Tim Davie, Director, Audio and Music

Date: 30.09.2010     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.15

Speech given at The Westminster Media Forum
Thursday 30 September

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Good morning. We live in an incredibly diverse and culturally rich society and the BBC has a responsibility to reflect and celebrate this diversity in all the content that we make and broadcast.

With my background in audiences, I strongly believe that they should be fairly and authentically represented across all our services. That is why, over the past two years, the BBC has commissioned studies and research on disability portrayal and how audiences across different regions of the UK feel that are represented across BBC television, radio and online. And that is why, when I volunteered to chair the Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual Working Group at the BBC, I agreed to commission the study we are publishing today.

The BBC has an absolute obligation to serve all our audiences as best we can. Not only to understand them and how they watch, listen and surf our content, but as importantly to more fully comprehend what they expect from us and how we can then to try and deliver against their expectations. There is also an element of promoting better citizenship through the research we undertake with our audiences – by ensuring that audiences are fairly, authentically and equally portrayed the BBC can be part of the solution to a more inclusive and better informed society.

This doesn't mean that we create a shopping list, or tick boxes of obligations, but rather create a set of considerations to be thought of – and applied if relevant – during the creative process.

So, who did participate in this study?

The BBC worked with two research companies – 2CV and Kanter Media – to develop the methodology that would provide the broadest picture of LGB portrayal and launched the study in January 2010. It represents the largest ever study of lesbian, gay and bisexual portrayal ever undertaken by the BBC. We undertook both quantitative and qualitative research and interviewed or surveyed over 2,000 people from across the UK and, to ensure that all voices and views were heard, we talked and listened not only to lesbian, gay and bisexual people – those who are already out, those who have just come out and those who were still dealing with the challenges and fears about their own sexual orientation – but also heterosexual people.

And again we subdivided – heterosexual people who were comfortable with the portrayal of LGB people in the broadcast media and those who were less comfortable with it, including families in both groups. And by uncomfortable I mean we talked to some people who were so uncomfortable with the concept that they didn't even want to see same sex couples holding hands after the watershed. Imagine the reaction in some sitting rooms across the country when the relationship between Christian and Syed was revealed in EastEnders.

In the nationally representative quantitative sample, 49% of those questioned were classed as 'comfortable' with the concept of lesbian, gay and bisexual portrayal, 32% – almost a third – as ambivalent, and 19% – almost one in five – as uncomfortable. Those expressing greater discomfort with aspects of LGB portrayal were more likely to be people over 55 years of age and heterosexual men.

When we met with over 100 people in the qualitative research in focus groups and in-depth interviews, all the participants were given the same examples of LGB portrayal as stimulus – both video and audio clips of content from a range of broadcasters as well as online printouts of BBC web pages – and were asked the same questions covering a broad range of topics. These included their perceptions of the amount of portrayal, authenticity, humour and language, intimacy, talent genre and media platform.

And we complemented this substantial study with a public consultation online. Launched in conjunction with the study and closed in April 2010, the online consultation elicited 9,400 responses – with a full range of respondents across different age groups, social backgrounds and religious beliefs.

While the majority of respondents were under 44 years of age, I noticed that 98 people over the age of 75 participated, which demonstrates that this is a topic of interested with all ages.

And while proportionately a higher number of white people participated online, people from other ethnic backgrounds also took the time to answer the questionnaire. And the same is true in terms of religion and belief. It's heartening to see that by using online consultations we can actively engage with all our audiences across social, ethnic and religious lines and I think that responses from the traditionally less active groups in society can only increase.

We have to take for granted that respondents of the online consultation were free to answer as many or as few questions as they wanted and they actively chose to participate so were likely to have strong views. Therefore, it provides more of a snapshot view of attitudes to portrayal than being truly representative of the nation as a whole. But, side by side with the formal study, it has helped build a picture of where we stand today.

So, what did our audience tell us? First of all, the results of the study and the consultation were broadly similar and all participants evaluated portrayal in light of their own immediate emotional response and their understanding and exposure to lesbian, gay and bisexual people and communities, either through their media diet or their lived experience.

I am not going to walk you through a statistical presentation today. Instead, I want to take a look at the broad themes that emerged and what the BBC intends to do next. So, let me begin by saying that many people who participated were surprised with the level and quality of existing portrayal across both the BBC's services and that of other broadcasters. And this is important to remember. We are not – either at the BBC or as an industry as a whole – starting from a low base.

As I have said, we have been portraying and representing LGB audiences for many years. Channel 4 – and this was recognised by many of those who took part – may have been perceived to have a stronger track record in terms of commitment to portrayal but they also stated that BBC's portrayal of lesbian, gay and bisexual people was as realistic. I think – and this is backed up by the study – that this has a lot to do with how well they signpost LGB content compared to how the BBC does it across all our TV and radio services and online. And this is something that we will take forward from the study.

