"Diversity in TV" has become a ubiquitous topic of conversation recently, to the point where that phrase has practically lost all meaning.
What does it even mean to be "diverse"? Does it matter if what's on screen is less white, male, and straight if those working behind the scenes are still mostly white, male, and straight? What can actually be done to diversify television, from the inside out?
As with any industry, the solution relies on changing things at the very top of the food chain.
As a whole, not much has actually changed across the TV landscape
Variety released a statistical study on showrunners in Hollywood that puts the "diversity issue" in stark perspective. Across 38 upcoming new shows for the 2016-17 season on broadcast television (i.e., CBS, The CW, ABC, NBC, and Fox), Variety found that 90 percent of showrunners are white and almost 80 percent are men.
There are a couple considerations that make these numbers even more discouraging than at first glance.
For one, 22 percent of showrunners being women is only a marginal increase from the 1997-98 season, when that number stood at 18 percent.
Maybe this shouldn't be surprising. Though women make up more than half the population, that's never stopped industries from shutting us out of most leadership positions before. But this number is still pathetically low.
And speaking of "pathetically low" numbers: Out of 50 showrunners, only five were nonwhite.
Beyond just pointing out how awful these numbers are, though, Variety critic Maureen Ryan goes a step further. She notes that these positions of power being predominantly filled by white men doesn't just make for bad optics; it makes it far less likely for nonwhite and female writers to rise in the ranks at all.
Showrunners not only determine the creative direction of their programs; they also oversee the hiring, firing, and mentoring that gives the next generation of creators a chance to ascend. Shows run by white men tend to lead to more shows led by white men.
A lack of inclusion behind the scenes also affects storytelling. A study from USC Annenberg’s Institute for Diversity and Empowerment noted that actresses are more likely to receive speaking roles if women are creators. But that organization’s most recent study, which was published in 2015, reported that men outnumber women as creators by more than 3 to 1 in all realms of TV, including cable and streaming. Meanwhile, for the 2014-15 season, 19% of broadcast network programs had no speaking roles for African-American characters, and 59% had none for Asian characters, Annenberg says.
The analysis is a sobering reminder that just because there are a few more prominent shows featuring women and people of color on television, the grand scheme of things remains stubbornly consistent in its exclusion.