‘Overwhelmingly White and Male’: Diversity on TV Doesn’t Translate to Hollywood’s Exec Suites, Says Report

Variety Intelligence Platform
Variety Intelligence Platform

Women and people of color are getting more screen time on television, but those who hold the power — and the purse strings — in the industry are “still overwhelmingly white and male,” says the latest UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, which analyzed the TV business across the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 seasons.

“There has been a lot of progress for women and people of color in front of the camera,” said Darnell Hunt, co-author of the study and UCLA’s dean of social sciences. “Unfortunately, there has not been the same level of progress behind the camera. Most notably in the executive suite, there has been very little change since we began compiling data five years ago. That’s very telling, particularly in light of our current racial reckoning.”

In 2020, women hold less than a third, or 32%, of studio chair and CEO jobs in the TV industry, while minorities occupy only 8% of the highest ranking positions, according to the university’s tally. Put another way: White people hold 92% of all chair and chief exec positions, and men sit in 68% of those corner office spots. Those figures haven’t budged much from 2015, when 96% of those top roles were held by white execs and 67% were held by men.

The numbers weren’t much different among the next tier of top brass across town, either: senior execs were 84% white and 60% male, and unit heads were 87% white and 54% male.

“The underrepresentation of people of color in the executive suite as creators, writers, and directors is problematic, even if there are more people of color in acting roles, because their characters’ storylines may lack authenticity or will be written stereotypically or even ‘raceless’ if the disparity continues,” said report co-author Ana-Christina Ramon, the director of research and civic engagement in UCLA’s social sciences division.

The study is being published amid a heated national conversation on race and representation, marked by waves of Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers earlier this year. In Hollywood, that has led to major studios and networks issuing statements in support of anti-racist efforts — but whether this reckoning over representation will lead to material, long-term changes to the industry remains to be seen.

On that point, the report’s authors were blunt. They pointed out that recent progress in representation has primarily been made in on-screen talent, “thereby insulating the White males who continue to dominate the executive suites from having to share their power to make industry-defining decisions.”

“In the midst of recent social, cultural, and market challenges to Hollywood business as usual, the White males in charge have apparently opted to try and ‘survive the times’ by doubling down on the least transformative responses — making strategic adjustments to the racial mix of featured characters on a given show, or less often, the types of shows they greenlight for the small screen,” wrote Hunt and Ramon. “There is little evidence that the structures that form the industry’s creative ecosystem (e.g. the executive suites, production units, marketing units, talent agencies, or writers’ rooms) have been reshaped in any meaningful way.”

Separately, when it comes to diversity in front of the camera, women and people of color have made “meaningful” progress over the years, though representation is still lagging among Latinos and Asian Americans. On major broadcast networks, women accounted for 41.3% of scripted leading roles in the 2018-2019 TV season, though that is “largely flat” from the previous report’s findings. People of color made up 24% of scripted leads on broadcast shows that season, however, marking a five-fold increase from the 2011-2012 season. Still, the study’s authors note that that figure is still a ways off from reaching a representation level that would be proportionate to the U.S. population, i.e. 40.2%.

Cable shows have gotten a little closer to reflecting the diversity of real life over the last two TV seasons. People of color accounted for 35% of scripted leads on cable in the 2018-2019 season — a notable 14% jump from the 2016-2017 season. And 44.8% of scripted cable leads in the 2018-2019 season were women.

On digital scripted shows, people of color held 24.1%, or nearly one in four, leading roles last season. Women on streaming shows are even closer to parity — 49.4% of scripted leads on digital series are women.

Progress in overall cast diversity has been “slow but steady” across broadcast, cable and digital, noted researchers, and are a “testament to the growing body of evidence that America’s increasingly diverse audiences demand diverse content.”

To support that assertion, Hunt and Ramon point to TV ratings from last season. For instance, eight of the 10 top scripted shows on broadcast networks among white households featured casts that were at least 21% minority; the same was true for each of the top 10 scripted broadcast and cable shows among Black households.

When it comes to the creatives who make TV shows, the study found that scripted creators of color in the broadcast realm have more than doubled since the 2011-2012 season to 10.7%, and women accounted for 28.1% of scripted broadcast series creators in 2018-2019, up from 22.2% two years ago. There was a increase in people of color who created shows for cable last season, but that figure among women has been flat for several years now.

Interestingly, even as the number of new streaming services grows, people of color and women both lost ground among digital scripted series creators from two seasons ago. The percentage of series creators of color fell to 10.3% from 16.5%, while women show creators made up 28.6% of the overall group, down from 34.8% in the 2016-2017 season.

Among credited TV writers, women and people of color have made “notable gains” relative to their white and male peers, said the study, but both groups are still underrepresented in writers rooms. Among directors, people of color directed 24.3% of broadcast scripted episodes last season, up from 17.8% two years ago; in cable and digital, directors of color accounted for 22.9% and 18.2% respectively, which also mark increases.

The UCLA study, which follows a look at diversity in film, originated in the college’s Bunche Center but is now produced by its social sciences division.

“The Hollywood of on-screen appeasement is ill-equipped to meet the needs of these market realities,” Hunt and Ramon concluded. “Only the Hollywood of meaningful inclusion, that empowers diverse voices in every room and at every level, can make the most of the opportunity.”