Although racial minorities and even women are "woefully underrepresented" on TV as leads, writers, and creators, a UCLA study has found that the key to higher ratings is employing a racially diverse team - both on screen and in the writing room.
"This is one of the first studies, to my knowledge, that attempts to flesh out the relationship between the issue of diversity among cast members and writers and the bottom line," said Darnell Hunt, professor of sociology at UCLA and author of the study. "While this brief is just the first snapshot in what we envision as a multi-year study, it certainly lends support to an argument we have been making for a long time. Everyone in the industry talks about the importance of diversity, but it clearly isn't priority one when decisions are made. And it's not going to be a priority until people realize how it affects the bottom line."
And the bottom line is that diversity drives ratings.
Well, Hunt analyzed over 1,000 TV shows, airing across 67 different networks (both cable and broadcast), during the 2011-2012. And what he found was that the cable shows that boasted the highest median ratings sported casts that were between 31% and 40% minority. The study cites shows like TNT's The Closer and Falling Skies as examples.
The same was true for broadcast network TV as well:
The importance of diversity to the bottom line was just as pronounced in broadcast television as it was in cable during the 2011–12 season, the researchers found. Median household ratings peaked among broadcast television shows that were 41 to 50 percent minority, while ratings took a dive for shows with casts that were 10 percent minority or less.
This may not be that surprising to you, considering a diverse cast has the ability to draw in a diverse audience. That seems logical.
The most interesting part of the study came when Hunt looked at the writing staff for his group of popular cable TV shows. He found a "ratings slump" for shows that had writing staffs that featured 10% minority or less, and a peak rating for show whose writing staff were comprised of 41% to 50% minority.
The only hitch in these seemingly consistent results came when he looked at the writing staffs of broadcast TV shows, which showed only a slight advantage (ratings wise) to shows written by a racially diverse team.
TV viewers are not all the same, and they don't want to see casts that are all the same. That's apparent. And as far as diversity on the creative side? Well, scripts peppered with the voices from different ethnic backgrounds are going to be more textured, insightful. Who better to accurately portray the experience of a minority than a member of that minority group? In my experience, TV is successful when it, to some degree, imitates the variety in real life - and this study suggests that networks would be wise to make a serious note of that.
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