There are plenty of key differences between what cable TV can get away with and what broadcast network TV can get away with. On some levels, cable has the freedom to be much more progressive. We're more likely to get F-bombs and sex scenes and graphic violence on cable that we are on network. Still, there's one major way that network television is actually much more progressive than cable. As it turns out, the networks treat the ladies a lot better than on cable. More major characters on broadcast series were female in the 2015 - 2016 TV season than ever before.
In fact, 41% of main characters on network series were female during the 2015 - 2016 season. To compare, only 28% were female on cable, and 39% on streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu. Additionally, networks offer more racial diversity. 17% of all broadcast characters were black women, with a further that were 5% Latina women. According to the San Diego State report entitled "Boxed In 2015-16: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television" (via The Wrap), female representation is on the rise across the board on network TV.
Returning series in the 2015 - 2016 season brought back leading ladies like Viola Davis of How to Get Away with Murder, Gina Rodriguez of Jane the Virgin, and Kerry Washington of Scandal. It also introduced a few new shows with female leads, including Quantico (starring Priyanka Chopra), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (starring Rachel Bloom), and Scream Queens (with a whole slew of actresses in the major roles). Supergirl introduced the first lead female superhero into a network genre mostly filled with male superheroes. All in all, 2015 - 2016 was a pretty great season for expanding the roster of shows with women as stars.
Shows starring actresses still don't make up even half of network programming, but progress is being made. A few new series with ladies in lead roles are set to debut in the 2016 - 2017 season, including Pitch on Fox and Doubt on CBS. Cable and streaming just aren't keeping up with the networks' increased focus on starring roles for women. Well done, network TV. Well done.
That said, network TV's representation of women isn't perfect. Hit CBS sitcom 2 Broke Girls has been criticized for presenting what some consider to be stereotypical caricatures of women, and programming all around often presents female characters more likely to be defined by their relationships to men than by their own accomplishments. Only 26% of the folks working behind the scenes on TV shows - ranging from directors to writers to executive producers - are women. Progress may be picking up for women on network television, but it has pretty much stalled behind the scenes for network and cable alike.
Only time will tell if network television continues its trend of giving more opportunities for women to star in primetime series. Hopefully cable and streaming platforms will become more progressive when it comes to female leading roles in the future. Check out our fall TV premiere schedule to see what you can catch on the small screen in the near future.