Reasons to participate in racial integration are now hitting the big screen. A recent study conducted by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies found that television viewers are more likely to watch shows that employ racially diverse casts and writers. The study analyzed more than 1,000 television shows that aired on 67 cable and broadcast networks during the 2011–12 season and found that more viewers were drawn to shows with ethnically diverse lead cast members and writers, while shows reflecting less diversity in their credits attracted smaller audiences.
“It’s clear that people are watching shows that reflect and relate to their own experiences,” explains UCLA sociology professor Darnell Hunt, who has worked for two decades on several projects exploring issues of access and diversity in Hollywood.
“This is one of the first studies, to my knowledge, that attempts to flesh out the relationship between the issue of diversity among cast members and writers and the bottom line,” Hunt said. “While this brief is just the first snapshot in what we envision as a multi-year study, it certainly lends support to an argument we have been making for a long time. Everyone in the industry talks about the importance of diversity, but it clearly isn’t priority one when decisions are made. And it’s not going to be a priority until people realize how it affects the bottom line.”
“The importance of diversity to the bottom line was just as pronounced in broadcast television as it was in cable during the 2011–12 season” says Cynthia Lee, UCLA newsroom contributor. “Median household ratings peaked among broadcast television shows that were 41 to 50 percent minority, while ratings took a dive for shows with casts that were 10 percent minority or less.”
The study also showed a decline in ratings for shows on cable networks with writing staffs that were 10 percent minority or less which is the vast majority of shows in the analysis. Median household ratings were lowest for these shows. By contrast, ratings peaked among cable shows with writing staffs that were 11 to 20 percent minority and 41 to 50 percent minority.
Lee explains that, “This same relationship, however, did not hold completely true for broadcast television. Broadcast shows with the least diverse staffs did not post the lowest ratings. But broadcast shows with the highest ratings had writing staffs that were significantly more diverse — from 21 to 30 percent minority — than those of most broadcast shows.”
Researchers also looked at who did a better job in the 2011–12 season — cable or broadcast networks — in reflecting diversity among lead actors and show creators. “It’s a mixed bag when it comes to who did better at this, depending on the variables we looked at,” Hunt said. But women and minorities working as actors in lead roles and show creators were underrepresented on both cable and network television, based on their percentage in the U.S. population in 2010, he noted.
With the changing nature of television, the dominance of the broadcast networks is clearly waning, according to Hunt. “The fact that we had 61 cable networks in our study would have been unimaginable just a few years ago,” he said. “Every network is getting smaller and smaller audiences. Shows can now be produced locally on a cheap budget for the Internet.” With the competition for ratings heated, Hunt said, “It makes sense that if the industry wants to keep up with these changes, it really has to pay close attention to what the audience is looking for.”
The integration of television casts and writers are long overdue and overwhelmingly welcomed by broad audiences. Hopefully these diverse casts and plots will leave viewers craving that diversity in their communities and promote more relationships between people of different backgrounds and worldviews.
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By Morgan P Davis, Fair Housing Policy Director