(L to R) USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Dean Ernest J. Wilson III, Ph. D., makes closing remarks as USC Annenberg School for Communication Professor Stacy Smith, Ph. D., Stephanie Allain, Pete Nowalk, Cathy Schulman and USC Annenberg Communications Professor Katherine Pieper, Ph.D. look on at Wallis Annenberg Hall on February 22, 2016.
Seth Hancock

Industry experts discuss the first Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in entertainment

Nearly a year in the making, the results of the first Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity (CARD) in entertainment were released on Monday, Feb. 22, prompting conversations across the entertainment industry and discussion among a panel of industry experts during a forum at USC Annenberg that evening. 

Professor Stacy Smith, who spearheaded the study as director of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, hosted the "Inclusion or Invisibility? Revealing the First Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment" panel before a full house of students, faculty and USC Annenberg community members at Wallis Annenberg Hall.

“What we try to emphasize here at the Annenberg School is not just inclusion. That is just the beginning, the starting point,” USC Annenberg Dean Ernest J. Wilson III said during the forum's opening remarks. “The idea of change and power has to begin with knowledge.”  

Panelists for the evening's discussion were LA Film Festival director and producer Stephanie Allain, "How to Get Away with Murder" creator Peter Nowalk and head of production of Motion Picture Group for STX Entertainment Cathy Schulman.

The panel, moderated by Smith and USC Annenberg research scientist Katherine Pieper, touched upon the numerous data points collected during the year-long study led by Smith, Pieper, and MDSC Initiative project administrator Marc Choueiti, with assistance from Ariana Case, Artur Tofan and the more than 100 undergraduates who assist research at the MDSC think tank.

The MDSC Initiative has conducted studies on media diversity for the past decade, and for the past three years has partnered with Women in Film Los Angeles and the Sundance Institute to collect and examine more in-depth industry diversity data. Schulman, who is also the president of Women in Film Los Angeles, said the CARD results aim to spur meaningful change in an industry that has been slow to adapt.

“The statistics that existed already were unchanging, frustrating and unexplained,” Schulman said. "When people can see exactly what's happening, when there's been an examination of the internal housekeeping in a particular situation, that is the first step toward making change."

Announced in January 2015 alongside the response to the lack of diversity among Academy Award nominees, the CARD initiative was created to serve as an industry “report card,” ranking media companies based on the inclusiveness of both the content they produce and diversity among their internal ranks. The release of the CARD results Monday coincided with an ongoing debate about diversity in Hollywood reignited by the fact that, for the second year in a row, all of the Academy Award nominees in the four main acting categories are white.

The findings of the study, which analyzed 109 films and 305 first-run broadcast, cable and digital television series between September 2014 and August 2015, were stark. The report concludes with a line from the authors circulated by many media outlets Monday and reiterated during the panel: “The film industry still functions as a straight, white, boy’s club."

Of the more than 11,000 speaking roles evaluated by the MDSC team, ethnic and racial minorities accounted for just 28.3%. Two-thirds of all speaking roles were filled by men, and only 18 percent of the stories analyzed had a gender balanced cast. The study found a gender ratio of two men for every woman seen on screen, and that no platform presented a racial makeup of characters representative of that found in the United States.

LGBT on-screen representation, or rather the lack thereof, was also concerning, with just 2 percent of all speaking roles filled by LGB characters, and just seven transgender characters appearing across all platforms. More than 50 percent of content assessed in the study featured no named or speaking Asian characters, and more than 20 percent featured no speaking black or African-American characters.

Both the MDSC report and the forum's panelists were in agreement that diversity on-camera begins with inclusiveness behind the scenes.

“It’s so important who’s at the table,” said Allain, whose producing credits include “Dear White People,” “Beyond the Lights” and “Hustle & Flow.”

“What’s important to me may not be important to you … but if we all can represent and have a voice in that, as it turns out it can make more money, and as it turns out, it can change the world," Allain continued.

