Everyone is Tired of White People on TV

Professor Darnell Hunt of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies released preliminary data at this year’s National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications Conference from the forthcoming publication, “Hollywood Diversity Brief: Spotlight on Cable Television.” The data suggests that viewers are more likely to watch shows with racially diverse casts and writing staffs. Dr. Hunt had this to say about the research:

This is one of the first studies, to my knowledge, that attempts to flesh out the relationship between the issue of diversity among cast members and writers and the bottom line. While this brief is just the first snapshot in what we envision as a multi-year study, it certainly lends support to an argument we have been making for a long time. Everyone in the industry talks about the importance of diversity, but it clearly isn’t priority one when decisions are made. And it’s not going to be a priority until people realize how it affects the bottom line.

The analysis for cable television shows (minus reality programming) demonstrates that casts that were 31-40% minority had the highest median household ratings. Casts of 10% minority or less had the lowest ratings, yet constituted the largest number of cable shows in the analysis. That’s right. Despite diverse casts performing better than super white ones, most shows are STILL super white.

And it gets better! Not in the sense of it gets more diverse and such. Just that the data justifies the points we are constantly trying to make (which is that the more diverse things are at every level, the more enjoyable televisions shows are) BECAUSE shows with diverse writing staffs also fare better in cable ratings. Researchers found that writing staffs with 10% minority or less (AKA a vast majority of shows in the analysis) slumped in ratings when compared to shows that had 11-20% and 41-50% minority staffs.

The analysis does dip its toes in broadcast waters as well. During the 2011-2012 season, median household ratings peaked among shows that were 41-50% minority and dropped off for shows with only 10% minority or less. Token characters just aren’t cutting it anymore, people! This is a jump, but maybe part of the reason cable shows are doing better and networks continues to plummet is because cable seem more proactive about showcasing minority voices, writers, and performers–at least according to this data.

On the writing side of things, broadcast shows with the least diverse staffs did not post the lowest ratings BUT broadcast shows with the highest ratings had writing staffs that were significantly more diverse than those of most broadcast shows. To me this suggests that nothing bad will happen to your show if you have minorities on the screen and putting pen to page. ONLY GOOD THINGS HAPPEN. What a shocker.

I feel represented...kind of?

I feel represented…kind of?

I’m eager for the full study to come out because I have a feeling that minority women are doing a lot worse than their male counterparts, and hope the analysis at least touches on the gender divide. Of the cable shows the release names as having 31-40% minority cast members (A.N.T. Farm, The Closer, and Falling Skies), only one minority woman is shown in the promo shots of major characters from all three shows. One minority woman. Total. From shows that supposedly have 31-40% minority cast members. And she’s a teenager.

antfarm

Sorry, kid. This might be as good as it gets.

I’ve read a couple of books about television development and scheduling and they made it clear that this is not some network secret. Execs know that one of the best ways to bring in more viewers is to add a minority cast member. In fact, it’s the go to move for shows that are struggling or having trouble with a certain demographic. Women aren’t watching the show? Add a female character! Only white people tune in? Throw a token at your problem!

This is what diversity looks like?

This is what diversity looks like?

Despite the outrage, feelings, and general disappointment with the lack of minority representation in the media, white dudes continue to insist they know what’s best. Maybe with the help of these numbers and more studies like this one, they’ll finally accept that money is being lost by not diversifying productions, because clearly they don’t care about the fact that diverse perspectives strengthen shows and storylines. The more we depart from prioritizing, glorifying, and focusing on straight white male voices, the more room there will be for not only racial minorities but LGBT performers and writers as well.

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Brittani Nichols is a Los Angeles based comedy person. When she's not tweeting about white people or watching television, she's probably eating pizza. Actually, she's probably doing all three of those things concurrently and when she's not doing THAT, she's sleeping. Brittani also went to Yale and feels weird about mentioning it but wants you to know.

Brittani has written 308 articles for us.

29 Comments

  1. Thumb up 15

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    As a child and young teen (I’m now 22), I remember there being a lot of diversity in the TV shows marketed to me. As a young child, Gulla Gulla Island was a serious favorite. Hey Arnold! was moderately diverse (probably would hit that 31-40 percent rating), as was All That. Fresh Prince and Keenan and Kel had primarily black casts and were successfully marketed to diverse audiences. All those Nickelodeon game shows casted diverse kids for their contestants. Shows about black families like That’s So Raven, The Famous Jett Jackson and The Proud Family ran on Disney with great success, and several of my favorite Disney Channel Original Movies had non-white central characters and even directly addressed themes of racism, oppression and privilege, e.g. Gotta Kick It Up, The Cheetah Girls, The Color of Friendship. The kids networks were clearly paying attention to diverse demographics. As I got into my teens and started watching regular old adult TV, I remember being bothered by how much whiter the content was.

