Published: 4th, August 2022
We examined the most popular British TV shows of the past five years between 2017-2022 to determine just how diverse they are in terms of Gender, Ethnicity, LGBTQI+ and Disability.
The shows we selected were the ten most popular by viewing figures. All that was left to do was research and analyse them to compile our Diversity in UK TV study.
Why did we do this?
British society has become more and more polarised in recent years so much so that the UK government are also discussing disability and gender inclusivity in the media.
Political issues like Brexit have driven wedges between people of different viewpoints, and this intolerance has spread to topics like climate change and COVID-19 too.
But perhaps the most divisive issue of the day is diversity.
Labels like the ‘woke agenda’ and the ‘culture wars’ have been thrown around, and people on both sides of the debate around equality and trans-rights have become more intolerant of the perspective of others.
It is certainly not our place to take sides in these debates. But we wanted to take a look at the broader issue of diversity in British TV to consider whether what we see on our screens is reflective of British society as a whole.
Our results threw up more than a few surprises.
Scientists we are not, so we approached this with a view to getting a snapshot of the situation on our screens rather than analysing every show on TV.
Therefore, we conducted some research to identify the most watched and popular TV shows in the UK over the past five years. This did not include reality TV, game shows, and televised events as these shows rotate participants regularly and are therefore impossible to quantify in any meaningful way.
We have also focused on TV shows on terrestrial TV channels (the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) rather than streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+.
This is partly because they tend to attract bigger audiences and partly because quantifying British viewers from those based at home is easier based on the data in the public domain.
The TV shows that we looked at have been scripted, made by a production company, performed by actors, and all go through a conscious process to create characters and cast actors.
Having identified these ten shows, we then looked at the demographics of the main cast. By the main cast, we mean characters that appear on a regular basis throughout the series rather than guest stars and cameos appearances.
We pulled those figures together and then compared them to the most recent demographic data about the UK population as a whole to see how they compared.
There were some extremely interesting results.
Gender Diversity in UK TV
According to the official Government data, the UK has a total population of 67,220,000. Of that number, 33,150,000 classify themselves as male and 33,940,000 consider themselves female, with the rest identifying as something else.
That means that the UK population can be divided into 50.5% female and 49.3% male.
Of the ten TV shows we looked at, there was a total regular cast of 309. Of those 155 were male, and 154 were females.
- 50.2% of characters were male.
- 49.8% were female.
So, while there is a very slight skew in favour of male characters, it is fair to conclude that the gender diversity shown on TV in the UK is broadly in line with the gender make-up of the wider UK population.
Kudos to TV producers and writers for getting that balance broadly right so far.
Racial Diversity on UK TV
UK population data shows that approximately 8,738,000 people in the UK identify as being from an ethnic minority background. That accounts for around 13% of the total population.
So, does TV reflect that?
Our analysis found that of the 309 characters we looked at, 51 of them were from an ethnic minority background.
- 51 of 309 characters from the top 10 TV shows of the past five years are from an ethnic minority.
- 16.5% of TV show characters are classed as being from an ethnic minority.
This data shows that people from an ethnic minority are over-represented in British TV shows. But only very slightly compared to population data as a whole.
There is perhaps a discussion to be had about why this might be the case, but most people would concur that, again, UK TV shows are getting it broadly right when it comes to representation of ethnicity on our screens.
LGBTQI+ Diversity on UK TV
Next, we looked at the proportion of characters (as opposed to actors) on UK TV shows that could be classified as coming from the LGBTQI+ community.
In considering this, we only counted characters who were open about their sexuality and discounted any characters where sexuality was hinted at but not explicitly clear.
In the UK, there are around 2 million people who identify as LGBTQI+, which makes up around 3.1% of the population.
In the TV shows we looked at;
- 20 of 309 characters identified as LGBTQI+.
- 6.5% of all top ten TV show characters identify as LGBTQI+.
While this is still a relatively small number of the overall number of characters, it shows that LGBTQI+ characters are quite significantly over-represented in UK TV shows in comparison to the general population reporting.
Indeed, you are more than twice as likely to encounter an LGBTQI+ character on TV as you are in real life.
However, it has to be remembered that not everyone would openly identify as LGBTQI+ in official polls.
Disability Diversity on UK TV
Lastly, we considered the make-up of disabled characters on UK TV compared to the UK as a whole*.
Again, we looked at characters that are classified as disabled rather than the actors playing them, and this is much harder to quantify than the other demographics we have looked at.
Disability comes in many forms, is not always visible, and can also manifest itself in different ways. People who don’t appear to have a disability can still be disabled, and this wouldn’t necessarily be reflected on screen. Nevertheless, our findings in this category are stark.
In the UK, 14.6 million people are classified as having a disability of some kind. That is around 21.7% of the total population.
- Of 309 TV characters we looked at, just 5 could be considered to be disabled.
- Only 1.6% of top ten TV show characters are disabled.
This is, by some distance, the biggest discrepancy we found between representation on our screens and the UK population as a whole.
We readily accept that not all disabilities are visible, and it may be the case that characters are living with a disability without it being apparent to viewers, as many people do in real life.
But the fact that there are ten times as many people in the UK population who consider themselves disabled compared to characters on screen suggests that when it comes to on-screen diversity, it is disability representation where TV producers and writers still have to make real improvements.
After finalising our research we’re confident in saying that in the past five years, TV shows in the UK have made significant improvements in how minorities are represented across our screens.
However, there is much work left to be done in getting the balance correct.
Some would argue more representation is needed beyond demographic figures to improve daily relations between all groups, although more work is needed in all areas such as culture and education and not simply left for TV shows to resolve.
Just because you have a certain percentage of any one group in a demographic does not mean this is simply enough if met on our TV screens.
While there is a definite improvement in the balance of UK TV shows, disability is massively underrepresented and direct action needs to address the lack of both visual and non-visual disabilities.
Our work and research is covered under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.
You are free to use our work, republish our data, text and images. However we request that fair credit and attribution be applied.
We simply ask that you link to and credit WatchTVAbroad.com with the URL: https://www.watchtvabroad.com/diversity-uk-tv/ as the source of the statistics and research.
* Our disability statistic card was updated 13th October 2022 to correctly reference those without any disability as “Non-disabled”.