Pride on TV: How do popular shows represent LGBTQA characters, and who’s watching?


Rebecca Fine
Associate Dir., Research & Media Insights
Jun 24, 2021

The United States’ first Pride march is narrowly older than the first recurring gay TV character. Peter Panama of ABC’s The Corner Bar made his debut in 1972, three years after the Stonewall riots and two years after the first Pride marches. While TV is sometimes ahead of the times (Black Mirror foreshadowing of 2020, anyone?), LGBTQA representation certainly lagged.

Since the early ‘70s, America has come to know and love LGBTQA characters from shows across cable, broadcast, and streaming services. But just how representative are recent popular shows, and how does the inclusion of LGBTQA characters impact viewership? And does viewership differ dramatically across shows that feature LGBTQA characters versus those that center around LGBTQA stories? Samba TV designed a study analyzing the top shows and TV viewership data of April 2021 to investigate these questions.

What is the state of LGBTQA representation in popular TV?

Of April’s top 20 most watched shows* in the U.S., 13 (65%), had at least one main character** who was explicitly identified as being LGBTQA, while seven had no element of LGBTQA representation. We identified 216 main characters across the shows and 19 were LGBTQA, for a total of 9%. Comparatively, 5.6% of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQA, indicating that at a high level, popular TV has made strides in representation.

However, there is still ample room for improvement. Only six of the top shows had two characters who were explicitly identified as being LGBTQA, while no show had more than two LGBTQA main characters. Only one show, Shameless, had a percentage higher than 20% of main LGBTQA characters. None of the top shows had transgender characters, with all LGBTQA elements focusing exclusively on sexual orientation. Increasing this representation is essential, particularly when you look at today’s consumer demographics. Gen Z represents close to 40% of all consumers and almost 16% of this demographic identifies as LGBTQA (more than any other generation). In order to properly appeal to this generation, popular TV will need to increasingly step up representation.

Who's watching popular shows with LGBTQA representation?

The three shows with the highest percent of LGBTQA characters were a mix of cable, streaming, and broadcast: Shameless (Showtime), The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu), and Grey’s Anatomy (ABC). Each show over-indexed among households with white viewers (The Handmaid’s Tale by 14%, and Shameless and Grey’s Anatomy each by 9%). On the other hand, households with Hispanic and Asian viewers under-indexed by over 20% across the three shows. Households with Black viewers also under-indexed across each show, by slightly more modest margins.

Viewers of each of the three shows skewed towards affluent income brackets. Shameless over-indexed among households within the $150K-$200k income bracket by 14%, while Grey’s Anatomy over-indexed among that group by 13%, and The Handmaid’s Tale by 3%. Despite centering around a family struggling to make ends meet, Shameless under-indexed for all income-brackets below $50k, while households earning more than $200k watched Shameless at a rate 12% higher than the U.S. as a whole.

From a geographical standpoint, Shameless, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Grey’s Anatomy each over-indexed in Detroit, Boston, and Portland, all of which are the largest cities in their respective blue states. On the other hand, each show under-indexed in top Texas and Florida DMAs (Dallas, Houston, Orlando, and Miami) – both of which were red in the 2020 election. On a state level, Shameless had a +0.33 positive correlation among households in blue states over-indexing based on viewership.

What trends do we see across shows that center LGBTQ stories?

Although none of the top 20 shows of April centered primarily around LGBTQA plotlines, some further down the list did, including RuPaul’s Drag Race (VH1) at #27. RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality drag competition which featured its first trans man competing in 2021, just concluded its 13th season. Its premiere on New Year’s Day 2021 was viewed by 742k households within the Live + 7 day window – a 17% uptick from the season 12 premiere, and 41% increase from season 11, highlighting the show’s increasing popularity.

There are similarities between RuPaul’s Drag Race viewers and viewers of Shameless, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Grey’s Anatomy, particularly from a geographic standpoint. Texas and Florida DMAs under-indexed on viewership of the RuPaul’s Drag Race premiere; Miami by the widest margin, watching at a rate of about 38% below that of the U.S. overall, followed by Tampa (-32%).

On the other hand, RuPaul’s Drag Race viewers are more diverse than viewers of Shameless, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Grey’s Anatomy. While those three shows over-indexed among households with white viewers and under-indexed among households with Black, Hispanic, and Asian viewers; RuPaul’s Drag Race over-indexed among households with Black viewers by 20% and under-indexed by 2% among households with white viewers. To note, however, the RuPaul audience is growing whiter over time: 51% of season 11 premiere viewers were households with white viewers, followed by 57% of season 12 premiere viewers, and shooting up to 59% in season 13. The shift interestingly corresponded with Black queens winning those three seasons, while the two previous winners were white queens.

With these recent strides, let’s hope that the inclusion and celebration of LGBTQA characters is just ramping up. Representation has certainly improved since Peter Panama’s appearance in The Corner Bar, but popular shows have still only just scratched the surface. And based on the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race and other shows on the forefront of diversity and inclusion, viewers are hungry for more.

*Top 20 based on ReelGood list of top shows. Excludes reality and “true-crime” programming

**Main characters defined as those featured in the majority of episodes

Interested in learning more? Contact us.

More resources

View More