TOPICS > Nation > Race Matters: Solutions

Why greater diversity is good for Hollywood’s bottom line

September 30, 2015 at 6:15 PM EST  | Updated: Jan 20, 2016 at 4:59 PM
A record number of African-American actors won Emmy Awards for their performances on television this year, but the entertainment industry often still doesn’t reflect the full diversity of America. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks with Darnell Hunt of UCLA about the underrepresentation of people of color and women on screen and behind the camera.
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UPDATED Jan. 20, 2016 | Hollywood’s diversity problem is nothing new, but it seems to be festering of late. Case in point, the lack of color among this year’s Oscar nominees — not a single actor among the 20 nominated is a person of color, despite ntable performances by actors in films like “Beasts of No Nation” and “Creed.”

READ MORE: #OscarsSoWhite, the sequel

But in September, the 2015 Emmy awards featured a more balanced field, including a record 18 black performers nominated across 11 different acting categories. Among the most notable winners was Viola Davis, who became the first woman of color to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her portrayal of Annalise Keating in the ABC series “How to Get Away With Murder.”

In her acceptance speech, Davis called attention to the lack of opportunities for minorities in the entertainment industry, saying “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” In September, PBS NewsHour special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault spoke with Darnell Hunt, chair of the sociology department at UCLA and head of the Ralph Bunche Center for African-American studies. Hunt gave his take on American entertainment’s diversity problem, and how people within the industry can work to fix it.

And the problem, according to Hunt, starts at the top. The people who make up executive suites in Hollywood are white and male, he said. This is hardly representative of an America that is “almost 40 percent minority … and clearly a little bit more than 50 percent female.”

Beyond the basic question of fairness in employment, this lack of opportunities for minorities may have a negative impact on society by encouraging stereotypes. Hunt points to the recent examples of police brutality and racial profiling directed towards young black men as examples of media-influenced preconceptions crossing into the real world.

But Hunt is well aware that the entertainment industry’s primary concern lies in its profit margins. According to a study Hunt conducted, “TV shows that roughly reflect the diversity of American society, that is, between 30 and 40 percent diverse on the screen, on average, had the highest ratings.” This study is apparently starting to open eyes in entertainment boardrooms – Hunt says that a number of major studios and networks have signed on as financial sponsors.

But Hunt is well aware that the entertainment industry’s primary concern lies in its profit margins. According to a study Hunt conducted, “TV shows that roughly reflect the diversity of American society, that is, between 30 and 40 percent diverse on the screen, on average, had the highest ratings.” And Hollywood decision makers are taking notice.

Diversity on screen is not enough, though, Hunt says. It will take all levels of the industry to change, from the writers’ room to the executive suite.

While Hunt is optimistic about the prospects of increased diversity on the big and small screens, he is quick to temper his enthusiasm with pragmatism: “I don’t believe that there’s a silver bullet, that if you just do this one thing, you solve the problems of the world.” Instead, the diversification of the entertainment industry is just one step in a process of ensuring that Americans “have a greater appreciation of other experiences and how they’re all part of the American fabric.”


Read the full transcript of this segment, from Sept. 30, below:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to another installment in our ongoing series Race Matters.

This year, a record number of African-American actors won Emmy Awards for outstanding performances on television.

Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault explores why what we are seeing on television is finally becoming more diverse.

MAN: Viola Davis, “How to Get Away With Murder.”

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Viola Davis won an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series last week, she made history as the first black woman to win in that category. And she called on a history that dates back to the 1800s with words spoken by the abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

VIOLA DAVIS, Actress: In my mind, I see a line, and over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But Davis was using Tubman’s words to illustrate lack of opportunities in the movie industry for African-American women today, saying:

VIOLA DAVIS: You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: To pursue that further, we met up with a man who’s been involved in looking at just that issue over time. He’s Darnell Hunt, chair of the department of sociology at UCLA, and the head of its Ralph Bunche Center for African-American Studies.

Professor Darnell Hunt, thank you for joining us.

DARNELL HUNT, Professor, UCLA: I’m glad to be here.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The other night at the Emmy Awards, Viola Davis seems to have really struck a nerve, which coincides, incidentally, with the research you have been doing.

DARNELL HUNT: Yes.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Tell us a little bit about what she had to say and how that resonated with your studies.

DARNELL HUNT: Well, you know, I think that Viola made a really important point. It’s hard to win awards if there are no roles, you know? And that’s been the history.

It’s an industry that’s been dominated by white men for generations. And, unfortunately, it’s woefully out of step with where America is going. I mean, we’re almost 40 percent minority right now, and clearly a little bit more than 50 percent female.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, aside from the basic fairness — and that’s a huge one, obviously — but what else is wrong with the kinds of equations that you have spelled out?

