Diversity in TV has a long way to go: A look at how representation drives viewership
BY REBECCA FINE, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH AND MEDIA INSIGHTS AT SAMBA TV
It’s no secret that turning on your TV and flipping through channels won’t paint a realistic picture of who lives in America. The ordinary lives depicted in classics like Friends, Seinfeld, and The Office are only ordinary for a specific subset of Americans — namely, white Americans.
While representation across the film and TV industry has improved since Friends’ heyday, there is a long way to go, as April Reign reminded us in 2015 when she coined the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Six years later and a few days until the Academy Awards, Samba TV sought to analyze who is represented in popular TV shows and how that representation impacts viewership. Are people more likely to watch shows where they see characters who look like them?
In order to investigate this research question, we designed a study analyzing the top 50 viewed shows* from the month of February, both in terms of cast composition and viewership trends. The shows varied by platform (streaming and linear), genre, and release date. For example, the newest show analyzed was Superman & Lois, which premiered February 23, 2021 on the CW, while Modern Family’s 2019 season was also included.
Among the top billed cast members of the shows surveyed, only 24% were non-white. About 69% of the shows included at least one non-white actor within the top billed cast members, while 31% featured exclusively white leads. A little over half of the shows featured a Black lead, while only 14% featured a Hispanic lead and an even smaller 11% featured an Asian lead. A dismal 19% of the shows had more than one non-white leading cast member, meaning that while shows are increasing diversity in their top bills, it’s not at a level that’s truly representative. All but one show (Young Rock) included at least one white lead.
In addition to analyzing the ethnic diversity within the casts of the top shows, we also looked into how they fared in terms of gender representation. Trends on that front were more promising. All shows included a woman as one of the lead cast members, and about two-thirds included women in two or three of the top billed roles.
In order to understand who was watching these shows, we analyzed data surrounding the gender and ethnic breakdown of viewers during the month of February 2021.
Our findings showed a positive correlation of +0.32 among households with a higher percentage of non-white members watching programs with higher percentages of non-white stars, indicating that cast diversity is a selling point among diverse households. Conversely, there was a negative correlation of -0.32 among households with white viewers watching shows featuring diverse casts. There was also a negative correlation of -0.42 among households with a higher percentage of non-white members watching shows featuring an all-white cast, highlighting the tendency of those viewers to avoid programs that lacks diversity.
In particular, households with Black viewers had a positive correlation of +0.27 across viewership of shows featuring higher levels of diversity. However, there was a much smaller correlation between households with Hispanic viewers watching programs with non-white leads (+0.15), and virtually no correlation between households with Asian viewers doing so. This lack of strong positive correlation among Hispanic and Asian viewers could potentially have been impacted by the lack of representation among those groups within the top shows of the month. In other words, not seeing themselves represented in the top shows of the month, Hispanic and Asian viewers were more likely to skip them.
From a gender standpoint, there was evidence that ethnically diverse households are more likely to watch shows starring women. Specifically, there was a positive correlation of +0.24 across households with more non-white members watching shows starring women. On the other hand, findings were less conclusive surrounding whether men or women were more likely to watch diverse shows, with each gender correlating by less than 0.1 across shows with non-white stars.
The top show of the month overall was WandaVision, which ranked as the show with the fourth highest proportion of non-white viewers at 40%. That program featured women in three of the four leading roles, and one out of those people was Black. The second most viewed show of the month was Yellowstone, which actually drove the lowest proportion of non-white viewership (23%). Its top cast members were all white, and three of the four were men.
While Friends and Seinfeld remain classic shows for many, it’s clear that their outdated approach of starring an all-white cast would fail to resonate among many modern viewers. And yet, as the cast breakdown of February’s top programs illustrates, it remains an all-too-common approach. In order to reach key diverse audiences, studios must embrace diversity and bear in mind that viewers are more likely to watch shows where they see themselves represented. While this has long made sense from a logical and moral standpoint, we now have the data to prove it.
*14 of the top 50 viewed shows were excluded for factors like animation or subtitles.
— Shows analyzed by Samba TV include: WandaVision: (Disney+), Yellowstone: (Paramount), Your Honor: (Showtime), Behind Her Eyes: (Netflix), The Sinner: (USA), Firefly Lane: (Netflix), Snowpiercer: (TNT), The Expanse: (Amazon), Clarice: (CBS), Resident Alien: (Syfy), Ted Lasso: (Apple TV+), The Mandalorian: (Disney+), Schitt’s Creek: (Pop TV), Bridgerton: (Netflix), A Discovery of Witches: (Sky One), Tell Me Your Secrets: (Amazon), The Queen’s Gambit: (Netflix), Modern Family: (ABC), Fate: The Winx Saga: (Netflix), The Stand: (CBS), Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist: (NBC), The Flight Attendant: (HBO Max), The Equalizer: (CBS), Cobra Kai: (Netflix), Stranger Things: (Netflix), The Crown: (Netflix), Outlander: (Starz), Flack: (Amazon), Superman & Lois: (CW), Big Sky: (ABC), Young Rock: (NBC), Superstore: (NBC), This Is Us: (NBC), Ozark: (Netflix), It’s a Sin: (HBO Max), The Walking Dead: (AMC)
— Cast diversity weighted based on third-party sites.