Oscars are ‘only tip of the white iceberg’

In one of the most exhaustive and damning reports on diversity in Hollywood, a new study finds that the films and television produced by major media companies are “whitewashed”, and that an “epidemic of invisibility” runs top to bottom through the industry for women, minorities, and LGBT people.

A study by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism offers one of the most wide-ranging examinations of the film and television industries, including a pointed “inclusivity index” of 10 major media companies — from Disney to Netflix — that gives a failing grade to every movie studio and most TV makers.

Coming just days before an Academy Awards, where a second straight year of all-white acting nominees has created an industry-wide crisis, the report offers a new barrage of sobering statistics that further evidence a deep discrepancy between Hollywood and the American population it entertains, in gender, race, and ethnicity.

The study examined the 109 films released by major studios (including art-house divisions) in 2014 and 305 scripted, first-run TV and digital series across 31 networks and streaming services that aired from September 2014 to August 2015.

More than 11,000 speaking characters were analysed for gender, racial, and ethnic representation and LGBT status.

Some 10,000 directors, writers, and show creators were examined, as was the gender of more than 1,500 industry executives.

The portrait is one of pervasive under-representation, no matter the media platform, from CEOs to minor characters.

“Overall, the landscape of media content is still largely whitewashed,” the study concludes.

In the 414 studied films and series, only a third of speaking characters were female, and only 28.3%were from minority groups — about 10 percentage points less than the makeup of the US population. Characters 40 years or older skew heavily male across film and TV: 74.3% male to 25.7% female.

Just 2% of speaking characters were LGBT-identified. Among the 11,306 speaking characters studied, only seven were transgendered — and four were from the same series.

“When we start to step back to see this larger ecology, I think we see a picture of exclusion,” said associate professor Stacey Smith. “And it doesn’t match the norms of the population of the United States.”

Behind the camera, the discrepancy is even greater. Directors overall were 87% white. Broadcast TV directors (90.4% white) were the least diverse.

Just 15.2% of directors, 28.9% of writers and 22.6% of series creators were female. In film, the gender gap is greatest: Only 3.4% of the films studied were directed by women, and only two directors out of the 109 were black women: Ava DuVernay (Selma) and Amma Asante (Belle).

Following a request made in May by the American Civil Liberties Union (which cited previous USC studies, as well as those by UCLA and the Directors Guild in claiming women have been “systematically excluded” from directing jobs), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year began investigating gender discrimination in Hollywood.

USC’s study, which the school has been publishing in various forms for the last 10 years, also seeks to add a new metric in the conversation.

The “inclusivity index” is a report card for the performances of 21st Century Fox, CBS, NBC Universal, Sony, the Walt Disney Co., Time Warner, Viacom, Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix.

Those companies encompass all the broadcast networks, most major cable channels, all of the major movie studios and three of the dominant streaming services.

Each was rated by their percentage of female, minority, and LGBT characters; and of female writers and directors.

None of the six major studios rated better than 20% overall; Time Warner fared poorest of all with a score of zero.

The report concludes that the film industry “still functions as a straight, white, boy’s club”.

Disney, Sony, Paramount, Fox, Universal, and Warner Bros did not immediately comment.

Some of the same companies, however, scored better when their TV and digital offerings were evaluated. Disney, the CW, Amazon and Hulu all scored 65% and above.

“When we turn to see where the problem is better or worse, the apex to this whole endeavour is: Everyone in film is failing, all of the companies investigated,” said Prof Smith.

“They’re impervious to change. But there are pockets of promise in television. There is a focus that change is possible.

"The very companies that are inclusive — Disney, CW, Hulu, Amazon to some degree — those companies, if they’re producing and distributing motion pictures, can do this. We now have evidence that they can, and they can thrive.”

USC researchers also, for the first time, added analysis of those 10 companies’ executives.

Researches did not have racial or ethnic background information, but found that women represent about 20% of corporate boards, chief executives and executive management teams.

However, some of the study’s most troubling finds are simply absences.

Roughly 50% of the examined content did not feature one Asian-American character; 20% did not include one black character.

Researchers argue for change beyond “tokenism”, including making target goals public and creating a system of checks and balances in storytelling decisions.

“People are still erased. It’s 2016 and it’s time for a change,” said Prof Smith. “We’ve laid out concrete actionable steps because we don’t want to do this again in 10 years.”

Black Viewers

The largest black audience for the Academy Awards over the last dozen years came in 2005, when Chris Rock was host and Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman won the top male acting awards.

Rock will be back as host this year, but it’s an open question how many black viewers will be tuning in.

A lack of diversity in Oscar nominations have led to stars such as Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith saying they won’t attend the Academy Awards this Sunday.

The year’s most popular awards show is generally not a must-see event in black households: The share of black people watching the Oscars is smaller than it is for a typical prime-time TV show, although it exceeds that for the Golden Globes or Emmy awards.

“African-American viewers watch shows that they can relate to,” said Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

“When you have African-American nominees, they’re usually excited about the prospect of winning and they tune in in larger numbers.”

That was certainly the case in 2005, when 5.m black people watched the Oscars. Making up 12.2% of the audience that year. The Academy Awards hasn’t made that level since, hitting a low of 6.6% in 2011.

With diversity among Oscar nominees an issue last year, too, Nielsen said 3.3m black people watched the Oscars, down from 4.1m in 2014.

Despite celebrity defections and calls for a boycott, “Chris Rock may generate some viewers”, Hunt said.

“People will be curious to hear what he has to say about the topic.”


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