seek to influence.