DARNELL HUNT: On the one hand, there’s the question of employment. You know, it’s just unfair that talent of color aren’t given the same opportunities as white and male actors, directors, producers, writers, et cetera.

But, more importantly, as a sociologist, I’m interested in the impact on society. So, when we talk about representations, meaning the images that circulate, if you don’t have diversity in the media, it’s not likely that you’re going to generate and circulate the types of images that are healthy in a diverse democratic society.

The more we see images that reproduce this notion that white men are in charge, the more we start to normalize that idea, and it becomes hard for people of color, particularly youth, to think about the possibilities that are there before them, to aspire to certain types of careers if they tonight see those role models reflected in the media.

At the same time, we also know that people learn a lot about what they think they know about other people from what they see in the media. If they see certain types of images reproduced over and over again for other groups that limit them to narrow types of roles and portrayals, they start to take those prejudices into their interactions with those people in real society, and that creates all kinds of discriminatory problems.

I mean, right now, we’re grappling with racial profiling. All these fears about young black men in some ways are related to types of images that have circulated about young black men throughout our history.

So, from the very beginning, we designed our study to look at the relationship between diversity and the bottom line, since that’s what the industry is. It’s about making money. TV shows that roughly reflect the diversity of American society, that is, between 30 percent and 40 percent diverse on the screen, on average, had the highest ratings.

And that was like a clarion call for a lot of people in the industry who had no idea, because there are so few shows that are that diverse.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You did something concrete to help change that. Tell us a little bit about that.

DARNELL HUNT: Well, the first thing we did was, when we conceived of the study, we decided we were going to go to the industry directly for support.

Our rationale was that if we went directly to the industry for support, they would be forced, if they supported the study, to read it. You know, it’s quite as simple as that.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Excuse me. Who are you talking to?

DARNELL HUNT: Well, we’re talking to people in the industry directly. We’re talking to…

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Behind-the-camera people?

DARNELL HUNT: Well, the people who make the decisions. We’re talking to the people who make up the executive suites that are about 94 percent white and 100 percent male if you look at the major Hollywood studios, 94 percent white and 86 percent male if you look at the television networks.

We’re talking about an industry that is heavily controlled by white men. So, we’re talking to them. We’re telling them what’s wrong with this picture.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what kind of reaction are you getting?

DARNELL HUNT: Well, you know, for years, people would say, yes, diversity is a great thing, but they thought of it as a luxury, something that we will get around to at some point.

But when you start connecting diversity to the bottom line, to the dollars, to shareholder value, suddenly, it becomes more of an imperative.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you think this is going to impact the racial discourse that we have in this country now, which is really very difficult and often very toxic?

DARNELL HUNT: Yes, yes. Yes, I agree.

And where we are right now with race is very difficult. I mean, it’s sort of a period of contradictions. I mean, we have an African-American president. And that has created the illusion for a number of people that we’re beyond race, that race doesn’t matter anymore. And yet we have all these high-profile cases around the country of racial profiling, of vigilantism and so forth and so on and that’s rooted in race, racial hate crimes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Race is a core reality of American experience. Media images on television need to reflect that reality to help people who consume media and who don’t have the day-to-day, face-to-face contact with others, or where that contact is minimal, to help them have a greater appreciation of other experiences and how they’re all part of the American fabric.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So that’s your solution, more diversity. And how long do you think it’s going to take? And how do you see it happening? What is the solution?

DARNELL HUNT: I don’t believe that there’s a silver bullet, that if you just do this one thing, you solve the problems of the world.

I think that it will require lots of interventions on lots of fronts. I think there needs to be continuing public pressure to demand the types of diversity on screen that are reflective of American diversity.

People in the industry themselves, that is to say, those who are in charge, need to get the memo and recognize that the bottom line also is going to be increasingly dependent upon diversity. And I think that you need more diverse voices in the writers room. You need more diverse voices pitching TV ideas, movie ideas. And the stories themselves, not just the characters in the story, but the stories need to be more diverse, and from the perspective of other types of people.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You have sat down with industry executives. Were they receptive to your positions that they needed to be more diverse?

DARNELL HUNT: Absolutely.

We’re getting really strong acceptance of our study among major decision-makers in the industry. In fact, a number of them, a number of major studios and networks, have already signed on as financial sponsors of our study.

And we’re really careful to diversify that group, because we want to maintain our independence and our objectivity as researchers. But, nonetheless, we think it’s valuable to have them as stakeholders in the process, because they’re likely to use the results.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Professor Darnell Hunt, thank you.

DARNELL HUNT: Thank you.

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