“RuPaul’s Drag Race” and its behind-the-scenes spinoff, “Untucked,” are cultural touchstones that have launched catchphrases and minted stars. But neither series has ever lit up the ratings. Recent episodes of each series garnered only a few hundred thousand viewers and were the 285th and 359th most-viewed shows in the cable ratings for the week of April 15.
But both series performed extremely well in another ranking.
The “Drag Race” and “Untucked” episodes were the No. 3 and No. 9 most watched among same-sex households that same week.
This is according to Nielsen’s same-sex spouse or partner household rating, a new statistic that, for the first time, provides a snapshot into the viewing habits of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
For some show creators, the inclusion of LGBT households as a viewing demographic is a long overdue step, and could provide an additional data point to help keep a show on the air. It could also open up a wellspring of information for advertisers that can use it to tailor pitches to viewers most likely to be watching a particular show.
A breakdown of popular TV network shows ranked by total viewers in the same-sex category and their overall standing, according to Nielsen, from the start of the current season to date.
THE CONNERS — Same-sex: 1st; Overall: 31st
WILL & GRACE — Same-sex: 2nd; Overall: 82nd
SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL — Same-sex: 5th; Overall: 1st
BIG BANG THEORY — Same-sex: 6th; Overall: 2nd
MURPHY BROWN — Same-sex: 8th; Overall: 34th
SURVIVOR — Same-sex: 16th; Overall: 29th
NCIS — Same-sex: 28th; Overall: 3rd
“From our clients’ perspective, this is incredibly valuable,” said Rachel Lowenstein, an associate director of Invention Plus, a unit of the media agency Mindshare. “Look at how much LGBTQ couples make in terms of their household income. From a disposable-income and consumer-spending standpoint, they are a lucrative audience.”
Some shows have little or no difference between how they rank among general viewers and same-sex households. “Game of Thrones,” for instance, was the No. 1 cable show for both.
But for others, the disparity is stark. An episode of the Food Network’s “Worst Cooks in America” ranked 22nd in same-sex households versus its overall rank of 82nd. HBO’s “Veep” was the 21st most-viewed cable series in same-sex households versus 134th overall. ABC’s “The Conners” — sans Roseanne Barr — is the No. 1 watched network show this season in same-sex households, versus an overall rank of 31st.
All editions of Sean Hannity’s Fox News program were among the 12 most-watched shows in cable the week of April 15. Among same-sex households, “Hannity” had an average finish of 247th place, according to Nielsen. Another news commentary show, MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” had a higher ranking among gay households than it did among general viewers.
The same-sex rating — which, for now, includes only same-sex couples — came about partly because of criticism from producers involved in making original programming centered on gay, lesbian and transgender themes who feared that the ratings for their series did not reflect their impact.
When ABC aired a four-part miniseries on the history of gay rights called “When We Rise” in 2017, the show’s creator noticed that the low Nielsen ratings were in marked contrast to the enthusiastic response on social media.
“It just didn’t feel right,” said Dustin Lance Black, the creator of the series and the Oscar-winning writer of “Milk.” “I’m not saying it would have translated to a smash success, but something just felt off in the ratings versus the experience we were having.”
It led Black and another producer of the series, Bruce Cohen, to ask GLAAD, the organization that tracks representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, if Nielsen surveyed same-sex households. The answer was no.
At the time, several series with gay and transgender characters were in danger of cancellation, including ABC’s “The Real O’Neals” and CBS’ “Doubt.” The year before, “Eyewitness,” a USA Network show centered on two gay teenagers, was canceled after one season.
“It was a thriller, it was a remake of a Norwegian show, but it had a strong LGBT component,” said Adi Hasak, the “Eyewitness” creator. “To realize that that demo wasn’t part of the Nielsens was devastating.”
This is where Nielsen disagrees. Executives at the 96-year-old research firm, which has become a punching bag for frustrated producers and executives amid declining ratings and the rise of streaming, said that its total viewership figures were accurate and left no one out.
The one thing it did not do until recently, however, was break out a separate measurement for same-sex households. Nielsen already measures ratings for African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American households, giving networks, studios and advertisers more data on who is watching what.
After GLAAD reached out to Nielsen, the company got to work on finding a solution.
“There are things that are good for the business, and there are things that are just the right thing to do,” said Brian Fuhrer, Nielsen’s senior vice president for product leadership. “This is an unusual situation where both came into alignment.”
Some television executives have cautioned that the numbers could be subject to the whims of a small sample size. Nielsen has based the new rating on a survey of 500 same-sex households; the company tracks 47,000 households to project its full viewership figures. And Nielsen does not currently track single gay, lesbian or transgender people, but the company said it would do so in the future.
Still, the new statistic could be a boon to advertisers. Same-sex couples earn significantly more money than their straight counterparts, according to the Treasury Department, making them appealing to advertisers.
“Our brands will be interested in this not just in terms of being more inclusive, but also to reach a more affluent audience,” said Lowenstein, who works at the media agency. “This is something that’ll be extremely valuable once it’s tradable in the marketplace.”
Who could some of those advertisers be? Top advertisers for “RuPaul’s Drag Race” include MillerCoors and pharmaceutical company Gilead, according to a VH1 spokeswoman. Leading advertisers for gay-themed cable channel Logo include Subaru and Hershey.
Even without the same-sex rating point, gay inclusion on TV series has improved. GLAAD reported that a record number of gay, lesbian and transgender people appeared as regular characters on broadcast television series last year.
One could question the utility of a new Nielsen rating at a time when people are cutting their cable subscriptions and people watch shows on their own schedules — and on streaming services, which Nielsen has made efforts to track. But GLAAD has emphasized that Nielsen’s examining viewership data from the group is an important step.
“I would not discount being counted,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, chief executive of GLAAD. “I think it’s more important than ever that, as part of LGBTQ community, we are being counted and in whatever way that is.”
Black, the “When We Rise” creator, underscored the point.
“The more visible we can make ourselves in film and television, the greater ability we have to introduce ourselves,” he said. “That erases misconceptions. Let our numbers and eyes be counted. I believe when they are, you’ll see even greater numbers for LGBT-themed shows. That means a better chance of a renewal for a new season and being canceled a little bit less.”