No, Putting a Minority on Screen Will Not Alienate Your Audience
It’s October, which means that it’s one of my favorite times of the year. It’s the beginning of the fall television season!
I noticed something the other day as I was watching the season premiere of one of my favorite shows: There are an awfully lot of white people on television. It is just my unfortunate choice of entertainment? I don’t think so. However, a new study indicates that it would behoove television networks to diversify show writers and casts.
Researchers at UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies looked at over 1,000 cable and broadcast comedies and dramas that aired during the 2011-2012 season. What they found was basically the opposite of show business conventional wisdom.
You hear it all the time whenever anyone wonders aloud why there are so few women-led action flicks or what the deal is with the dearth of people of color on television: Men won’t identify with a female lead, and white people won’t identify with people of color. Blah blah blah. This study, however, shows the opposite. Shows with more diversity get higher ratings.
The researchers found that, for cable television, the median household ratings were highest among shows featuring 31 to 40 percent of minorities in their casts. They found the flip side for shows with a cast of 10 percent or less of minorities. Those shows received the lowest ratings, despite being the largest group of cable shows in the analysis. The same trend was found in broadcast television. The median household ratings were highest among broadcast television shows that were 41 to 50 percent minorities and decreased for shows that had casts of 10 percent of minorities or less.
The trend held for cable television when it came to diversity of staff. Ratings slumped with television shows with a 10 percent or less minority staff and peaked for shows with 11 to 20 percent and 41 to 50 percent minority staff. Broadcast television shows were a slightly different story, but not too much. The lowest rated shows were not the shows with the lowest number of minority staff members, but ratings were the highest for shows with comparatively diverse writing staff.
Of course, it may not necessarily be that diversity is causing the increased ratings. It could be the case that shows with more diverse casts have to be extra good to make it to air to begin with, or people of color have to be extra good at writing scripts to make it into the writer’s room. But it does seem to show that perhaps our ability to empathize with people who look a bit different has been underestimated.
This study looks at TV show cast and staff. What it doesn’t look at is the quality of roles minority actors and actresses play. We’ve known for years that how a particular racial group is portrayed on television has a real world effect. A 2008 study showed that being exposed to stereotypes based on race did not work out so well for the subjects of those stereotypes:
Exposure to stereotypes produced unfavorable effects on the viewers. When the target character was white, no association was made between racial identification and evaluations of the character. However, with relative consistency, when the target character was Latino, as viewer racial identification increased, perceptions of the character’s education and qualifications decreased.
It’s not just that it sucks to be stereotyped. There is this phenomenon called the stereotype threat, where a person feels a lot of anxiety when put in a situation in which it’s possible for them to confirm a negative stereotype about their social group. Repeated exposure to negative stereotypes can cause ever-decreasing confidence, poor performance and lack of interest in the area of achievement.
There is a lot more work to be done to tease out all the relevant causes and effects. The UCLA study is the first is what the researchers hope to be a multi-year look into minorities in television, so let the teasing begin.
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