With the pandemic increasing Hollywood production costs and an economic recession incoming, many of the biggest entertainment companies, including Warner Bros. Discovery and Netflix, have started to make drastic and alarming cuts to programming and staff.
As a new report out Thursday warns, Hollywood executives must not fall into their old pattern of letting diversity and inclusion efforts fall by the wayside in times of tightening budgets.
“With a looming recession, the industry is faced with continued uncertainty, which historically does not bode well for diversity when it is treated as optional instead of essential,” the team behind the annual UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report wrote. “Diversity initiatives traditionally are the first to be cut or sacrificed when there are economic downturns. This is already evident with the recent sale of The CW and the merger of Warner Bros. and Discovery. Many executives of color or executives who supported diverse programming were let go from their positions at these companies, and diverse shows have been either canceled, shelved, or dropped from development.”
Founded by UCLA executive vice chancellor and provost Dr. Darnell Hunt and Dr. Ana-Christina Ramón, director of the school’s Entertainment and Media Research Initiative, the report has consistently illustrated that TV shows and movies with more equitable racial and gender representation perform better with audiences.
Thursday’s new report on diversity in TV draws particular attention to the fact that despite gradual representation gains over the last few years, opportunities in Hollywood ― especially those behind the camera ― are still inequitably distributed. In an era of big-budget streaming and premium cable shows like Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon,” the report found that women and people of color are far less likely to get the chance to create these kinds of spectacle shows, compared to their white male counterparts.
“We saw an uptick in opportunity for people of color and women having their shows greenlit, which should be a marker of progress,” Ramón said in the report. “However, when we examined the episodic budgets of all the TV series, we see a strong pattern indicating that shows created by people of color and women tended to receive smaller budgets than those created by white men, particularly in the digital arena.”
The higher the show’s budget, the more likely it was created by a white man. For example, on digital and streaming shows, where creators tend to get bigger budgets and more creative freedom, 66.6% of creators of color and 51.4% of white female creators had budgets under $3 million per episode in the 2020-21 season, according to the report. By contrast, only 38.8% of white male creators on streaming shows were given a budget of under $3 million per episode. (For comparison, production on the eight-episode first season of “The Rings of Power” reportedly cost $465 million, which breaks down to $58.1 million per episode, making it the most expensive TV show ever made thus far. “House of the Dragon” had a budget of about $20 million per episode. Both were created by white men, and “The Rings of Power” was developed by two first-time showrunners.)
The report looked at the race and gender of the actors, writers, directors and creators on 407 scripted broadcast, cable, and digital or streaming shows that aired in the 2020-21 season. Over the last few years, people of color have gotten close to reaching proportionate representation on screen, according to the report. But they continue to remain underrepresented behind the camera. For example, only 13.1% of creators on broadcast shows were people of color, 25.6% on streaming shows and 26.6% on cable shows.
“The next few years may be a true test of whether Hollywood is truly committed to the changes they promised on the diversity front during the nation’s reckoning on race following the George Floyd murder.”
On screen, representation of Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) and Native lead actors is still lacking, the report found. Across the board, Latinx underrepresentation remains the most disproportionate of any of the racial and ethnic groups studied in the report — a disappointing, but sadly unsurprising, pattern in Hollywood.
Consistent with the team’s findings in prior years, shows with more diverse casts tended to have higher viewership and more social media engagement. It proves once again that audiences want diversity on screen, and therefore, diversity is not just a moral imperative but an economic necessity for Hollywood’s survival.
But as the researchers warn, progress in Hollywood has often ebbed and flowed, and if the recent wave of economic cuts continues, we could see the hard-won gains made in recent years start to wane.
“The next few years may be a true test of whether Hollywood is truly committed to the changes they promised on the diversity front during the nation’s reckoning on race following the George Floyd murder,” the researchers wrote in the report. “Rolling back these efforts before equity for people of color and women has been truly achieved would be a major miscalculation by Hollywood. Any cost-savings they realize now at the expense of alienating increasingly diverse viewers who expect increased representation in their TV shows, do not make good business sense in the long term.”