From 'Drag Race' to 'Hannity': New Nielsen data tracks LGBTQ viewing habits

"RuPaul's Drag Race,” “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “Empire” perform especially well among same-sex households, according to the data.
Akeria Davenport from "Ru Paul's Drag Race"
Akeria Davenport from "Ru Paul's Drag Race."VH-1
By Gwen Aviles

Nielsen has been tracking the viewing habits of American households for decades, and the nearly century-old company has recently launched a new metric that looks specifically at the viewing habits of same-sex families.

“These breakout numbers demonstrate that there’s a significant audience for LGBTQ programming,” said Zeke Stokes, chief programs officer at the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD, which worked with Nielsen to develop the metric.

Stokes said the new data will be helpful for television networks and advertisers to know that LGBTQ dollars “are important for business, and viewers deserve to have shows with longevity that reflect them.”

Some programs, according to Nielsen’s new metric, show vastly different viewing habits between LGBTQ and general viewers. For the week of April 15, for example, VH1’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — a drag queen competition show — and its spinoff series, “Untucked,” were among the top 10 most-watched cable shows in same-sex households. However, the two programs came in 285th and 359th, respectively, among a general audience.

And while sports programming took up six of the top 10 spots among a general audience the week of April 22, there was no sports programing on the same-sex household top 10 list that week.

Other cable shows, like “Game of Thrones,” proved to be a success among both groups. The HBO fantasy epic was the No. 1 cable show among LGBTQ viewers and a general audience the last two weeks of April.

When it comes to cable news programs, there was a marked difference between the general audience and LGBTQ viewers. MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show" was the No. 2 most-watched cable show among LGBTQ viewers, but it didn't make the top 10 in Nielsen's general viewership ranking. Fox News' "Hannity," however, was the No. 4 most-watched cable program among a general audience, despite having an average finish of 247th among same-sex households.

“It’s no surprise that Rachel Maddow is leading the pack,” Stokes said. “The LGBTQ community is largely a progressive one. They’re going to find news in places friendly to our community.”

The top 10 lists were more similar when comparing broadcast network viewing habits. CBS' "Big Bang Theory" and "60 Minutes" made the top three in both rankings for the week of April 22.


GLAAD approached Nielsen about including a breakout count for same-sex households in 2017 after director Dustin Lance Black and television producer Bruce Cohen expressed concern that Nielsen’s numbers did not reflect the full popularity of LGBTQ-centered programing.

Black, the Oscar-winning writer of “Milk,” and Cohen worked together on the 2017 ABC series “When We Rise,” a four-part mini-series about LGBTQ activists who pioneered the modern gay rights movement. The series received low ratings throughout its time on television.

“We didn’t believe the ratings for ‘When We Rise’ matched the intensity of the level of engagement and intensity of the LGBTQ community we were seeing on social media,” Stokes explained.

GLAAD emphasized that the same-sex spouses and partners count would be useful to advertisers who want to specifically reach LGBTQ audiences in its discussions and the two organizations then partnered to actualize the count.

In October 2018, Nielsen announced that it would tally LGBTQ viewers in its National TV Panel and has been providing clients with this data since then.

“These are useful insights to our clients from both a content development and advertising perspective as this represents a market that is often affluent and upwardly mobile,” Brian Fuhrer, Nielsen’s SVP of product leadership, said in a statement to NBC News. “It’s an important first step and was both good business and the right thing to do.”

Last year, GLAAD’s “Where We Are on TV” report found that there are more LGBTQ characters on television now than ever before. With shows like “Supergirl,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Pose,” the percentage of queer characters on broadcast primetime has reached an unprecedented level with one in 11 characters identifying as openly LGBTQ.

Stokes said GLAAD will continue to work with Nielsen toward counting LGBTQ individuals — instead of just same-sex couples, as is the case now — so that a fuller picture regarding who enjoys what programming can be achieved.