The number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) characters in lead, supporting or recurring roles on network TV has dropped from 20 last year to just seven this coming season, according to an analysis by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
Meanwhile, the total number of shows featuring LGBT roles has declined from 16 last season to just six this fall - "ER," "Will & Grace," "NYPD Blue," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Dawson's Creek" and the new ABC hospital drama "MDs."
The decline, coming after three straight years in which gay and lesbian characters enjoyed a surge in visibility on network television, was disappointing to leaders of the gay community.
"The diversity of the gay community cannot be conveyed through seven characters, especially when all of those characters are white," said Scott Seomin, entertainment media director for GLAAD.
Much of the decline is due to the fact that 11 shows with gay and lesbian characters last season failed to make it back on the schedule this fall, including "Spin City," "Felicity," "Once and Again," "The Ellen Show" and "Dark Angel." In addition, the only two series to feature a bisexual and a transgender character - "That '80s Show" and "The Education of Max Bickford," respectively - were both canceled last season.
Seomin suggested that gays' prime-time presence may also have suffered from programming choices by networks looking to offer more "comfort food" to an American public unsettled by events of the past year.
"I believe they are programming for comfort, and that's very, very narrow programming, and the gay and lesbian community, like all other minorities, don't bring a lot of comfort in the eyes of the programmers," he said.
This year's declining presence of gays and lesbians on broadcast TV reverses a trend in which the number of LGBT portrayals ran between 20 to 24 for each of the past three seasons, Seomin said.
Not only do gays remain scarce on prime time, shows featuring homosexual characters that manage to achieve hit status fail to spark the kind of imitation seen by other television genres, Seomin said.
"The networks are not copycatting the success of shows with gay and lesbian characters, like 'Will & Grace,' the way they copycat medical dramas, for example," Seomin said.
Karen Narasaki, head of the multiethnic coalition of civil rights groups pressing for greater racial diversity on network TV, said the decline of gay and lesbian characters in prime time fits a larger pattern.
"When there are fewer minority portrayals on television, the accuracy of the representations decreases," she said in a statement.
By contrast, cable television offers a far heavier concentration of gay characters on a smaller number of shows, with a total of 22 LGBT roles counted on six shows this coming season - "Oz," "Sex and the City," "Six Feet Under" and "The Wire" on HBO, "The Shield" on FX and "Queer as Folk" on Showtime.
Gays' network visibility is due to grow again early next year when two new shows debut as mid-season replacements - the CBS sitcom "Charlie Lawrence," starring Nathan Lane as a gay actor turned congressman, and the Fox series "Oliver Beene," about an 11-year-old boy who is revealed in flash-forward scenes to be gay, though he doesn't know it yet.