It's common knowledge that there's a world of difference when it comes to TV news networks like MSNBC and Fox News, and usually that difference can be traced down political lines. But when it comes to the television programs we choose to entertain and emotionally engage us, those lines aren't always quite so clear.
In late 2011 Experian Simmons released its annual research survey that in part measured consumers' media preferences against their political ideologies, and some of the results seem to defy standard assumptions. It's not particularly newsworthy that liberals enjoy The Daily Show and 30 Rock, while conservatives enjoy NCIS and documentary-style programs about blue-collar workers, like the Discovery Channel's Swamp Loggers. But programs like Glee and Modern Family, both of which have been attacked by conservative groups for including LGBT characters, actually do quite well among both liberal and conservative viewers. In fact, Ann Romney, wife of the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, recently revealed that Modern Family is one of her favorite programs, and former candidate Michele Bachmann admitted that her children are big fans of Glee. And they don't come much more conservative than Michele Bachmann.
Yesterday, GLAAD released the sixth annual Network Responsibility Index, in which a full year of original primetime programming on 15 different networks is tracked to determine just how inclusive the TV that America watches actually is when it comes to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Even a few seconds featuring an LGBT character or out participant is enough to remind straight viewers that we are a part of their community, and for LGBT viewers to see someone like them reflected in the programming they enjoy. And for the first time this year, GLAAD decided to track two networks whose programming often seems tailor-made to appeal to a more conservative audience: the History Channel and TLC.
The History Channel was once best known for its multitude of World War II documentaries, but over the years it has amassed one of the most robust lineups of reality television found on cable. This year alone GLAAD tracked 379 hours of original programming on the network and noted a number of recurring themes. Among these were dangerous, blue-collar jobs (Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men), automotive fans (Top Gear, Hairy Bikers), and antiques (American Pickers, American Restoration).
Unfortunately, the History Channel also posted the lowest percentage of LGBT-inclusive content of any network tracked in this year's NRI, with only 3 percent containing any kind of LGBT impression. Most of those were on Full Metal Jousting, in which a gay horse rider was among the competitors training together in the dangerous medieval sport.
It's a world of difference from TLC, where 20 percent of the programming contained some kind of LGBT impression, out of the 545.5 hours tracked by GLAAD. TLC features a number of shows centering around weddings (Say Yes to the Dress, Four Weddings) and large families with Christian values (19 Kids and Counting, Kate Plus 8). This is also the network that brought viewers Sarah Palin's Alaska.
It's not a surprise to see that television series dealing in fashion feature LGBT people, as that industry has long embraced the LGBT community, and many of TLC's inclusive hours consist of wedding- and dress-centered programs that feature openly gay designers or stylists. Yet many of those same shows also feature same-sex couples (usually lesbian couples) in ways that move beyond stereotypes, showing them shopping for wedding dresses or looking for help planning ceremonies. The reality is that weddings are some of the most "traditional" and conservative ceremonies that many people participate in during their lives, and TLC's programs consistently show that it means just as much for same-sex couples to pledge their love for one another in front of family and friends as it does for opposite-sex couples. For many conservative viewers (and these shows have a lot), it's a quietly powerful reminder that at their heart, LGBT issues aren't about politics or positions but about people. For some, it may be the first time they ever see LGBT people in this context at all.
TLC is more than wedding programs, however, and LGBT people consistently show up everywhere from the tattoo-shop-set reality show NY Ink (which features out shop manager Robear) to shows about eccentric human behavior (Livin' for the Apocalypse) and even to shows about royalty (Undercover Princes). TLC covers a diverse gamut of human experiences, and taking a step back and examining a full year of their programming shows the network thought to include LGBT people in every high and low point.
That isn't to say that the impressions on TLC are always good, as a recent, defamatory episode of Cake Boss demonstrates. What they should be recognized for doing, and what the History Channel should take note of, is the conscious decisions made at the casting stage to include diverse representations rather than excluding them.
When asked for a reaction to their inclusion in this year's NRI, TLC's General Manager Amy Winter said, "We're honored to be included in this important and respected analysis of the LGBT community represented in media today. TLC is always working to share the authentic stories of remarkable people living compelling lives, without discrimination or exclusion."
It was that same thinking that led Dancing with the Stars to cast transgender advocate Chaz Bono in its last fall season, despite the show having a loyal conservative fan base. Simply the announcement of Chaz's casting was enough to temporarily rile up some conservative pundits, but by going on the show and doing his best, he showed many viewers that transgender people face a lot of the same fears, struggles, and hopes that they do. For viewers who might have felt that transgender people were something to feel threatened by, Chaz helped them see how wrong those assumptions can be.
Years of researching and analyzing depictions of LGBT people on TV have shown that nearly all the major networks recognize the social importance and storytelling value of including LGBT people in their programming. The best forward movement toward equality, however, might be better demonstrated by the positive impressions our stories are leaving behind in what might have once been considered hostile territory, and the willingness of those audiences to listen.
You can read all of GLAAD's findings in the sixth annual Network Responsibility Index by visiting glaad.org/nri.