Who’s getting heard – the new TV season

With a Netflix queue predominantly filled with Parks and Rec, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mad Men, from time to time I worry whether I have an accurate impression of how many complex female characters there are on TV. To get to the bottom of this, and for your viewing pleasure, I’ve done some back-of-the-envelope calculations and analyzed the new TV shows launched this season on the major networks (Fox, NBC, ABC, CBS, The CW).

Here are the results:

1. Who are the main characters?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, white men are getting the most screen time (47%), more than white women, who clock in at 34%.

Women of color (10.5%) and men of color (8.5%) feature far less prominently than either white men or white women. In total, 55.5% of main characters in new TV shows are men, and 44.5% are women.

n.b. I’m defining a main character as a character who features centrally in most (or every) episodes.

2. Who is the show about?

To figure out who was the main focus of each TV show I compared the number of female main characters with the number of male main characters. Men are more likely to be the main focus of a show, and less than a quarter of shows focus on men and women equally.

White characters are also far more likely to be the main focus of a TV show than are characters of color. The chart on the left shows how many TV shows have people of color as their focus, and the chart on the right shows the ratio of white people to people of color in the US (as per the 2010 US census). Although people of color make up 28% of the US population, only 5% of TV shows focus on people of color, with 21% focussing on both white people and people of color.

3. Who is creating the TV?

But looking at who is represented on TV only tells a small part of the story. We also need to know who is directing, writing, producing and making this TV happen. And who is creating it?

The chart on the left shows how many women vs. men are main characters on the new TV shows. If you squint really hard it’s almost half and half. But the chart on the right tells a different story. It shows how many men vs. women were listed as creators of the new TV shows, and women get less than a third of the pie.

4. What TV are we watching?

A survey of shows that have started running (not the many that are being launched mid-season) has shows created by men rated slightly higher than shows created by women (average rating of 2.52 vs. 2.05). Bear in mind that what decides the TV we watch includes marketing of a show, the time slot it’s given, as well as whether audiences are enjoying it.

We’re only seven weeks in to the season, with many shows not even started yet, so I’ll be checking in again on this later with more information.


This season we will be seeing fewer female characters on major channels than male characters. There will be fewer women featuring as the main stars of a TV show and people of color will be majorly underrepresented.

What we won’t be able to see is that women will have created less than a third of what airs. This means that many of the female characters we watch will reflect a man’s understanding of a woman’s experience, rather than an actual woman’s experience. Most likely there are female writers for the shows and women are also writing men’s experiences, but this doesn’t explain away the fact that women’s ideas and stories are not being valued in the same way that men’s are and we’re not getting to see them.

Another noticeable element of this study is the division of characters and creators into the binary gender categories of men and women. From the information I used (names, photos, synopses and clips from the shows) I wasn’t able to identify any genderqueer characters. This may be because it’s not obvious from this information whether a person is genderqueer. However it’s also consistent with patterns of discrimination in employment and a lack of acceptance and understanding towards those in non-binary gender categories. I would love to have more information about whether genderqueer people are represented in the new TV season (please comment if you have more info!) but as far as I can tell there was no representation.

For a breakdown of this TV season with regards to sexual orientation, gender identity and race/ethnicity I recommend the GLAAD Where We Are On TV 2012-2013 report.