Diversity Isn’t So Black and White an Issue
This year’s pilot season (that time of the year when the TV networks choose the new shows they’ll debut in the fall) has been accompanied by growing demands from minority advocacy groups that the networks increase the number of minority actors in their new shows. Groups like the NAACP have threatened boycotts if these demands are not met and, in the wake of this year’s racially charged Academy Awards, it seems like you can’t pick up a newspaper these days without reading about how TV, and Hollywood in general, needs to become more “diverse.”
As an African American actor, I suppose I should applaud these efforts to increase the presence of minorities on TV. But I’ve been in this business long enough to know that an issue like TV diversity is far more complex than it is often portrayed.
White actors may get more work than actors of other races but, numerically, there are many more white actors who are struggling to make it in the business. To get an idea of the numbers we’re dealing with here, we can consult the Academy Players Directory, a master list of actors--accomplished and unknown, union and nonunion, with and without representation.
These figures show that, of 16,235 listed actors, 695 are black (a little more than 4%), 484 are Latino (about 3%), 378 are Asian (a little more than 2%) and 170 are Native American (slightly more than 1%). The rest are white.
These figures jibe with my own experience two years ago, when I helped cast an independent film. I placed an ad in Backstage West, looking for actors of all races. Of the 2,835 submissions I received, 137 were black, 70 were Latino and about 40 were Asian. The rest were white.
While it’s not possible to comprehensively gauge the number of actors actively seeking work in the job market, the value of examining Players Directory and Backstage West statistics is that these figures account for actors who are seeking work, as opposed to actors who are already working. These numbers give a good indication of the supply-side of the actor marketplace.
From these figures, it’s not hard to draw the conclusion that white actors make up the overwhelming majority of actors competing for work, in which case it’s not necessarily wrong that whites are hired in greater numbers. I just can’t support efforts to force the industry to gerrymander some kind of artificially engineered racial quota in hiring that doesn’t reflect the reality of the job market.
Groups like the NAACP have frequently complained that network TV doesn’t reflect the racial makeup of the United States, but an extensive TV diversity report released by the Screen Actors Guild in June 2001 came to the conclusion that “African Americans are overrepresented in prime time” (italics in the original). While African Americans make up a little over 12% of the U.S. population, the report went on to say, they account for nearly 16% of network prime-time characters.
A separate SAG study of casting data from all productions in 2000 (films as well as TV) found that nonwhites, who make up 19% of SAG membership, got 23% of all available roles, while white actors, who constitute 81% of SAG, got only 76% of the available roles (and African American actors received a higher proportion of leading roles in movies and TV shows in 2000, as opposed to supporting roles). Indeed, these statistics suggest that it may be white actors who are underrepresented! They seem to contradict the statement made in July 2000, by NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, that TV is a “white landscape.”
Latinos and Asians are still underrepresented on network prime-time TV in relation to their percentage in the U.S. population. I would suggest, however, that they are fairly represented in relation to their percentage in the acting job market.
One problem with attempting to track the progress of minorities on TV is that many, if not most, of the “diversity studies” that are released each year present a less-than-accurate picture of TV as a whole. Most of these studies only score the three hours of nightly prime-time programming offered by the big three networks (ABC, CBS and NBC, and sometimes Fox), leaving out the daytime programming on the big three and totally ignoring the other broadcast, cable and Spanish-language networks.
By concentrating mainly on the big three, which tend to skew much of their prime-time programming toward the older, predominantly white boomer audience, and by ignoring the other broadcast, cable and Spanish-language networks (which get a larger combined audience share than the big three in prime time, daytime and late-night programming), these surveys appear predetermined to downplay the presence of minority actors.
The “landscape” of TV is becoming as diverse as the people who traverse it. The big three networks may skew much of their programming toward an older, white audience, but these days there are channels that skew to blacks, Latinos, Asians, women and children. There is even a channel in the works that will target gays. Now that’s true diversity.
There is nothing wrong with monitoring diversity on the major broadcast networks. And, certainly, programming on the networks should reflect the reality of American society. But studies with such a narrow focus simply don’t reflect America’s viewing habits. Minority activists often try to draw a correlation between the way minorities are portrayed on TV and the attitudes toward minorities in American society. But by not studying the shows that most Americans are actually watching, such correlations are of very limited value because of the vast amount of pertinent data that is ignored.
I would respectfully suggest that the issue of TV diversity is more complex than many of the activists and pressure groups make it out to be. We must not allow that complexity to become submerged in a sea of angry rhetoric and boycott threats.
Marlon Mohammed is an actor who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.
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