Emmys: TV Diversity Still Leaves Much Room for Improvement

Emmy Nominees Diversity
Miles Donovan

When the Oscar nominees were announced on Jan. 15, social media exploded over the fact that not a single performer of color was included among the 20 acting nominees. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag went viral, hitting 95,000 tweets per hour the day of the announcement.

Cut to July 16, the morning of Emmy nominations, when “Orange Is the New Black” Emmy winner Uzo Aduba and “So You Think You Can Dance” host Cat Deeley read a line-up of names that included 18 black performers across 11 different thesping categories.

There were still Twitter complaints (no “Empire” for outstanding drama!? For shame, TV Academy!), but also no question that television is on a completely different level than feature films when it comes to providing meaningful, complex and high-profile characters for a diverse range of performers.

And the recognition is happening across all scripted categories, from comedy (“Black-ish,” “Getting On”) to drama (“How to Get Away With Murder,” “Orange”) to limited series and movies (“American Crime,” “Bessie”).

In June, the Academy’s senior VP of awards John Leverence told Variety: “This isn’t a quota system. It’s my hope that creativity and creative excellence is recognized and rewarded.” But Leverence also raised an issue of a larger struggle within the industry, something that even 18 Emmy nominations can’t erase. “I’m not focusing my hope on this year’s nominations or this year’s awards,” Leverence said. “I’m focusing my hope on ongoing processes that focus upon diversity and implementation of a more diverse workforce both in front and behind the camera.”

Indeed, even if Emmy diversity has made significant progress, TV production as a whole is far short of true equality.

“I would say by virtue of the mathematics that because there are more TV shows produced (than feature films), there’s naturally more work available,” says “Bessie” writer-director Dee Rees, a double nominee this year.

“While it’s terrific that people are getting acknowledged for their work in front of the camera, I still think there’s a big gap behind the camera. There are only seven women total nominated for a directing award (of 34 nominees) and I’m the only black person. Maybe there have been some strides, but I feel we have a long way to go.”

The most shocking statistic is for Latinos. In June, the Census Bureau confirmed that Latinos are the largest segment in California, with 14.99 million people; nationwide, there are 55 million. But when it comes to Emmy acting categories, representation isn’t so great.

“Three Latinos? Give me a break,” says Alex Nogales, prez-CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, who rattles off the names of the trio nominated in performance categories: Richard Cabral (“Crime”), Anthony Mendez (the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” narrator, and its sole nominee) and Louis C.K. (FX’s “Louie,” whose paternal grandmother was Mexican).

Nogales is happy for those three, but blames the industry, rather than the TV Academy, for the paltry showing. “Why aren’t there more of us, in front of and behind the cameras? It’s depressing. There are not enough Latinos in the industry. They’re not getting hired, so how would they be nominated, or even get a chance to join the TV Academy?”

In other diversity questions, the Emmys continue to reflect the growth of LGBT characters and performers in TV in the past decade. Matt Kane, GLAAD program director of entertainment media, says while indie films have maintained their openness to gay stories, in general, major studio films are “a few decades” behind TV. “Mainstream Hollywood films do not represent us with any regularity or reliability, compared to television,” he says.

The growth is especially positive when it comes to transgender characters, who have been the slowest group among the LGBT umbrella to gain traction on TV. Amazon’s “Transparent,” up for 11 Emmys, is centered on a trans character played by Jeffrey Tambor. The success follows last year’s breakthrough when “Orange” co-star Laverne Cox became the first trans performer nominated.

According to GLAAD’s most recent TV study, 3.9% of primetime characters are LGBT, which is pretty consistent with the general population demographics. The industry changes have altered GLAAD’s goals, says Kane. “For a long time, our focus was just trying to get LGBT characters on TV. Now, we’re more interested in seeing all sorts of racial, socio-economic, religious and national backgrounds in the characters, showing that we’re not simply one thing.”

That very specific brand of diversity is reflected by the Emmy-nominated LGBT characters this year, including Aduba’s inmate Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, Andre Braugher’s police chief Ray Holt on Fox’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” Queen Latifah’s blues legend Bessie Smith and “House of Cards” guest Rachel Brosnahan’s working-class former call girl Rachel Posner.

While the film business is much worse about diversity than TV, the Oscars did cite Hispanic/Latino contenders in nine of its 24 categories. Of course, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman” accounted for six, which shows how just a single work can make the numbers look better in any given year.

When the TV Acad shut out the critically acclaimed “Jane” — possibly because members simply don’t watch the CW — they left out worthy Latino thesps including Golden-Globe winning star Gina Rodriguez and her TV parents, Jaime Camil and Andrea Navedo.

But the real problem isn’t a lack of nominations for any particular series, it’s that there’s only one show with a predominantly Latino cast in the conversation to begin with. (Ditto ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” for Asian-Americans.)

Once TV (or film for that matter) truly opens up to diverse voices on both sides of the camera, the industry’s kudos are sure to follow.