What do lesbian, gay and bisexual audiences really watch on TV?

Chair, BBC Pride

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Many of us probably have a strong hunch on what LGB people watch on TV – fuelled by personal experience or broad assumptions.  But there has never been any comprehensive research to support or disprove our hunches. Until now.

Why does it matter? Because LGB people are licence payers too, and the BBC, as a national public service broadcaster, has a duty to serve all audiences.

Before we get into the research, I’ll explain how we got here. Three years ago, the BBC undertook a big project looking at how lesbians, gays and bisexuals are portrayed on TV and radio.  Diversity is moving up the agenda in broadcasting, and as the leader of the BBC’s LGBT staff network BBC Pride, I’m pleased to report that the BBC has been leading the way (in recent years, the BBC has carried out similar research on age).

As part of that project, we carried out a large survey asking what people thought of LGB portrayal on TV and radio. The scores we got back were the equivalent of a poor to middling school report – improving, but could still do a lot better. LGB audiences wanted not only more portrayal, but also for that portrayal to be more authentic. 

The smart people in the BBC Audiences team realised that we’d have an even richer understanding of LGB audiences’ views if we could analyse actual viewing and listening habits, in addition to perceptions of representation and portrayal. So they made a small tweak to a standard BBC survey to ask people about their sexual orientation. This survey regularly captures the views of 20,000 people – and just over 1,000 of that sample have identified as LGB, spread across the UK.

As a result, we can capture and analyse every programme that this LGB sample have watched or listened to – and also ask how much they’ve enjoyed them.

The main headline isn’t going to set the world on fire – when it comes to the biggest shows, we are no different to the rest of the population. The big soaps dominate our consumption – Corrie, Emmerdale and EastEnders.

However, dig a little deeper and some interesting differences do emerge. LGB audiences seem to be a little bit happier with what they watch – when it comes to appreciation of all TV programmes, on average we tend to score them a little bit higher than straight audiences of the same age (this was true for all LGB groups except younger lesbians).

Compared to the population as a whole, we watch more arts, entertainment and music programmes – but are less enthralled by children’s, current affairs, news, religion and sport.

Having this scale of data means we can really dig down, letting us look at the differences between gay men and lesbians, and also segment it by age. This is really useful for making meaningful comparisons – for example, young gay men against young straight men – to see what difference being gay makes to consumption.

The results make for fascinating reading. They confirm that LGB audiences are drawn to LGB (or gay-friendly) talent and portrayal – whether as presenters or contestants (Great British Bake Off, Alan Carr, Celebrity Big Brother), subjects, actors or characters (Downton Abbey, Being Human, Modern Family, Vicious, Glee, Kenny Everett and the soaps). While we can all probably hazard a guess as to why ITV’s celebrity diving show Splash! proved such a hit with gay men of all ages, the reasons behind lesbians’ apparent fondness for panel shows such as Never Mind the Buzzcocks and QI may not be quite so obvious. The high percentages simply mean that these programmes appealed much more to lesbians than to straight women of a similar age. While the research can’t explain what drives people’s programming preferences, the beauty of using the panel for this research is that we will keep on accumulating examples, enabling us to gain over time an ever deeper understanding of LGB audience behaviours and tastes.

All credit to my colleagues in BBC Audiences – particularly David Bunker and Emily Fletcher, under the guidance of BBC Audiences head James Holden – for pursuing this pioneering research. I gather that the “T” of LGBT will also be covered in a major piece of work on gender being undertaken in 2014.  We’re keen to share this insight with other broadcasters too, which is why we first revealed these findings at a cross-industry Intermedia event at the BBC last month. See for yourself some of the detailed analysis here and keep watching and listening to see how well we’re representing all of our lives on air.

 

Adrian Ruth is Chair, BBC Pride.

 

 

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