Whom we see — and don’t see — on TV

"The cast of ‘Scandal’ poses at the 44th NAACP Image Awards, February 2013 Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images " (Source: Colorlines)

“The cast of ‘Scandal’ poses at the 44th NAACP Image Awards, February 2013 Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images ” (Source: Colorlines)

On Think Progress, Alyssa Rosenberg surveyed the racial and gender compositions of the casts of the scripted prime time shows on American’s largest four cable networks, to see how these shows represent the American population:

  • Half the population would be white men.
  • Five percent of the population would be black men.
  • Just 1.9 percent of the world would be Asian or Latino men.
  • Overall, 57 percent of the population would be men.
  • 34 percent of the world would be white women
  • 3.8 percent would be African-American women
  • And 3.8 percent would be Latino or Asian women
  • 31.8 percent of the population would work for the police or some sort of federal law enforcement agency.
  • 9.7 percent of us would be doctors.
  • 2.6 percent of us would be criminals.
  • 1.9 percent would be supernatural creatures or robots.

The blog Alas! A Blog summarized these findings and compared with actual American demographics, highlighting the discrepancy between what we see on American television versus what we see in reality:

Comparison of demographics protrayed on American scripted television on the big four networks versus actual population demographics. (Source: Alas! A Blog)

Source: Alas! A Blog

Granted, this study is a snapshot in time that examines what is currently presented on television today, and so lacks historical context.

Nonetheless, while white men are demonstrably over-represented in the television shows, other groups are significantly under-represented. Unfortunately, the “Asian or Latino/Latina” groups are obviously problematic to analyze (it seems awkward to group these two races together in one category), however, the large under-representation of these groups on television is rather striking.

Such disparities may not serve these networks well. The website Colorlines presents a study completed at the University of California, Los Angeles, demonstrating that television shows presenting a more diversified cast often receive higher viewership ratings:

Researchers found that in the 2011 through 2012 season, cable television shows like “The Closer” and “Falling Skies,” with at least a third of their casts who were people of color had the highest ratings. The lowest performing shows, meanwhile, had casts that were more than 90 percent white. And the same held for broadcast television. Television shows whose casts were 40 to 50 percent people of color performed the best in median household ratings.

Yet, the lack of diversity clearly still exists, even to the detriment of the success of these shows.

An interesting follow-up to these analyses would be an examination about how the various races, genders and occupations are portrayed on these television networks — in particular, whether certain groups are represented more often negatively (for example, turban-wearing brown individuals) — and whether these portrayals affect public perception of such groups in reality.

One comment

  1. Lori

    Thanks for this important and very relevant observation. I think that having a turbaned Sikh as the star of a prime-time TV show could make a big difference in public perceptions.


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