Women on Broadcast TV: Little Progress for Diversity (Study)

The progress of women in the television industry continues to be incremental when it hasn’t stalled out, according to the annual Boxed In study conducted by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

The Boxed In study, now in its 20th year, annually provides a comprehensive look at the employment of women in front of and behind the camera. It also monitors the depictions of women on screen and the racial composition of TV casts. The latest Boxed In study, which covers the 2016-2017 season can be found on the Center’s site.

There have been a few increases in the depiction of women of color on TV, the study found. But as a whole, the industry continues to lag when it comes to the hiring of women, and it continues to engage in stereotyped depictions when women are on screen.

“Programs with women creators feature more female characters overall and more major female characters, and have higher percentages of women writers and directors,” Dr. Martha Lauzen, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, told Variety. “In some cases, the differences are dramatic. Yet women comprise only 23%of all creators.”

Among the findings of the annual Boxed In study:

  • At the broadcast networks, the employment of women as directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and DPs has essentially frozen, “with no meaningful progress over the last decade,” the study said. Women filled 27% of those key roles at the broadcast networks in the 2016-2017 season — an increase of only 1% point since the 2006-2007 season.
  • The situation across all platforms — cable, streaming and broadcast — tells a similar tale: Women filled only 28% of those key jobs, an increase of just 2% from the previous season.
  • Only 21% of creators at the broadcast networks were women. That’s a 1% decline from last season. In cable and streaming platforms, women were 26% of the creators. Though that number is half of what it would be if TV creator statistics more accurately reflected American demographics (women are 51% of the population), it represents a jump of 7% from the 2015-2016 season.
  • Streaming services are doing a little better than broadcast in certain regards: Women fill 32% of those behind-the-scene roles at streaming platforms. That’s a 5%  increase from the previous season. 
  • There has been an increase in the depiction of characters of color: Black women represented 19% of all female speaking roles (an increase of 3% from 2015-2016), and Asian representation among female characters accounted for 6% of all speaking roles (an increase of 4% from the previous season). However Latinas are particularly underrepresented; they got only 5% of all speaking roles, an increase of only 1% from the year before.
  • Overall, 69% of female characters were white, down from 74% in 2015-2016.
  • The prevalence of female characters varied among platforms: Women were major characters on 34% of cable programs, 43% of broadcast shows, and 47% of major characters on streaming programs.

“Streaming programs have now surpassed broadcast programs in terms of gender diversity, both on screen and behind the scenes,” Lauzen noted. “It’s interesting that the networks seem to have ceded their leadership position in this respect to the streaming services. This shift is also interesting in light of Shonda Rhimes’ anticipated move from ABC to Netflix.”

Other findings from the Boxed In report:

  • Sixty-eight percent of all programs (across cable, premium cable, streaming  and broadcast) featured casts with more male characters than female characters. Of the programs across all platforms that were examined in the study, only 11% had ensembles with equal numbers of men and women.
  • Women had 42% of all speaking roles across all platforms, an increase of 2% from the 2014-2015 season.
  • Women were more likely to be depicted through “personal-life oriented roles,” the study noted. “Female characters were younger than their male counterparts, more likely than men to be identified by their marital status, and less likely than men to be seen at work and actually working.”
  • Most female characters, the study found, were in their 20s and 30s, while the majority of male characters were in their 30s and 40s. “Female characters experienced a precipitous decline in numbers from their 30s (40%) to their 40s (14%),” the study noted. 
  • “Across all platforms, startlingly high percentages of programs employed” no women at all in the key roles examined, the study noted: 97% of shows had no women directors of photography; 85% did not employ women directors; 75% had no women editors and 74% did not have any women as creators. A fifth of all shows had no women as executive producers.

One thing that is clear from this year’s Boxed In study, as well as from research by USC’s Annenberg School: Hiring women changes on-screen representation.

  • Programs with at least one women executive producer “featured more female characters and had higher percentages of women directors and writers than programs with exclusively male executive producers,” according to the Boxed In study.  “On these programs, the percentage of major female characters achieved parity with women’s representation in the U.S. population.”
  • By contrast, on programs with exclusively male creators, only 38% of the characters were female. Programs with only male creators had writing staffs that were 79% male, the study found. 

Overall, this year’s Boxed In report found that women were most likely to be employed as executive producers (39%), followed by writers (33%), executive producers (28%), creators (23%), editors (22%), directors (17%).

To compile the data for its Boxed In studies, which now stretch back two decades, staffers at SDSU’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film watch one randomly selected episode of every series appearing on broadcast networks, basic cable channels, premium cable channels and streaming services. For the 2016-2017 study, more than 4,109 characters and 4,310 behind-the-scenes credits were monitored.

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