Representation is At an All-Time High on Screen, but Still Inaccurate, Nielsen Report Says

Series like “Reservation Dogs,” “Gossip Girl,” “Run the World,” “Bling Empire,” “Rutherford Falls,” “The Wonder Years” and “The Sex Lives of College Girls” helped make 2021 a good year for diverse, on-screen representation. Those shows helped break barriers for AAPI, BIPOC and Native American visibility on television, as well as LGBTQ+ inclusion. Per Nielsen data for the 2021-2021 TV season, among the top 1,500 programs, 78% have some presence of racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation inclusivity. But, according to Nielsen’s new Diverse Intelligence Series report, those numbers don’t tell the entire story.

It’s not just the quantity of the representation on TV, but the quality of it that Hollywood needs to care about, the study notes. Currently 42.2% of the U.S. population is racially and ethnically diverse, and that number is only projected to grow in the decades to come. But no one group is a monolith, and when you look at the diversity of groups within the AAPI, BIPOC, Native American and LGBTQ+ communities, not everyone is represented in the same way.

“If you simply look at that high percentage point, you might think the majority of identity groups are well-covered. But lack of representation and diversity in popular content is more nuanced,” said Stacie de Armas, SVP, Diverse Insights & Initiatives, in a statement announcing the report “Being Seen on Screen: The Importance of Quantity and Quality Representation on TV.”

“Looking back at the media moments this year, diverse casts and stories have been in the headlines,” de Armas wrote. “Yet, according to Nielsen’s recent research, almost a quarter of people still feel that there is not enough content that adequately represents people from their identity group.”

Nielsen’s key metrics across reality, variety (scripted) and news programming include Share of Screen (SOS), which provides the composition of the top 10 recurring cast members in a program, and the Inclusion Opportunity Index, which compares the SOS of an identity group to their representation in population estimates. Nielsen also took into consideration the number of episodes a recurring cast member was present in, the number of viewing minutes a program has and the viewing audience by identity group classification.

According to the report, Black talent is above on-screen parity, but 58% of Black respondents noted that is still not enough. When crunching the numbers, Black women remain largely underrepresented in shows compared to Black men. The most representative dramas featuring Black women on-screen had, on average, 15% Black women writers in their credits, and that representation was usually positive, steering away from stereotypes and highlighting justice, power and glamor.

In addition, the report shows that South Asian SOS falls below parity, while East Asian representation is above parity on streaming at 2.8%, indicating that AAPI representation on-screen across broadcast, streamers and cable is not monolithic. Similarly, Hispanic and Latinx SOS is far more apparent on broadcast (20.1%)— particularly in Spanish-language programming —compared to cable at 3.5% and streaming at 8.5%; talent who identifies as Afro-Latinx over-index in genres such as action and adventure, comedy, music, horror and reality. Native American SOS was poor, approximating to less than 0.1% across broadcast and cable programming, and 0.4% on streaming platforms. That is far below parity compared to the population estimate of 1.4%.

The LGBTQ+ community had its highest representation on cable programming (7.5%), but broadcast and SVOD had less than 4%. However, based on Gracenote Video Descriptors in the report— keywords capturing the story and context across mood, theme and scenario— on-screen queer narratives and voices have been deemed authentic and meaningful, as evidenced by the top keywords present: thoughtful, goodness, personal story, conflict, challenging situation, cerebral, performers and creative settings. Other interesting findings based on Gracenote Video Descriptors include Latinas being associated with the keywords “TV reporters, athletes, teammates, victory and nieces,” Black women being associated with the keywords “uplift, awareness, family bonds, competition, friendship” and White women were associated with “entertainers, conscience, morality, honesty and friendship.”

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