It’s 9 p.m. On what television channel is your teen most likely to see a gay character?
It’s not the once-subversive MTV. Or NBC, once the home of Friends and Will and Grace. It’s ABC Family and Fox, the networks launched by conservatives, who have the most gay and lesbian characters on cable and broadcast, respectively. What’s more, GLAAD specifically cited one of ABC Family’s signature shows, The Fosters, as an example of the direction that networks should follow.
“It’s important to us that the show reflect the world,” says Peter Paige, one of the executive producers and head writers on The Fosters.
GLAAD’s Network Responsibility Index (NRI) evaluates the “quantity and quality of images of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people on television.” In the 2012-13 television season, 42 percent of all primetime broadcasting hours on Fox had LGBT characters (so it’s not just Glee), 33 percent of the hours on ABC had LGBT characters, 29 percent on NBC, 28 percent on the CW, and just 14 percent on CBS.
On cable, ABC Family clocked 50 percent of its primetime hours with LGBT characters, followed by FX with 40 percent, Showtime with 31 percent, MTV with 28 percent, TLC with 27 percent, HBO with 26 percent, USA 20 percent, TNT 17 percent, TBS 10 percent, and The History Channel coming in dead last, with zero percent. GLAAD Associated Director of Entertainment Media Matt Kane says they were “surprised” to see Fox do so well, although the network is famous for Glee, one of the most diverse and gay-friendly shows on television.
MTV was the first cable network to ever receive an “Excellent” score, with its groundbreaking shows The Real World, True Life, and Skins. GLAAD praised the network for being “reliably inclusive” in 2012-13, but did mention that the number of LBGT characters have since declined. ABC Family, meanwhile, received the second-ever “Excellent” score from GLAAD in 2011 (for the record, ABC Family only received a “Good” score in the 2012 report).
Kane says the ABC Family has transformed “considering where they came from—although that was a very, very long time ago that the network had a conservative bent and it simply isn’t that network in any shape or form.”
Pat Robertson started ABC Family as the CBN Satellite Service in 1977 to focus on religious programming. In 1990, he spun the hugely profitable channel off into the International Family Entertainment Inc., with the newly-named “Family Channel” being the principle property. The company went public in 1992, and then was sold to Fox Kids Worldwide in 1997 for $1.9 billion. CBN received $136.1 million from the sale, with Robertson personally receiving an estimated $19 million, according to Christianity Today. One of the caveats of the deal, aside from keeping “Family” in the name, was that Robertson’s signature program, The 700 Club, would continue to air twice a day on the network. In 2001, Fox sold the channel to Disney, where it was renamed ABC Family.
Today, ABC Family is not affiliated with CBN except for The 700 Club, and the network airs a disclaimer prior to the broadcast that says it does not endorse the views stated on the show. Meanwhile, in 2006, the network rebranded itself with the tagline “A New Kind of Family.”
“We wanted to represent family in a contemporary and authentic way, but we also didn’t want to run away from the word family,” says Kate Juergens, ABC Family’s Chief Creative Officer and Executive Vice President for Original Programming and Development. “I think [sexuality] will always be a part of our programming—I don’t see us going away from it.”
Enter the modern era of ABC Family. One of its signature shows, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, has three gay characters (and a guest spot by Chaz Bono), Switched at Birth features a lesbian character, and the breakout hit Pretty Little Liars has a main character, Emily, who is a lesbian. Pretty Little Liars creator Marlene King says that when ABC Family approached her to adapt the book series into a show, she asked if the network was comfortable with a central character being a lesbian. What’s more, King didn’t want Emily’s sexuality be something that defines her.
“She just so happened to be gay,” King says. Being gay is “part of who she is, but it doesn’t define her and it’s not 100 percent a part of who she is.”
The Fosters, which premiered in June 2013, tells the story of a lesbian couple raising several children, including the biological son of one of the women and several adopted and foster children. GLAAD’s Kane calls The Fosters “a great example of a show that has very diverse characters in terms of their backgrounds and their ethnicity.” In fact, the season finale (spoilers), which was filmed just days after the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down, featured the wedding of main characters Lena and Stef.
“By far, we were the first post-DOMA LGBT wedding on television,” Paige says. In fact, in the script the wedding speech was left with ellipses to include the Supreme Court’s decision.
Besides both having conservative roots, ABC Family and network television leader Fox are targeting millennials (and younger)—a demographic that is more likely to support gay rights than older generations. Among young adults aged 18-32 (millennials), 70 percent support same-sex marriage, according to a March Pew Research poll. The generation after millennials, the teen audience that ABC Family courts, is likely to be even more supportive of LGBT rights.
“The teen audience has embraced this show and this family to such a degree that they’re celebrating it,” Paige says. “They don’t see it, and they’re not watching the show the way people of my generation are, where they’re like ‘holy smokes, I can’t believe this is on TV.’ They’re going, ‘oh yeah, that’s like my friend Jim, who's got two moms. Or my friend Bill, who's got two moms.’ It’s just a part of the world they live in, and I think that’s such a beautiful, beautiful thing.”
But there’s a flipside to that: among the Baby Boomers, only 38 percent support same-sex marriage, according to the same Pew poll. More than 70 percent of Republicans, meanwhile, are opposed to same-sex marriage, according to a June Pew poll.
That could help explain the History Channel having zero gay characters. Viewers of the History Channel tend to lean Republican, according to a 2012 report by YouGov Brand Index, as well as tend to be older, with 39 percent of the networks audience being over 55 and the average age of its viewers is 49.4 years, according to National TV Spots.
When asked for comment, the History Channel sent a statement saying that the majority of its content is “historical in nature, and primarily features programming in the history-based reality genre. Additionally, we have very limited scripted programs, and what we do have, is historically-based, such as Vikings and Hatfields & McCoys. Because of the nature of our programming, as a network, we feel it is inappropriate and insensitive to ask any of our characters about their sexuality (and sexual preference).”
In the meantime, Kane remains optimistic that the History Channel and other networks with low representation of gay and lesbian characters will progress more toward inclusion. For example, Kane, says, transgender people were once “nearly invisible” on networks, and now Glee has made Unique a recurring character, Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has a trans character, and The Fosters is adding a trans character next season.
“There’s a lot of really great original stories out there to tell about LGBT people that you’re not going to get simply by putting another gay white man on television,” Kane says.