“The Oscar nominations are out, and they’re so white, a grand jury has decided not to indict them.”
With that pointed joke lampooning the 2015 Academy Award nominations, comedian Larry Wilmore launched his political satire series, “The Nightly Show,” last January. That line was equally applicable to the demographics of Hollywood writing staffs, executive suites and talent agencies — and is just as relevant one year later.
The Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies has published its third annual Hollywood Diversity Report. The comprehensive study, subtitled “Busine$$ as Usual?,” examines the relationships between diversity and profitability in Hollywood, and finds once again that audiences, regardless of their race, prefer diverse content. It also reports that films and television shows with diverse casts tend to sell more tickets and earn higher ratings.
“What we’ve found for three years running now is that audiences prefer content that looks like America,” said Darnell Hunt, lead author of the study, a UCLA professor of sociology and director of the Bunche Center.
The trend of higher ratings and earnings for more diverse content is reinforced by consumers’ online behavior. According to the report, social media engagement, an increasingly important measure of popularity, was higher for more diverse programming. For example, the study found that among broadcast TV shows, the median number of Twitter posts was highest for programs with casts that were made up of 31 percent to 40 percent minority actors.
Lack of diversity could have economic consequences for Holllywood
Despite the economic advantages enjoyed by programming with diverse casts — and the celebrated success of a few breakout figures — film and TV jobs still go overwhelmingly to white male performers and filmmakers, while women and people of color are denied opportunities to advance in the industry. Racial minorities, for instance, had 12.9 percent of the lead roles in the 163 films examined for 2014, despite making up almost 40 percent of the nation’s population.
During that same period, women directed just 4.3 percent of the top films, according to the report, down from 6.3 percent in 2013.
“While minorities fell back a few steps since the last report in six of the 11 industry employment arenas examined and merely held their ground in the other four, women suffered losses in eight of the 11 arenas examined and treaded water in the other three,” the report notes. “Both groups remained underrepresented on every industry employment front in 2013–14.”
The lack of diversity among 2016 Academy Award nominees — for the second consecutive year, all of the men and women nominated in the actor and supporting actor categories are white — led to a public backlash and the #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign, which decried the ongoing inequality in Hollywood. But beyond the immediate controversy, the demographic mismatch between Hollywood and the nation could portend serious economic consequences for the industry.
The report suggests that the entertainment industry’s current business model may soon be unsustainable. According to the study: “At nearly 40 percent of the nation’s population and growing, people of color are overrepresented among Hollywood’s audiences. … Similarly, viewer ratings and social media engagement demonstrate that people of color now make up arguably the most important segment of the television audience.” However, the report notes, “The very people best situated to help [Hollywood] connect with today’s (and tomorrow’s) audiences are hardly at the table.”
Why what - and who - we watch is so important
The researchers write that while Academy Award nominations generated headlines and attention, they merely hint at systemic problems that reach every sector of the industry — the networks and studios, agencies, film and television academies, individual producers and showrunners — and that the situation won’t be addressed with quick fixes. “It will require bold gestures that disrupt industry business as usual, which not only adjust the optics in front of the camera but that also overhaul the creative and executive machinery behind it.”
Hunt said those types of changes are necessary because of the entertainment industry’s singular influence on our culture.
“We know from data that when groups don’t know a lot about each other, much of what they think they know comes from entertainment,” Hunt said. “So to the extent that whole populations are absent in media or are placed exclusively in stereotypical roles, you tend to normalize certain types of hierarchical structures that are already in place in society and reinforce prejudices.
“The way we make sense of who we are, who we aren’t and who we ought to be often comes from the stories we tell and the stories we consume. This is why what we watch is important.”