By Albert Lin
Blacks, Latinos, Asians and women are woefully underrepresented in Hollywood films and TV shows. That comes as no surprise.
But a comprehensive study from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA suggests that movies and shows with diverse casts actually earn more at the box office and score higher ratings than productions with homogenous casts.
“Hollywood does pretty well financially right now, but it could do a lot better if it were better reflecting the diversity of America,” said lead author Darnell Hunt, Director of the Bunche Center and a Professor of Sociology at UCLA.
For the study, titled “2014 Hollywood Diversity Report: Making Sense of the Disconnect,” the authors looked at 172 American-made movies released in 2011 and 1,061 shows that aired on 68 broadcast and cable TV networks during the 2011–2012 season. (The TV shows were divided into four groups: broadcast dramas and comedies, broadcast reality and other, cable dramas and comedies, cable reality and other.)
The authors discovered that Blacks, Latinos and Asians, who made up 36.3 percent of the population in 2010 (the year used for the study), were underrepresented in lead movie roles by a factor of more than 3-to-1—i.e., they appeared in 10.5 percent of lead roles, less than one-third of the roles you would expect them to have based on their share of the population (36.3 percent).
On television, the category that fared the worst was broadcast dramas and comedies, shows that tend to be the most expensive to produce and which can make or break a network. In these programs, Blacks, Latinos and Asians appeared in only 5.1 percent of lead roles, underrepresentation of about 7-to-1. On cable, Blacks, Latinos and Asians do significantly better, appearing in 14.7 percent of lead roles—but that’s still underrepresentation by more than 2-to-1.
The numbers for broadcast reality and other shows (15.4 percent) and cable reality and other shows (13.2 percent) were comparable to those of cable dramas and comedies, still reflecting underrepresentation by more than 2-to-1.
When it comes to gender, women were underrepresented by a factor of nearly 2-to-1 for lead film roles (25.6 percent of roles, 50.8 percent of population in 2010). On television, women actually were slightly overrepresented in broadcast dramas and comedies (51.5 percent), but they were underrepresented in every other category: 37.2 percent of lead roles in cable comedies and dramas, 24.5 percent in broadcast reality and other shows, and 30.6 percent in cable reality and other shows.
The Link to Revenue/Ratings
The study found that 88 of the 172 movies (51.2 percent) had a cast that was 10 percent or less Black/Latino/Asian. However, the 25 movies with casts 21 to 30 percent Black/Latino/Asian had by far the highest median global box office, at $160.1 million. The next highest median global box office came from films with 11 to 20 percent Blacks/Latinos/Asians, at $75.5 million. The 88 films with the least diverse casts had a median global box office of just $68.5 million.
The same holds true for television ratings, which networks use to determine advertising rates. The highest-rated broadcast dramas and comedies, with a median household rating of 5.84, were shows with 41 to 50 percent Black/Latino/Asian casts. Shows with casts 31 to 40 percent Black/Latino/Asian had a 5.02 median household rating. Shows with the least diverse casts had a median household rating of 3.79.
The highest-rated cable dramas and comedies were even more skewed to diverse casts, with 31 to 40 percent Black/Latino/Asian cast shows, 21 to 30 percent Black/Latino/Asian cast shows and 41 to 50 percent Black/Latino/Asian cast shows having the three highest median household ratings.
For reality and other shows, broadcast networks got the best ratings from shows with casts 41 to 50 percent Black/Latino/Asian, while cable networks got the best ratings from shows with casts 11 to 20 percent Black/Latino/Asian.
“The industry likes to present itself as this bastion of liberal thought. But when it comes to diversity, it’s one of the worst industries in the country,” Hunt told NPR. “The idea that [the underrepresentation of minorities and women] is all about economics has been taken off the table.”