Some of this downward spiral can be attributed to changes in the television landscape, including the rise of cable and the Internet, whose success in stealing viewers has made the networks even more desperate to create shows that have mass, rather than niche, appeal. And most of the good lesbian characters have historically been found on niche shows (Buffy, Once and Again, Relativity, etc).
It's also a product of the increasingly conservative political climate. The atmosphere of fear created by the FCC, Republicans, and the Religious Right not only doesn't encourage risk-taking, it is downright hostile to lesbian visibility, as we saw when the WB preemptively edited out a lesbian kiss from the premiere of their new series The Bedford Diaries in March (although an edited-out lesbian kiss was the least of this badly written show's problems).
But the disappearance of lesbians on network TV is also reflective of how much hasn't changed–specifically, that network TV is still largely created and run by white straight men (or, occasionally, white gay men). Earlier this week, the Writer's Guild of America released the initial results of their annual survey on hiring practices for minorities and women in television, which showed no noticeable improvement in the 2006-2007 season over last year.
According to the report, the number of women holding staff writing jobs in TV in the 2005-2006 season rose from 447 a year ago, to 542–or around 29.3% of the total jobs. That's only around 1% more than their 25.8% share six years ago, in the 1999-2000 TV season.
The share percentages are even more disproportionate for racial minorities, who currently hold only 12% of staff writing jobs. This is only going to get worse with the upcoming merger of UPN and the WB, especially for black writers (almost half of whom were employed by UPN last season).
This homogeny doesn't bode well for lesbians on TV. Diversity breeds diversity–it's no coincidence that the most likely candidate to feature a queer female character next season is Grey's Anatomy, a series created and written by a black woman (Shonda Rhimes) that boasts one of the most diverse casts on network television, and a writing staff that is more than 50 percent women (the only network drama to be able to claim this).
Rhimes said in a recent interview with L.A. Weekly that the problem with most of the female characters on TV written by men is that "women are written as a man would like them to be, as opposed to how they are", which tends to translate to "a lack of complexity". And queer women are nothing if not complex, at least by conventional standards.
One of the new fall series may out a character somewhere along the way next season, especially since there are so many with large ensemble casts (Heroes, The Class, Brothers and Sisters, etc.). But current shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives have had large ensemble casts for two seasons, and Ana Lucia's obvious gay vibe aside, no lesbians have surfaced on those shows so far.
And even if Cristina…er, someone does come out on Grey's Anatomy, or another show, that still just leaves us with one or two lesbian or bisexual women out of hundreds of characters, for an entire season.
All of which points to the fact that, for the near future at least, we'll have to look elsewhere for scripted entertainment that includes prominent, well-developed lesbian and bisexual characters. Cable channels like Showtime and The N, GLBT channels like Logo, and broadband Internet sites like Bravo's OutzoneTV (if it actually included content for lesbians, and not just gay men) offer our best chance at seeing lesbians who are more than just fleeting plot devices designed to support the heterosexual characters.
These alternate channels aren't a perfect solution–most don't have wide distribution yet, a large majority of the content is still geared towards gay men, and, in Showtime's case, they still haven't figured out that there's such a thing as too much lesbian angst. But they're learning, and improving, and eventually, they'll get it right.
And at least they're moving towards more lesbian visibility, instead of less.