The Oscar nomination announcements last month (AP Photos)
By Brent Lang
The United States may be a melting pot, but when it comes to diversity, the films and television shows it produces are missing a lot of ingredients.
From the board rooms of major media companies like Walt Disney, Netflix and Time Warner, to the shows they broadcast and stream and the movies they greenlight, Hollywood is male-centric, monochromatic and overwhelmingly heterosexual, the study finds. That’s the takeaway from a deep dive into the entertainment landscape by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
“It’s clear we have an inclusion crisis,” said Stacy L. Smith, the report’s co-author. “Every one deserves to see their stories seen and heard.”
The report’s authors looked at 109 movies, and 306 broadcast, cable and digital series, and found that a third of speaking characters were female, less than 30% were from minority groups and a mere 2% were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Roughly half of the films and shows the study looked at lacked Asian characters and 20% had no black characters.
The research lands a week before the 88th Academy Awards — an annual celebration of the movie business that was nearly derailed over complaints that people of color were overlooked in the major acting and directing categories. It also comes as Hollywood studios are being investigated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for gender discrimination — an examination prompted by the lack of films produced, written and directed by women.
The USC report, which faults the film business for being a “straight, white, boy’s club,” should add fuel to the fire. It finds that only 3.4% of film directors were female, 17.1% of broadcast directors, 15.1% of cable directors and 11.8% of streaming directors. Minorities were similarly excluded from directing work. Under-represented ethnic or racial groups directed only 12.7% of films, 9.6% of broadcast programs, 16.8% of cable series and 11.4% of streaming shows.
The issues with a lack of diversity start at the top. Women made up less than 20% of entertainment companies’ corporate boards, chief executives and executive management teams. At lower levels, there is more gender parity. Women comprised nearly 50% of senior vice president posts, but that number falls higher up the corporate ladder. Women made up only 35.9% of executive vice presidents and 23.7% of top executives.
“As the power and prestige increases, the percentage of women decreases,” said Katherine Pieper, the study’s co-author.
The study calls major companies to the carpet, measuring their record of inclusion across the programming and films they produce, as well as the behind-the-camera talent they employ.
To that end, television and digital players were much more diverse than big screen entertainment. The percentage of female, minority and LGBT characters, as well as female writers, directors and show runners at Hulu, Amazon, Disney and the CW all exceeded 65%. Smith pointed to the “promise of progress” on the small screen, with the study citing the success of Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), Kenya Barris (Black-ish) and Jennie Snyder Urman (Jane the Virgin) as examples of the ways that fostering diverse voices can make strong business sense.
On the film front, the situation was more dire. Time Warner scored a zero rating when it came to diversity, while, Sony and Viacom fared best with 20%. All of the companies, a group that included Disney, 21st Century Fox and NBC Universal, received failing grades.
The study also presents suggestions for how entertainment players can improve the representation of women and minorities on screen and in the corporate suite. Among other prescriptions, the authors argue that the companies should create “inclusion goals,” build lists of directors and writers to consider that are 50% women and 38% people of color, and weigh the strong financial performance of films with female or minority leads and directors when making decisions about future productions.
“There’s an epidemic of invisibility,” said Smith. “It strikes us as odd given that it’s 2016 and so many other institutions are making progress. It’s time for the entertainment business to move forward, as well.”
Watch John Oliver’s show weigh in on #OscarsSoWhite: