Will 2021 Be the Year We See Diversity on TV?

February 24, 2021
When it comes to featuring diverse casts and stories, Starz is an industry leader. 
Around two-thirds of all of Starz Original Series feature a person of color as a series lead, and over half are women. The commitment continues behind the camera, where 55 percent of its showrunners are women and 46 percent are people of color. A little under half of its directors are people of color or women. Three-quarters of its executives are women, and 50 percent are people of color, which also all happen to be women. 
"We have a social responsibility to take the lead in this area and try to help make what we see on television more representative in the world we live in," Starz CEO Jeffrey Hirsch said.
Hirsch believes it not only is great for the network's programming to reflect its audience, but it could also be good for the bottom line. After looking at its first-party data, it realized adding more diverse shows and showrunners were attracting larger audiences. 
"What we found from the data was that driving our business globally was women and diverse women," he explained. "Not only do we think it is the right thing to do from a social point of view, but it's what's driving business." 

Diversity on TV 

Out of the top 300 shows on TV in 2019, 92 percent featured some diversity according to Nielsen.
"There's a real emphasis and a priority across the industry to really look for more storytelling," said Tanya Cohen, managing partner at Range Media Partners and former WME partner. "There's such incredible diverse artists, writers, directors, and actors that are so incredibly talented." 
And, marketers want to be where the audiences are. More than 80 percent of companies invested ad dollars in shows that featured black women and LGBTQ talent, per Nielsen.
"The biggest thing that feels different now there's just a new level of accountability with brands," WME agent Ikenna Ezeh said. 
Starz realized the draw that representative television could have when it debuted Power, which was created by Courtney Kemp in collaboration with Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, in 2014. It's been viewed more than 10 million times during its last three seasons and has spawned three spin-offs. 
"It showed us we can put diverse casts and first-time showrunners behind the camera and have great commercial success," Starz's Hirsch said. 
But despite the evidence that people want diverse creators and casts, women and minorities are still underrepresented. Women account for 52 percent of the population but are only 37.2 percent of the roles on TV according to Nielsen. Likewise, people of color are 39.5 percent of the population but represent 26.7 percent of characters on shows. 
When it comes to behind-the-camera roles, things aren't better. UCLA's Hollywood Diversity Report found women only held 32 percent of studio chair and media CEO jobs in 2019, while minorities made up just 8 percent. And across broadcast, cable, and digital shows, only 24 percent of credited writers were minorities and 21.8 percent of episodes were directed by minorities. 
While women show creators reached an all-time high during the 2019-2020 TV season, they still only made up 28 percent of the total, according to a report from San Diego State University. Women accounted for less than one-third of creators, directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and directors of photography overall, and 63 percent of programs employed five or fewer women behind the scenes. 

2021: The Year for Change? 

Many are hopeful that 2021 can be an inflection point. Streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon have paved the way, proving that shows don't necessarily need traditional actors to be a hit, Range's Cohen pointed out. Those companies have been more open to trying new things because their platforms exist in multiple countries, and a lot of their programming isn't necessarily contingent on being box office successes in the U.S. And, they're hungry for all types of content because of competition and willing to take risks to expand their customer base, especially among digitally native viewers. 
"Consumer habits are changing, and millennials are growing with phones in their hand and iPads in their laps," Cohen said. "They don't care about how our parents watched movies and TV. This new generation of consumers and audiences that are accessing things on their own, it's more global." 
Younger audiences also want diversity in gender, race, and orientation in their shows and marketing, WME's Ezeh added. They want to make sure the brands they support also share their values, so being an advertiser behind a show that also shares these beliefs is a good thing. Viewers are also holding companies accountable for their actions. 
"The delta between good and great products has become much, much smaller," Ezeh said. "There needs to be a shared value system between brand and messaging. I think when you can connect with someone on education or women's rights, Black Lives Matter, or potable water, it's those things that are making people want to connect with this brand."
Meanwhile, Hirsch is aiming that two-thirds of his network's showrunners for Starz will be women or people of color. The company will also launch "Transparency Talks" in April with leaders from the ACLU, the California Film Commission, UCLA, and Random House among others to bring light to the issues facing the industry. 
Likewise, CBS is committing that 50 percent of its unscripted show casts feature BIPOC and at least 25 percent of its annual unscripted development budget go to BIPOC. The Academy Awards will require diversity standards in on-screen roles or behind the camera to be eligible for the Oscar for Best Picture, starting in 2024. 
Initiatives like this have helped push for more diversity, including calls for more inclusive lists of directors which may help ensure that everyone gets a fair opportunity. 
"It's a lot of really great institution policies coming into effect that are going to help solidify this change," Range's Cohen said. 
And the general market will soon become a multicultural one, falling in line with everyone's goals, WME's Ezeh said.
"People just want things to be reflective of the world," he pointed out. "Each year, we'll see more and more of it. And with everyone now being sheltered at home with this pandemic, we're starting to pay a little more strict attention to it." 
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