    Basically my point is these findings don’t surprise me. People my age grew up seeing a range of races in our favorite characters, and now that we’re watching grown-up-people TV, I’m not surprised that we are seeking shows with more diverse casts. I hope the powerful TV people pay attention to these kinds of reports and start making shows that look more like the ones I loved as a kid and less like Girls.

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      I have the same feelings.

      Disney channel was everything and it was pretty good with diversity in its programming. When I got older I was so confused! I also remember TGI Fridays where they had Step by Step mainly a white cast because it featured a white family but right after or before there was Family Matters and Sister Sister. It was prefect because it showed a variety of families and even Dinosaurs (I’m the baby, gotta love me!).

      This is giving me serious nostalgia feels, oh to my multi-cultural youth.

        • Thumb up 8

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          Last time I checked, race was a socially constructed attribute of persons, not countries. Anyway, nobody’s “imposing” anything on sovereign nations that have traditionally had a majority-white population. These (nominally) democratic nation-states have adopted immigration policies, some explicit and some implicit, that make them attractive destinations for other-than-white peoples from parts of the world that the aforementioned nation-states, in their previous incarnations as (explicitly) imperial powers, ravaged and left dysfunctional. These states have adopted such immigration policies not out of compulsion by any external force, but because people are desperately needed to do all the work that the uppity white folks in them are too uppity to do. And to call what’s happening “genocide” is equally absurd. What’s happening is that white folks are reproducing below the replacement rate (perhaps they’re starting to realize how boring and disliked they are?); “suigenocide” would be a more appropriate term. Get some perspective, son.

        • Thumb up 5

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          Remember learning how black people first got to the Americas because white people captured and enslaved them? And how non-white peoples were in the southwestern U.S. before white settlers? These are the kinds of things you should remember before you start spewing nonsense.

        • Thumb up 3

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          Wow. Just wow. “genocide of white folk” caused by immigration? Could you troll with nonsensical hate-speech elsewhere?
          I don’t appreciate you rocking up to my internet happy place and being an enormous asshat.

          As far as I’m concerned it’s vile and unacceptable to trivialize and undermine the term genocide with your incoherent rambling.

          More importantly, statements referring to places as “white countries” as if skin colour entitles you to own the world and police the movement of everybody else based on your own terms. This makes you sound like a gigantic bigot and also someone that is immensely ignorant to pretty much all of world history. How can anyone be so willfully ignorant of the colonial and oppressive history of most of the major powers in the Global North, the places where you bitch about “assimilation”; and ignorant of the white majority’s history of taking over a population by a different technique – “eradication” and the role those actions have taken in shaping the modern world…. I could go on all day, but you know what? It is not my job to rescue you from your ignorance, it is your own. Do us all a favour and read a fucking book.

          This is the rudest/most aggressive response I have ever posted on here, or indeed anywhere, so I apologize for creating shitty vibes, but I’m done with ignoring it when other white people say stupid shit.

        • Thumb up 7

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          “This is the rudest/most aggressive response I have ever posted on here, or indeed anywhere, so I apologize for creating shitty vibes, but I’m done with ignoring it when other white people say stupid shit.”

          absolutely no need to apologize. i’m sorry from all of us to all of you that this appalling (and derailing) fucking comment wasn’t noticed and deleted before anybody had to read it. thank you Cissy Boy, Audrey and Shirley for your patience. i’ve blocked this human from all further engagement with this website. i was surprised that somebody would take the time to register as an AS member just to leave that comment, but then again, i’m not.

    • Thumb up 3

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      i feel like tv was more diverse even when i was growing up, like 80s/90s… and there were more all-black sitcoms on network broadcast tv — like the cosby show obvs, fresh prince, family matters, sister sister, moesha, hangin’ with mr cooper, martin, in living color, in the house, living single, sinbad show (also quite a few shows i like that got cancelled right away like thea, me and the boys and south central). as far as i know there’s nothing like that now on broadcast tv, it’s all on cable. except like, the cleveland show, which is animated, idk i’ve never seen it.

  2. Thumb up 5

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    It is sad that we are going to science to help us attempt to transform television. Apparently it is not common sense that having a diverse cast & crew equates to a greater opportunity of writing in various real life issues into a show, which will further develop it, keeping your audience interested, instead of using the same old – stressed out cis hetero white male, which is hard to pity, empathize & relate to.

