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Diversity On Set

Changes in Directives for Studios, Networks, and Casting

The film/TV industry is taking very seriously the calls to expand diversity in all aspects of production. Content that reflects demographics. Greater inclusion of minorities in cast and crew for film, TV, and commercials, as well as among the shows’ producers, and network executives. Appointments to newly created Diversity positions within companies’ executive teams.

Industry magazine Deadline Hollywood is an online news site reporting several times a day on the entertainment industry. On December 3, 2020, it published an article reviewing a study by Nielsen on diversity across various platforms. It found that “diverse identity groups appear more frequently on streaming shows than on broadcast or cable…” though it reported that overall representation in on-screen programming is low across all media platforms.

Among the 300 most-viewed programs in 2019, 92% had some level of diversity in the cast (women, people of color, or LGBTQ+) but few had representation on screen that reflected the general population. “Presence is not the same as representation,” the report said.

The article continued, saying that streaming services have more inclusion, followed by broadcast, and then cable. The demand, it said, is for content that tells the stories of the viewing audiences and said that programs receive higher overall audience ratings when multiple identity groups are represented. The under-represented groups include indigenous peoples, women, LGBTQ individuals, and people of color, which include Black, Native American, Asian and Pacific islander, Hispanic/Latinx, Middle Easterns, North African, and multi-racial populations. Women overall show up on screen 38% of the time, although they are 52% of the U.S. population, and women over 50 years old are 60% less likely to see themselves in programming vs. the general public. White men appear on cable 88.7% of the time, 66.9% on broadcast, and 64.9% on subscription video on demand (SVOD). African-Americans, by contrast, appear on cable shows 7.5% of the time, 24.7% on broadcast, and 18.9% on SVOD.

Variety is a weekly entertainment publication with a broad coverage of movies, television, theater, music and technology. It also has a digital edition of headlines and brief version of print articles. On October 30, 2020, it published an article about the Motion Picture Academy and its new diversity requirements going forward.

Called Academy Aperture 2025, the Academy provides criteria that films must meet in order to be considered for a Best Picture Nomination.

The guidelines provide a quota for the representation of marginalized groups in four categories; on screen representation, creative/leadership team, industry access and opportunities, audience development (marketing). Films must meet at least two out of four of these standards. The requirements don’t go into effect until 2024 and only apply to Best Picture nominees.

An office of Representation, Inclusion and Equity was recently established to oversee the Aperture 2025 initiative and ensure that the Academy’s hiring and promotion practices aligned with its plan. These practices include annual unconscious-bias training for the Board of Governors, staff, and leadership, discussions to focus on the systemic challenges faced by various marginalized groups, and projects to ensure that the history and experiences of all Americans are well-represented.

Entertainment networks, studios, and production companies are also launching new initiatives. In August 2020, Deadline announced that CBS News is promoting CBS Village, “a multiplatform franchise for news division content about diverse groups.” It will be dedicated to content about a diversity of communities, including Black, Asian, LGBQT, LatinX, women, and millennials. (Frankly, I don’t know how millennials are not being well-represented; it seems that most shows feature this age group, but there you go.)

Kim Godwin, Executive Vice President of News, said that their "hope is that by spotlighting this cross-section of our coverage across all of our platforms, we’ll help audiences connect the dots in these stories involving race, gender and identity and bring a richer understanding to the national conversation around the problems, progress, and potential our nation faces."

Fox announced at the end of 2020 that it has created a new producers initiative to improve diversity in non-scripted television. (An unscripted show is a TV series that does not have a fictional, scripted storyline. Examples are game and reality shows, documentaries and documentary series, and competitive formats amongst its participants.)

Fox Alternative Entertainment, the company’s in-house unscripted studio, has launched Fastrack. It’s a program designed to develop producers with diverse backgrounds and build a pipeline of new talent behind the camera.

The article continues to say that it was launched a month after CBS introduced a plan to ensure that 50% of its unscripted show casts must be Black, indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC), and that it has committed a minimum of 25% of its annual unscripted development BIPOC creators and producers.

Overseas, BBC Studios has introduced an “inclusion rider” for all new productions, which requires them to meet a 20% diversity target. Commitments include ensuring a fifth of on-screen talent and production teams come from a Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) background, have a disability, or are from low-income backgrounds. Additionally, at least one senior role on scripted and unscripted production teams will be appointed from one of these backgrounds.

ViacomCBS has expanded its U.K. “no diversity, no commission” policy to its entire international organization of 180 countries. It’s designed to help promote diversity both on-screen and behind the scene on international networks, including MTV and Comedy Central. The article on Deadline explains that “…production companies are required to adhere to diversity guidelines before budgets are signed off and productions are approved to begin.” The intention is to reflect their audience and provide opportunities for new diverse creative perspectives.

Entertainment companies have created new Diversity appointments within their organizations. Recent appointments include:

  • AMC Networks, which has appointed Aisha Thomas-Petit as the company's first Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer.

  • The Paley Center for Media, which has announced that Jamitha Fields will step into the newly-created position of VP, Diversity, Inclusion & Engagement.

  • Paradigm, which has named Shakira Gagnier Vice President of the agency's diversity and inclusion section.

No doubt that many more changes within the entertainment industry will be coming in 2021 and beyond. One show that I think deserves to be a model for this type of change is Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s Never Have I Ever on Netflix, a funny yet poignant show about the life of a first-generation Indian-American teenager. It’s an honest look at the push-and-pull social life of an American high schooler dealing with the recent death of her father and the traditional values of her Indian Hindu family. The show dispenses with South Asian stereotypes and gives us fully realized characters; it’s a window into Mindy Kaling’s own upbringing. Diversity is never an issue, as its cast includes many cultural and identity groups, individuals who are presented as complete human beings with issues of their own.

The success of this and other shows will be measured by their viewer ratings, the critical reviews they receive, and (for the broadcast networks), corporate sponsorships. Never Have I Ever has already been proved highly successful in its first season. Personally, I wholeheartedly look forward to more shows that provide views and understanding into other cultures that had previously played only in the background of mainstream-based stories. This promises to be a time of great opportunity for those with such interesting yet infrequently told stories. Their days of marginalization as storytellers, cast, crew, and executives may be over. And for those hoping to see themselves better represented in these productions, and for the rest of us ready for more diverse storytelling, it's a good thing.