Television was still the main platform which shaped people's perceptions of lesbian, gay and bisexual portrayal. Interesting when it came to scenes of intimacy uncomfortable heterosexual people would try to avoid the associated visuals that their LGB counterparts viewed as landmark content.

Naturally – and in particular – the lesbian, gay and bisexual community wanted to see more portrayal, but there was an equal desire for greater authenticity, a more cohesive approach in terms of signposting and more positive celebration. And this was a view shared with heterosexual people comfortable with portrayal.

LGB participants – like their heterosexual counterparts – also held a broad range of differing views and there was not always consensus among the sample. For example, while 37% of them rated the BBC's portrayal as 'good' or 'very good', a quarter thought that it was 'poor', and this was almost as neatly reflected in terms of their views of authenticity – 43% thought that it was 'realistic' but 38% thought the BBC still relied on stereotypes. So, it is worth noting that the BBC still has some work to do.

Diversity of portrayal was also important for this group. While there was an acknowledgement that stereotypes had a place they wanted to see portrayal draw from a richer pool of backgrounds and lesbian, gay and bisexual life experience. In total, 52% of the LGB participants felt that there was too little portrayal of lesbians and bisexual people in particular felt completely unrepresented.

As I have mentioned, authenticity was a key theme in the results. For positive respondents, it was at the core of credibility and quality. It was here, too, that showing a diverse range of LGB people and experiences was important to audiences, to simply reflect back the reality that these are not homogenous groups.

Factors such as tone, language, behaviour and visual identity were all key in determining and achieving authenticity. The response of lesbian, gay and bisexual people was roughly split and while there was a general consensus that the quality of authenticity had improved, the LGB sample still felt that portrayal on the BBC – and on other broadcasters – fell back on stereotypes. The stereotypes raised in the qualitative research in relation to gay men included looking 'camp', being well off or working in the media.

Other stereotypes included being promiscuous, prissy, pretentious and predatory. Lesbian women were stereotypically associated as frugal, aggressive, men-hating and sporty. Stereotyping in relation to bisexual people was behaviour or attitude focused, with bisexual people being categorised, stereotypically, as promiscuous, fickle, indecisive and sexually 'greedy'. The assumption that bisexuality was just a phase of sexual experimentation in youth was also regarded as typical stereotyping, by bisexual people in particular.

Intimacy was an area that drew polar responses. Again, for lesbian, gay and bisexual people and 'comfortable' heterosexual people, it was seen as a key factor to more authentic portrayal, but the level of intimacy was an area of concern for 'uncomfortable' heterosexual audiences. As I have mentioned, even same-sex couples holding hands was a problem for some heterosexual participants. And, of course, sex scenes provoked the highest levels of discomfort, although many respondents also had a level of discomfort about sex scenes between heterosexual couples as well although at a lower level.

We also asked questions about the role of 'out' talent. The main finding was the key role they played for those who had either recently come out or who were not out to more than one or two people at the most. They helped them develop a sense of gay identity in forming their own personalities and relationships and for those who had just come out they provided a reference point for friends and family.

Peoples' attitudes to portrayal were also determined by the genres it was found in. In comedy and entertainment, for example, the need for greater clarity when it came to humour was considered important, and in drama the key driver was authenticity and context but also a recognition amongst LGB respondents that 'watercooler' moments remain an important part of LGB portrayal if handled sensitively and given sufficient depth and time to unfold. Children's content proved to be the area of greatest debate.

Even comfortable heterosexuals with children in the qualitative research were conflicted when it came to the how, where and when with regards to lesbian, gay or bisexual portrayal. The determining factor was the age of the children in the household and for uncomfortable audiences it was seen as completely unnecessary and indeed one respondent talked of 'saving the innocence' of children for as long as possible.

So where does this leave the BBC? As I said at the beginning, research is not about creating a shopping list, or ticking boxes but there are clear commitments we are taking from this study – first and foremost, a commitment to achieve greater accurate and authentic portrayal across all our services.

To that end we have already begun to share this research with content teams across the BBC. They need to be aware of the opportunities and have the confidence to reflect the diverse audiences around them. This doesn't mean there will suddenly be quotas for LGB content but we do want to make demonstrable progress.

The BBC commits to review this research and consultation in two years. That might seem like a long way time before revisiting this topic, but commissioning cycles are lengthy and it can take some time before a creative idea gets to the audience.

And, finally, the BBC Working Group, of which I am Chair, will monitor on an ongoing basis the implementation of these recommendations on behalf of the BBC Diversity Board.

And, before I finish, I urge you all to browse the material that the BBC archive has today published on the BBC's own history of covering portrayal. If you think of our most recent portrayal in programmes, and I don't only meant the fantastic dramas including The Diary Of Anne Lister, Torchwood and the forthcoming Lip Service, but also the recent The Last Taboo, an Inside Sport on homophobia, and Undercover Princes on BBC Three, as well as The Archers, it's amazing how the language, tone and content has moved forward and that momentum must continue.

Thank you.