    Diverse writers -> diverse ideas -> diverse cast -> larger demographic -> $$$ (which is what the exec/networks want in the end)

  3. Thumb up 3

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    Well…yeah. My shows, my Glee and Community and Elementary, are all p. racially diverse. And that’s an important piece in feeling true. Why would you want a show that less reflects reality? (Don’t answer that.)

    Besides race and gender though, I’m interested in disability representation. Glee has shittons of disabled characters (BRITTANY S. FIERCE), Community has possibly-the-best-autistic-character-ever Abed, and even Elementary’s Sherlock makes my neuroatypicaldar want to claim him as one of our own. I’m pretty sure that most TV shows do not do a very good job on it though. (Teen Wolf. Oh Teen Wolf, how you disappoint.)

      • Thumb up 2

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        That distinction between real and fantasy/scifi disability (and oppression in general) is kind of fascinating/maddening.

        Mostly how scifi/fantasy media in general has this habit of taking narratives of oppression, and completely whitewashing/straightwashing them.

        • Thumb up 9

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          Do you mean, for example, how _X-Men_ began as a thinly veiled metaphor for the civil rights movement, with Prof. X corresponding to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Magneto corresponding to Malcolm X, yet there were no X-people of color—or, for that matter, LGBTQIA X-people—at first? Why, even the *blue* mutants were either introduced later (e.g., Nightcrawler and Mystique) or started out white (e.g., Angel/Archangel and Beast)!

      • Thumb up 2

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        Yes, exactly!

        X-Men, specifically, was pretty much the first example that came to mind for me, actually (and it’s the same for multiple people who read/write autostraddle, I guess, because after writing the thing that I wrote I read the recommendation for _Supercakes_ that was posted here recently, where Mey talked about mutants replacing queer people in X-men, and how nice it is to have a superhero comic that doesn’t do that).

        • Thumb up 7

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          To be fair, both X-people of color (e.g., Storm and Jubilee) and queer mutants (e.g., Destiny and Mystique) have been introduced over the years. But all of these characters appeared during or after the revival of the series in 1975, that is, during the Bronze Age. This revised version of the franchise was quite distant, both temporally and thematically, from the Civil Rights Era. And it wasn’t until 1989 that the Comics Code Authority approved any kind of queer content.

          As for the original Silver Age _X-Men_ (1963–1970), I think that black characters might’ve muddled the metaphor: If mutants are supposed to represent black people, then who are the black people supposed to represent? Besides, the sad truth is that black X-men wouldn’t have been instantly relatable to the overwhelmingly white target audience of these books in the same way that white X-men were. I’m sure there were more than a few impressionable young people who came to sympathize with the mutants, figure out the metaphor, and then realize that, just like mutants, black people are people too. So it may have done some good.

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    Guys, I’m a young, white, female, would-be screenwriter in Oz (it’s a long way off, but it’s happening), and I’m seriously stuck on this issue. I’d like to have a healthy representation of minorities on any show I write, but I have no idea how to write characters of different ethnicities to my own, and get it right. I’ve been told if I just write characters that I want to write, who are complex and balanced, without assigning them a race, and just leave that to fate, or decide on their race later, they won’t be “accurate”. But I don’t want to fall into writing stereotypes either. I’ve never experienced being a minority, except as a bisexual, and that’s something I don’t generally get judgement for, because it’s not immediately visible. And as someone living in a heavily white country, with some slightly racist, not that they’d admit it, relatives, I’m so bloody terrified of being inadvertently racist that I’m second-guessing every possible decision. Any ideas for how to get out of this funk and write some arse-kicking fiction?

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      Wasn’t Oz canceled years ago?

      Anyway, I have two thoughts on this matter:

      First, play to your strengths. The representation of persons who are not “monosexual”—despite how widespread its use is, I find the term offensive and prefer “miasexual”—lies somewhere between nonexistent and abysmal. You would contribute to on-screen diversity just by writing characters who are like you.

      Second, collaborate with screenwriters of color. Doing so may lead to personal as well as professional growth on your part; and, more importantly, you would be undermining institutional racism—even if ever so slightly—by providing opportunities for your collaborators to benefit from and exploit your own white privilege.

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      I suggest getting some of your minority friends to review your characters. Not all people of different ethnic backgrounds respond the same way to situations, if your friends read what you’ve written about your characters and find the responses credible, then that is a start.

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