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

Friday 25 October 2013, 15:48

Adrian Ruth Adrian Ruth 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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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    My TV-watching habits are non-sexuality-specific.

    i.e. I just enjoy watching well-made programmes. It's quite simple really !

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    It's good to see that the T of LGBT will be addressed next year. I'd be interested to know if the B is likely to get addressed too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    "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"

    That's interesting, and despite the inevitable catholicism-of-the-pope comparisons I'm still a sucker for a bit of demographic splicing.

    The youth of the Vicious fans is a good rebuttal of presumptions of ageism, too.

    I just hope it won't lead to more 'narrowcasting' - if it ends up on a memo as "GAY BOYS WANT CAKES AND SPEEDOS, LESBIANS WANT PANELS" we're all in trouble.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The BBC is NOT "leading the way on diversity". After 90 years the BBC has decided to identify LGB (but not T) people in an audience survey and we are supposed to be grateful? And the real story is that - surprise, surprise - LGB people are drawn to LGB content, but the survey results show that there is so little on offer, particularly from the BBC.

    The favourite programme of 18 -34 year old gay men is Vicious, probably because it is one of a handful about gay men. For lesbians in that age group, it is Rules of Engagement, a programme that features attractive assertive woman and that actually has a lesbian character. This just illustrates that if you want to see positive LGBT portrayals, you need to watch the commercial channels. The BBC shows mentioned in this survey were largely those that happen to have a LGB presenter or are unconnected with LGB issues like QI or Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

    This is hardly surprising. Currently the BBC is offering us a glimpse of its woeful, stereotypical portray of gay men in the past with another outing for Mr Humphries, mummy's boy Sheridan in Keeping up Appearances and camp Lieutenant Gruber constantly preying on straight Rene in 'Allo 'Allo. But has anything changed? Well, not much. We can watch modern comedy Bad Education and laugh at camp gay boy, Stephen Carmichael, who loves dancing and musicals.

    The BBC's response to the audience survey about the portrayal of LGB people gave the game away. Most of the straights are interested in seeing more about us, but before we get too excited, the BBC said it had to be mindful of the 20% who are uncomfortable with any portrayal of LGB people. So there we have it. An organisation funded by a universal licence fee can't afford to alienate 20% of the population, even if they are bigots, so far from the BBC leading the way, it looks like we can look forward to more camp gay men, rare glimpses of a butch lesbian and absolutely no sightings of any bisexuals.

    Meanwhile, I will be watching the commercial channels, which largely seem to have taken the decision to ignore the bigots and actually produce programmes about LGB people that I want to watch. It is a disgrace, that in order to see these programmes, I have to pay a licence fee to the BBC, which insults and offends LGBT people.


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