Year after year, researchers bemoan the state of representation in the entertainment industry, repeatedly finding that progress has been incremental at best. Yet audiences want to see themselves reflected in pop culture, and movies and TV shows with diverse casts often bring in major box office and viewership numbers.
To put it simply: When Hollywood executives and creators don’t prioritize equitable representation in characters and storylines, they’re leaving money on the table.
That’s the conclusion of a new report released Thursday by media research giant Nielsen, which examined the 300 most-viewed TV shows of 2019, tracking scripted, reality, variety and news programs on streaming, broadcast and cable. It found that TV shows with proportional representation — shows that portrayed “diverse identity groups” (in terms of gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation) in line with those groups’ percentages of the U.S. population — had higher viewership than shows that did not.
So not only is there a moral case for equitable representation on screen, but there’s also a resounding business case, according to the report, “Being Seen on Screen: Diverse Representation and Inclusion on TV.”
“We’ve learned through this initial analysis that diverse audiences are drawn to diverse content,” Stacie de Armas, Nielsen’s senior vice president for diverse consumer insights and initiatives, said in an interview. “So the more diverse content that there is and the more representation that there is on screen, the more content developers, networks and platforms can build their audiences around that content.”
Nielsen’s analysis found that streaming programs lead the pack in terms of the representation of diverse groups, followed by broadcast and cable, likely because “you have the availability to choose more discrete and unique content on streaming platforms,” de Armas said. “And also, if you think about it from a producer or a content developer perspective, streaming has largely been a home for a lot of content that hasn’t found a home elsewhere.”
Overall, the report concludes that the representation of many groups remains low across all platforms and networks, despite the sheer volume of content.
I think it's eye-opening, not just to the industry, but just for anybody to know. Like, for my daughter to look at this data and to look at this one really simple-to-read chart, and say, 'Wow, men are present on screen nearly 70% of the time. That feels like a lot, Mom.'" Stacie de Armas, senior vice president for diverse consumer insights and initiatives at Nielsen
Nielsen’s researchers found that white, Black and LGBTQ people were well represented compared to their levels in the U.S. population. But women, Hispanic or Latinx, Asian and Native people were significantly less represented relative to their populations.
For instance, women make up 52% of the U.S. population. But TV is nowhere near gender parity: Only 38% of the major characters or talent who appeared on screen in the top 300 shows were women.
Among some of the report’s other most glaring findings: Across all of the shows, Hispanic or Latinx people, especially Latinas, were significantly underrepresented, as were Native people. Only 2.3% of the shows had non-binary representation.
On cable, less than one-third of shows had proportional representation of women, people of color or LGBTQ people.
There are also disparities within different demographic groups and genres of programming. For example, while Black people are generally well-represented, especially on broadcast and streaming shows, much of that is due to an overrepresentation of Black men and a severe underrepresentation of Black women.
In news programming, more than 15% of the on-air talent consists of Black men. Black women only make up 0.12%.
Nielsen’s data is unique because it enables researchers to compare the demographics of the on-screen talent for the 300 shows to those of the U.S. population as a whole and those of a specific show’s audience, according to de Armas.
“So we not only can get a look at who’s on screen, but who are the audiences that are consuming that content,” she said.
The researchers also limited the demographic analysis of characters and on-screen talent to the top 10 recurring cast members, so TV creators or executives can’t just count a guest star or a special episode as an example of diversity.
De Armas hopes the data can help creators and executives keep track of the demographics of their shows and their audiences, so they can hold themselves accountable and identify where they can expand their viewership or subscribers. In addition, advertisers can also use the data to create better marketing that matches the audiences they’re trying to reach.
Because this is the first time Nielsen has done this kind of analysis, de Armas says the company’s future research will aim to include more kinds of representation — for instance, disability representation, which wasn’t measured this time around. It will also try to conduct a deeper analysis of the themes and storylines of the TV programs because executives and creators should consider not only who is represented on screen, but how they are represented and what kinds of narratives these shows are advancing.
The report also notes the weight of being underrepresented and not having one’s stories told. For instance, Latinx people are severely underrepresented across all TV platforms and genres.
“With so few programming that includes Latinos at parity or above, there is inequitable pressure on a few programs to get storylines right for all Latinos,” the report reads.
With the report, Nielsen is also launching a data visualization tool so that anyone can compare different demographic groups with how much they are represented on TV and in what genres.
“I think it’s eye-opening, not just to the industry, but just for anybody to know. Like, for my daughter to look at this data and to look at this one really simple-to-read chart, and say, ‘Wow, men are present on screen nearly 70% of the time. That feels like a lot, Mom,’” de Armas said.
“The Hispanic population represents 18.8% of the population, but we’re only 5.5% of what you see on television. That’s easy for people to understand. And then of course, I think it will help support the dialogue that needs to happen in the industry.”
Read the full report here.