The Case for Diversity in Entertainment
When the results of the study done at UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies titled “Hollywood Diversity Brief: Spotlight on Cable Television” were released, everyone blindly cosigned. And why wouldn’t they? This was the perfect “we told you so” moment. But snap judgments almost always overlook deeper meanings.
Studying the ratings performance of shows based upon the diversity of their casts and writers’ rooms produced results that were telling on many levels. On the surface, we saw that more diversity in the cast and in the writers’ room yielded higher ratings. But when you look at the study methodology, the fine print is very telling.
For this study, reality shows were excluded. Why you might ask? What’s the big deal? Well, this detail exposes television’s dirty little secret. Even as television at-large makes strides to better represent reality, reality TV does a terrible job of portraying real life. Now that’s a dose of irony.
But that’s not the only skeleton that the television industry has in its closet. The other finding of note was the disparity between cable and broadcast television. While cable TV leads in diversity, continues to gain ground in viewership, and consistently innovates, broadcast TV is stuck in an old white man’s mindset. Probably because it is run by mostly old white men.
People always look at diversity and affirmative action programs as mainly inclusion initiatives. It’s seen by many whites – who benefit from white privilege – as charity for minorities. But the other half of those programs is a push to better the organizations which suffer from a lack of diverse students, staff, characters, and writers. Having diversity doesn’t just mean broadening the spectrum of skin color and genetalia represented. It also means getting access to different backgrounds, perspectives, and value systems. Diversity makes an African-American female detective in a small Northeastern town believable in Sleepy Hollow. It makes a female Asian-American Watson acceptable in Elementary. It makes an African-American robot seem normal on Almost Human.
So, what does this all mean? It means that television and its audience are starting to finally look more similar. It means, as a TV viewer, you are being represented as more than a hollow stereotype. If you are Indian American, you can see yourself on The Mindy Project. Homeland manages to be centered around terrorism yet still depict Arab Americans as complex individuals. Everyday, average Americans are seeing people they can identify with on-screen.
But for network and reality TV to truly embrace this movement, we all need to vote with our remotes. For every one of these diversity successes there is a Saturday Night Live. For every Survivor: Cook Islands there is The Bachelor. And the only reason these shows persist is because people watch them.
TV execs are slaves to the ratings, so much so that they will put nearly anything on air that they think will score with viewers. And since viewers still skew older, straighter, and whiter, shows like The New Normal will continue to lose their slots. So really, we only have ourselves to blame for the programming we are subjected to.
The only drawback of the study is that the vast majority of television shows, both cable and broadcast, are not diverse. So even though the results show that diverse casts and diverse writers’ rooms are performing well, it doesn’t prove that the formula for better ratings is to just add some color to the cast. There just isn’t enough diversity in existence yet to support that notion.
However, this study might be just what the doctor ordered to wake up some TV studio heads. Only time will tell if they can be convinced to start taking some chances on diversity.
Read the full brief here.
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