TV Viewers Favor Shows with Diverse Casts and Authentic Storylines

“If we fail to adapt, we fail to move forward.” — John Wooden

The rapidly changing entertainment industry has had two work stoppages in three years — the pandemic and the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes — and continues to grapple with an “existential crisis” of inclusion that has been decades in the making. How will Hollywood adapt so that it can move forward? Now that the strikes are over, what’s next?

Let’s take a moment to look back first…

Today, we (along with our co-author, Michael Tran) released the 2023 Hollywood Diversity Report, Part 2: Television — the tenth in a series of annual reports — that examines the relationship between diversity and the bottom line. Part 1, which focuses on 2022 Hollywood theatrical and streaming films, was released in March 2023. Part 2 considers the 2021-22 season, the latest television season since the previous Hollywood Diversity Report release. It examines 521 live-action, scripted television shows across broadcast, cable, and digital/streaming platforms from the 2021-22 season to document the degree to which people from underrepresented groups are present in front of and behind the camera. It discusses any patterns between these findings and conventional and social media audience ratings.

Exclusivity in Progress, Part 2

Though studios may have responded to pressure from advocacy groups with more diverse representation in front of the camera since we launched this report series a decade ago, these efforts have fallen short of meaningful inclusion because there have only been incremental increases in the shares of women and people of color as show creators, writers, and directors — critical behind-the-camera positions. After numerous proclamations of a commitment to increase diversity during the summer of 2020, just a couple of years later many studios and networks began cutting positions held primarily by people of color and eliminating pipeline initiatives and training programs. Some have canceled projects that never aired or soon after they aired and removed diverse films and television series from their streaming platforms for cost-saving purposes. Indeed, this past summer, many of the Black women who had been hired in Hollywood diversity-related, leadership positions — some of which were created in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the nation’s racial reckoning — were no longer in their positions due to “restructuring” or other reasons. This led many to wonder if industry, post-Floyd proclamations were just performative.

The 2021-22 television season was sandwiched between the nation’s racial reckoning, a once-in-a-century pandemic, and work stoppages the industry had not faced in decades. Despite some minor gains in 2021-22, people of color and women remained underrepresented in most television employment arenas. For both women and people of color, the “bright spot” exceptions were among cable scripted leads and credited cable writers. To be sure, the area where people of color have seen the most progress as a collective over the years is in main cast roles. For the first time in 2021-22, people of color achieved or exceeded proportionate representation as main cast actors across all platform types. However, this level of representation did not extend to lead roles in broadcast or streaming for people of color. Instead, much of the increase in broadcast and streaming cast diversity documented in this report series has been in supporting roles. This limited strategy reflects the industry’s minimal investment in telling stories that are more reflective of America’s growing diversity.

More widely dispersing the power that has traditionally been wielded by the few is a daunting but necessary task. The industry status quo has been to respond to periodic pressure for more inclusion by providing access for only a select few, thereby preserving business as usual. For example, even with the steady increase in opportunities for people of color and women to become show creators in this competitive business, those who have been granted access do not typically receive the same financial support as their white male counterparts. In 2020-21 and 2021-22, television shows created by people of color and women tended to receive smaller budgets than those created by white men, particularly in the streaming arena. Only a select few women show creators and creators of color on any platform were awarded the opportunity to create a show with an episodic budget of $5 million or more.

Know Your Audience

There is the possibility, at this moment, of pushing change forward and further than ever before. The double strike shows the power of collective action. After decades of being devalued, writers and actors have organized and fought back, not unlike labor strikes of the past that took place during periods that were transformative for the industry. However, the state of Hollywood remains tenuous. Since last year, even before the strikes began, most of the streamers began to cut back on their programming, and some signaled that their traditional broadcast and cable networks may be up for sale.

If the conglomerates that own Hollywood studios and networks want to maximize opportunities for profitability and make wise economic investments in the face of a rapidly changing Hollywood landscape, they should look no further than the findings in this report series that show increasingly diverse audiences gravitating towards increasingly diverse content. To maintain interest from audiences composed of “cord cutters,” they must provide television programming with familiar faces and perspectives that their audiences find most appealing to them.

In broadcast and streaming during the 2021-22 television season, each viewer group across race, ethnicity, gender, and age categories watched a majority of top ten shows with racially and ethnically diverse casts. At least half of the top ten shows for each group had casts that were gender-balanced or majority-women, and many streaming shows included actors with known disabilities in the casts.

Even in streaming, where certain programs are promoted over others by each platform, viewers of color still seek out content that reflects them as much as possible. When examining the top 10 television shows by Asian, Black, and Latinx households, we found that not only are households of color interested in watching shows with diverse casts, but they also want to watch shows that feature actors who have a similar racial/ethnic background as them. In addition, the next five TV shows beyond the top 10 of each of these lists follow a similar pattern of cultural relevance. For Asian households, nine out of the top 15 streaming TV shows featured an Asian actor in the main cast. The shows that were just out of the top 10 but within the top 15 for Asian households were Netflix’s
The Witcher and Bridgerton, and Disney+’s Ms. Marvel. For Black households, 12 of the top 15 streaming TV shows featured a Black actor in the main cast. The shows that were on the lower end of the top 15 for Black households were Netflix’s The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window and Amazon
Prime’s Harlem. For Latinx households, seven of the top 15 streaming TV shows featured a Latinx actor in the main cast. The shows that did not make the top 10 but were still within the top 15 were Netflix’s Keep Breathing, Cobra Kai, and The Lincoln Lawyer. Overall, people of color want to see themselves represented on screen with stories that also meaningfully represent their experiences.

In addition to cast diversity, writer diversity is also relevant to television show ratings. In recent years, we have found that viewers generally favor television shows that feature a relatively diverse group of writers credited during the season. In 2021-22, this finding was particularly pronounced in the broadcast and streaming arenas. Stories written from diverse perspectives result in more plausible characters, make for more interesting television, and boost a show’s overall appeal.

In this next chapter for Hollywood, a focus on low-budget procedurals featuring formulaic storylines may seem like a “safe” strategy. However, a move away from developing new and original stories, which is what creatives from underrepresented backgrounds deliver, and an overreliance on the type of shows that dominate broadcast ratings, but don’t necessarily dominate overall viewership, are not a strategy for long-term growth for the industry. The U.S. population under 18 is already majority people of color. Gaining loyal viewers and subscribers for your studio or network, whether it’s on streaming or traditional television, will require investment in creatives and executives from diverse backgrounds that reflect the demographics of the country’s youngest generations. This will be the way that live-action, scripted television can remain relevant and something worthy of viewers’ time and money.

Reversing the progress made on the diversity front in the past ten years would be a grave mistake for Hollywood. Adapting to the interests of today’s increasingly diverse audiences is the only viable way for Hollywood to move forward.

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