Diverse Characters Increasing On-Screen, but Viewers Want Better Portrayals

Two recent Tv industry surveys show that viewers are not satisfied with the portrayals of diverse characters on the small screen, even as the number of such characters continues to increase.

According to a new Horowitz Research Focus Tv and Video Content report, 36% of Hispanics, 49% of Blacks and 34% of Asians reported that they often felt “personally offended” by the way that people of color are portrayed in Tv and in movies.

It’s not just minority groups that are complaining. When asked about minority images onscreen, 26% of whites said they feel personally offended by media portrayals of people of color. Further, 41% of 18-34 year old whites say they are offended by portrayals of Blacks, Asians and Latinos on Tv -- a higher percentage than that of Hispanic and African-American viewers in the demo, said Horowitz.

The most plentiful and accurate portrayals of people of color come from premium services such as HBO, Showtime and Starz as well as streaming services Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime. Nearly 65% of Asian, Hispanic and Black viewers say content from those services is more reflective of America’s diversity than shows on the broadcast and cable networks, according to the survey.

The findings come as an increase of diverse characters are hitting the small screen. People of color represented 47% of all series regular characters on primetime broadcast television during the 2018-19 television season -- an increase of three percentage points over the previous year, according to the annual GLAAD Where We Are On TV report.

The LGBTQ advocacy group also reported that a record 10.2% of all primetime series regular characters on broadcast networks ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and the CW were counted as LGBTQ. Along with the 90 regular series characters counted as LGBTQ, an additional 30 recurring characters were LGBTQ.

The number of LGBTQ regular and recurring characters on scripted primetime cable programs increased slightly to 215, while 153 new and recurring characters appeared on scripted series from streaming services Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix, an increase of 41 characters overall from the previous year’s total of 112, according to the report.

Broadcasters, streamers, and cable networks are making inroads with regards to portraying people from all ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. Viewers are now asking that those portrayals and images be more reflective of their experiences.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.