When Zendaya won last month’s Emmy Award for top drama series actress, her triumph seemed to underscore the TV industry’s progress toward inclusivity.
The Euphoria star became the second Black winner in the category in five years, following Viola Davis’ drought-ending win for How to Get Away with Murder in 2015.
But such success contrasts with the lag in diversity in behind-the-camera jobs and among TV executives as measured by the yardsticks of race and gender, according to a new University of California, Los Angeles, study released Thursday.
“There has been a lot of progress for women and people of colour in front of the camera,” Darnell Hunt, dean of the school’s social sciences division and the study’s co-author, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, there has not been the same level of progress behind the camera.”
That’s most notable in Hollywood’s executive suites, where little has changed since the UCLA study tallied the numbers five years ago, he said.
Underrepresented and overlooked
As of September 2020, the study found that 92 per cent of chair and CEO positions at TV networks and studios were held by white people, with men filling 68 per cent of those posts. Among senior executives, 84 per cent were white and 60 per cent were male. In 2015, the executive suites were 96 per cent white and 71 per cent male, which represents what Hunt calls “minimal change.”
That’s especially telling given the racial reckoning fanned by the police-connected deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans, according to Hunt. While media corporations have voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement, their actions have failed to match their words, Hunt said in an interview.
This is despite the growing market share represented by consumers of colour as they edge toward becoming the majority demographic in the United States, Hunt said Wednesday. According to the U.S. Census, the country in 2019 was 60 per cent white and 40 per cent people of colour, with the latter figure projected to reach 53 per cent by 2050.
“Hollywood has been trying to figure out how to acknowledge the relationship between diversity and the bottom line without fundamentally changing the way they do business,” he said. “If they were serious about reading the way the wind is blowing and where the market is going,” more executives reflecting that would be hired.
“But they haven’t done that,” he said, acknowledging a notable exception in Channing Dungey, who at ABC became the president of a major broadcast network, jumped to Netflix and this week was named chairman of the Warner Bros. Television Group. Dungey is Black.
Inclusivity also lags for those in offices outside the C-suite. In the 2018-19 season, people of colour were, on average, 24 per cent of credited writers and 22 per cent of directors for all broadcast, cable and streaming episodes.
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The underrepresentation of people of colour in decision-making and creative positions means that ethnic characters’ storylines “may lack authenticity or will be written stereotypically or even ‘raceless,”‘ Ana-Christina Ramon, a co-author of the report, said in a statement.
Women, at slightly more than half the population, represented 28.6 per cent of online series creators, 28.1 per cent in broadcast and 22.4 per cent in cable. While they made gains in those and most other on — and off — camera jobs, they remain underrepresented in nearly all.
The study, which examined 453 scripted broadcast, cable and online TV shows from the 2017-18 season and 463 such shows from 2018-19, found that people of colour on-screen are collectively approaching proportional representation.
“We’ve come a long way in that regard” from UCLA’s first study of the 2011-12 season, Hunt said.
But the advances are lopsided when examined by ethnicity. Black actors have led the way in inclusion for more than a decade, Hunt said, while Latinos are consistently underrepresented, Indigenous people have been “virtually invisible” and Asian American numbers ebb and flow.
Middle Eastern and North African inclusiveness has been on the rise.
“But we’re not saying anything about the quality of the images, because in some cases inclusion can be a bad thing for those groups because we’re taking about stereotypical images,” he said. “That’s another topic.”