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.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Margaret Goodman
Margaret G4 years ago

Jacob, when you say that the United States is 80% white, are you including Hispanics as white? If Hispanics are considered to be non-white, the percentage of whites drops to 70% and dropping.

Wondering what TV will be like when the United States is all minorities.

Lynn C.
Lynn C4 years ago


Annelies Haussler
liessi Haussler4 years ago

Geeks love freaks, which is what "different" people are to most, and who watches more TV than geeks?! Having grown up in metropolitan Canada, I tend to not notice race much but it really stands out when TV shows include "token" ethnicities and the writers just make them appear foolish and out of place. It works well when everyone is of the same culture (i.e., homogenized) rather than stereotypical, the exception being Koothrapali of Big Bang Theory. He is both.

Teresa Garcia
Teresa GarcĂ­a4 years ago

Diversity is jus like the world is, networks and everybody have to realize that. PERIOD!

Maureen Leibich
Maureen Leibich4 years ago

Quite a few years ago, I remember seeing an interview of the only black character on the old "Mission: Impossible" show. They asked him how he got the role. He replied that he got it because he auditioned for it. The role was not written for a black man, but neither was it written for a white man. I really liked that.

sarah jaffe
sarah jaffe4 years ago

Interesting statistics. I wasn't really aware of it but now that I think about it, shows with 100% whiteys with token westernized minorities garnishing the cast with minor roles and mindless lines do get skipped over. When I think of the shows that do catch my attention, I guess there is a lot more diversity, even among the white characters, and they all have individual personality and intelligence. I think it's the mark of a good writer to be able to "be" so many different people, I don't think diversity is something good writers even have to aim for; it comes naturally as it's simply more interesting to read & write.

Judith Mitchell
Judith Mitchell4 years ago

One of the several reasons we love the show "Hell on Wheels" is that it has many different races AND their perspectives on the lives they were leading. It was sooo much more realistic and informative that way. Also an honest view of how Irish immigrants were treated, and how such a varied mix of backgrounds interacted. Former slaves; former Confederate soldiers; former prostitutes; Native Americans; Chinese; Mormons -- some basically good, others basically self-centered crooks and murderers. No one group is "better" than any other.

Lauren Berrizbeitia

Maybe the networks will really catch on! Thanks.

Ganaisha Calvin
Ganaisha Calvin4 years ago

was so excited to see more biracial families in commercials

Edith B.
Edith B4 years ago

This made me wonder about what I have been watching and I realized that all my favorites have diversity. Yeay!