Friday, May 13, 2011

The Impact of Cross-Culturalism on American Television

Imagine being in a room with your co-workers. Now let’s further imagine that they constitute a random sample of American television viewers. Ask them, “So what TV shows have you been watching this month?”

You’d likely hear answers that resemble the week’s top 10 Nielsen list: CSI, Modern Family, Real Housewives of [some outrageously interesting area of the US], etc.

These TV programs are popular, for sure.  But they also have other commonalities:  high profile network backing, primetime slots, intriguing personalities, diversity.  In fact, a majority of today’s hit television programs have more or less “representative” casts.  In other words, the proportion of minority cast members for many of these shows mirrors the adult population of the United States.  Contrast that fact with the blatant racial disparity that existed just a few decades ago.

Does that surprise you?

15 years ago, the status of diversity in television was quite different.  Shows with mostly Caucasian principal casting - shows like Seinfeld, Murphy Brown, Friends, and Roseanne - performed the best in TV ratings.  These hit shows featured few minority characters, and if they did, they were most likely a guest star or a character of minimal significance.

It would be logical to hypothesize that minority casting in TV, and by extension minority  influence, experienced a precipitous increase in just the last decade. Yet, data from the Screen Actors Guild shows that minorities have experienced an incremental and not precipitous increase in share within the casting market since 1998. 

How can this difference between perceived and actual minority casting be explained?

A Framework For Examining Diversity

Measuring diversity in terms of minorities’ share of casted roles is but one way to assess the state of cross-culturalism in TV.  And in this case, it’s too myopic of an approach. Clustering TV programs by level of minority casting provides more clarity to the situation. 

Take the last 50 years of popular TV programming, and you can cluster them into four  distinct categories of casting diversity:

When plotting the Top 10 television shows for every year since 1950, a few interesting trends become apparent:

Trend #1:  “White Only” shows constituted a majority of programs until the 2000s.   But since 2005, only one “White Only” program – Two and a Half Men – made it into the Top 10.

Trend #2:  “Minority Only” shows debuted in the Top 10 in the late 1960s, coinciding with the tail end of the American Civil Rights movement.  These “Minority Only” shows had a focus on the African American experience, and included shows like The Cosby Show, Sanford & Son, and Good Times.  “Minority Only” shows disappear from the chart in 1990, the last year The Cosby Show was rated in the Top 10.

Trend #3:  “Mixed Shows” display a spotty history in the Top 10 beginning in the late 1960s.  But they had a resurgence in the 1990s and have gradually grown to a majority of the Top 10 shows today.

Tokenism Over The Years

Although never constituting a significant share of the Top 10, shows with token minorities have been a constant since 1950.  While these shows do their part in contributing to the “melting pot” that is the American TV talent pool, these shows inhabit an interesting gray area.  Neither racially monolithic nor integrated, these shows stop short of highlighting minority stories with meaningful purpose.

However, shows with token minorities have changed over the years – from using ethnicity as a comedic foil, to using minority casting for more racial representation. This is yet  another symptom of the growing influence of minorities; insensitive portrayals of  minorities have given way to tolerable, albeit culturally muted, representations.

A Few Conclusions

Minority influence in television has increased over the years, though it’s not a matter of sheer casting numbers.  The evidence lies in the number of popular shows with mixed race casting – and the storylines related to diverse cultural experience – that have emerged in the last decade.

As such, it is important to keep in mind that this medium is the context in which we  connect our clients’ brands to America’s consumers.  

[Special thanks to Michael Barin, who researched and wrote this piece. Thank you, Michael!]