Having analyzed gender, race or ethnicity, and other factors for more than 10,000 writers, producers, and directors and 1,500 media company executives at multiple levels, the CARD report's findings for diversity behind the scenes were just as bleak as on-screen representation. Among all directors, nearly 85 percent were male and 87 percent were white. In film, just 3.4 percent of directors are women, and only two — Ava DuVernay and Amma Asante — are black women. Less than one third of all writers were women, as were just 22.6 percent of television series creators.

As noted in the report and during the panel, as power increases, female participation decreases. Within the 10 companies evaluated, women represent about 20% of corporate boards, chief executives, and executive management teams. Among film, television, and streaming executive ranks, 46.7% of Senior Vice President-level executives are female.

All of these factors contributed to the overall inclusiveness rankings for the six main film distribution companies and 10 television and digital content distributors. Each of the film companies — 21st Century Fox, Sony, NBC Universal, Time Warner, Viacom, and the Walt Disney Company — earned a failing inclusion grade, with no company scoring higher than 25 percent across all tests.

Of the television companies analyzed, five earned less than a 50 percent inclusiveness rating, with The CW, The Walt Disney Company, Amazon and Hulu the strongest performers.

“We don’t have a diversity problem, we have an inclusion crisis,” Smith said. “Film has failed at inclusion. These data show that companies can do it when they set their minds to do it.”

The findings were covered as “one of the most exhaustive” reports on diversity in Hollywood. More than 2,500 stories were posted or printed internationally within a few days, including reports by The Associated Press, NPR Morning Edition, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Fast Company, The Atlantic, BBC News, and CNN

Both the MDSC report and panel concluded by proposing several solutions to the entertainment industry’s diversity dilemma. The recommendations for companies include deciding on target inclusion goals, recognizing and altering stereotypical thinking, creating checks and balances and building inclusive consideration lists for writers and directors.

For content creators like Nowalk, whose shows include "How to Get Away with Murder," "Scandal," and "Grey's Anatomy," simply being able to have a conversation about diversity is a relatively new and meaningful place to start in enacting change.

"I don't even feel like it was until the past year or two that even within my writer’s room, with my writers and other colleagues, that we would even talk about it," Nowalk said. "It's really due to the [MDSC] research and everything that's happened with that that we're even aware of it."

While change within the industry will undoubtedly take time, the panelists agreed that bringing about more diversity in entertainment can begin from the ground up with consumers.

"When we talk about wanting diverse forces out there, and wanting to see movies that are directed by women and people of color, and then we do not spend the money, $10 at the movie theater, you're not going to get there that way," Allain said. "It is really incumbent upon us to really be heard with our dollars. You can’t ask for that and then not support it when it’s in front of you."

Social media and other activism can also be a powerful tool for change, as evidenced by the ongoing #OscarsSoWhite twitter campaign and the success that so-called "black Twitter" has brought to shows like "How to Get Away with Murder."

“You’d be surprised how a collective voice can make a change if you just speak up and ask for your own media,” Schulman said.

The forum concluded with the announcement that the next component of this year's CARD report would be an award presented to an individual in the entertainment industry who has done the most to promote diversity and inclusion. Nominees are currently being accepted and considered for the award, which will be presented in March.

The report and the award are emblematic of USC Annenberg’s broad and lasting commitment to diversity. The school is the recipient of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC)’s Equity and Diversity Award in 2012. The same year, the school won a Federal Communications Commission competition to examine media ownership rules and their effect on localism and diversity, organizing a national consortium of 30 social scientists, legal scholars, journalists and communication experts. And last year, the Women’s Leadership Society at Annenberg M{2e} (Media, Economics and Entrepreneurship) formed with the aim of disrupting the male-dominated media and entertainment industries and building new opportunities for a future generation of thought leaders.

For the past two years, USC Annenberg has hosted a Summer Institute on Diversity in Media and Culture, and just last month, the school announced a $5 million gift from the Annenberg Foundation for the Annenberg Leadership Initiative, to boost diversity in newsrooms by offering scholarships to students and fellowships to early-career journalists from diverse backgrounds. The CARD report is the first signature study of USC Annenberg’s Institute for Diversity and Empowerment, a research center examining inclusivity across media industries. IDEA’s goal is to make positive, long-lasting change and facilitate civic engagement.