Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders remain underrepresented on television, study finds

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are still underrepresented on TV, a new study shows. (Sept. 13, 2017)

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Although significant progress has been made in the past few years in opportunities for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on prime-time television, they remain underrepresented, marginalized and relegated to token appearances on comedies and dramas, the summation of a new study released Tuesday.

“Tokens on the Small Screen,” conducted by professors and scholars from six California universities, is a 10-year follow-up to and expansion of an earlier examination of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on prime-time series.

“With successful shows like ‘Master of None’ and “Fresh Off the Boat’ on the air, it may seem that Asian Americans are making greater strides on television,” Christina B. Chin, an assistant professor at California State University, Fullerton, and one of the authors of the study, said in a statement.


“Yet, when we take a deeper look at the larger TV landscape, we start to see that these shows are the exception rather than the rule,” Chin said. “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders actors and their stories are still tokenized or missing.”

The release of the study comes a few months after a furor was sparked when CBS declined to offer salary parity to two Asian cast members of “Hawaii Five-0,” Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park, who subsequently left the show. The stars of the drama are white males – Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan.

“Tokens on the Small Screen” evaluated scripted shows on broadcast and cable television, as well as streaming services, that aired between Sept. 1, 2015, and Aug. 31, 2016.

Leaders of the study said the lack of minority inclusion on TV closely parallels the situation that ignited the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.

Among the major findings:

--White performers are dominant in the prime-time landscape, comprising nearly 70% of all TV series regulars compared to 4% of Asian Americans, according to the study. Pacific Islanders make up just 0.2% of series regulars.

--More than 64% of all series do not feature an Asian American or Pacific Islander as a series regular. In contrast, 96% of series have at least one white series regular. Also, the majority of shows set in cities heavily populated by Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders have no Asian American or Pacific Islanders regulars.


--If they are cast, Asian American and Pacific Islander regulars are mostly eclipsed by their white counterparts, who are on screen more than three times longer.

--More than two-thirds of shows with Asian American or Pacific Islander regulars have just one. The study quoted Aziz Ansari’s character, Dev Shah, in a line from his Netflix series “Master of None”: “There can be one, but there can’t be two.”

--Asian American and Pacific Islander regulars are segregated onto just a few shows. Ten percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander regulars appeared on Netflix’s “Marco Polo,” which has just been canceled. More than half of the other shows have been canceled or not renewed, slashing the representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders by 21%

While many shows perpetuate racial stereotypes, the study praised “The Walking Dead,” “Master of None,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and HBO’s miniseries, “The Night Of” for featuring multidimensional portrayals of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

In another diversity-related study, the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston-based philanthropic organization advocating for more inclusion of people with disabilities in society, issued the preliminary results of its challenge to the TV industry to audition and cast more actors with disabilities.

Seven months into the initiative, representatives of the challenge said that CBS, with shows such as “NCIS: New Orleans,” is leading the effort in employing performers with disabilities, while 20th Century Fox was leading in auditioning performers with disabilities.