This fall, actress Viola Davis made history by becoming the first black woman to win an Emmy for “Outstanding Lead Actress in Drama.” In her acceptance speech, she drew attention to the lack of opportunities for women of color in television and film — an accusation against Hollywood that has been echoed by many over the years.
The good news, however: It appears major television networks are actually beginning to listen. But if TV hopes to accurately depict the demographics of today, there is still a long way to go.
In 2013, a Think Progress article highlighted the skewed representation of women and minorities in U.S. prime time television shows. If what appeared on television had been representative of U.S. demographics, it said, then half of the entire U.S. population would be white male, with Asian and Latino men collectively only making up 1.9 percent of the total population. This is, of course, far from the truth. Asian and Hispanic communities are in fact the two fastest-growing populations in the United States, constituting 6 and 18 percent of the population, respectively.
While harsh rhetoric and negative depictions of immigrants have dominated most of the primary debate talking points, one begins to wonder if certain candidates are more influenced by their TV screens than today’s demographic realities. One look at PNAE’s interactive voting map, which games out the critical role that increased numbers of Hispanic and Asian voters will play in the 2016 and 2020 elections maps out a different message: Pay attention to these shifting demographics if you hope to win the White House.
There certainly has been a stronger push to increase diversity in U.S. television programming in recent years, with some claims that we are entering an era of never-before-seen representation of women and minorities on screen. For Asian-American actors, both the rise in quantity and quality of roles is evidence that the face of TV is changing, albeit slowly. Comedian Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix series “Master of None” is being lauded for moving away from Indian-American stereotypes and highlighting the lives and struggles of second-generation Americans. In ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” which recounts celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s Florida upbringing as the son of Taiwanese immigrants, Asian-American actors fill all the lead roles. This season, ABC also launched “Dr. Ken,” starring comedian Ken Jeong, which marks, for the first time ever, two Asian-American primetime television comedies airing simultaneously. For Asian female actresses, lead roles have also increased — “The Mindy Project,” a comedy starring second-generation Asian-American actress Mindy Kaling continues to draws laughs from fans as it runs in its fourth season. And ABC’s new drama series “Quantico,” which stars Indian celebrity Priyanka Chopra, premiered as the network’s top show in September.
On the contrary, Hispanic representation on television has dipped, even while its presence in the U.S. demographic has increased substantially. A study conducted by Columbia University reveals that in 1950, Latinos played 3.9 percent of all TV lead roles, even though they only constituted 2.8 percent of the population. Yet in 2013, none of the lead appearances on TV shows were by Latinos, despite the fact they made up nearly 17 percent of the U.S. population. Today, ABC’s Emmy-winning comedy “Modern Family” and The CW’s “Jane the Virgin” are some of the only shows where you’ll see Latinas in prominent roles. And there are even fewer supporting roles for Latino men, with women capturing 67 percent of all Latino supporting roles. A 2008 Media Matters for America study analyzed the diversity of guests on primetime cable news shows over a month and found that Latinos made up only 2.7 percent of the 1,700 guest appearances across the major networks CNN, MSNBC, and FOX. Even fewer Asian-American guests appeared on these shows. Recent statistics aren’t much better: A recent Media Matters study found that Latinos represented only 4 percent of all guests who appeared on English-language Sunday shows (like NBC’s “Meet the Press” or CNN’s “State of the Union”) during the first 18 weeks of 2015.
Where arguments for greater diversity were once based solely on the grounds of social obligation, major networks now also see it as a good business practice. As television networks are now forced to compete with online streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, recent demographic shifts present an economic opportunity. And these groups hold a lot of weight; Hispanics, for example, are large consumers of all forms of media compared to every other ethnic group. In fact, Hispanic spending power in general has grown to significant levels. In 2013, for example, Hispanics held one out of every ten dollars in disposable income in America.
There is growing evidence that television shows that embrace higher levels of diversity are more popular among viewers, especially Millennials, and in turn, are more profitable. This has led several networks to include it in their strategic policy. Beginning in 2004, ABC vowed to increase diversity by approving four shows — “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Lost,” and “Ugly Betty,” which all featured more ethnically diverse casts.
Given that many of these minority groups are growing at a rapid rate with their purchasing power increasing, it is only smart for networks to incorporate diversity in their strategic business plans and programming. Candidates who adopt this strategy into their political campaigns would benefit, too.