Where’s the Diversity? A Look at the Emmy Awards and TV

Publishing diverse children’s books for more than two decades has given us a unique perspective when it comes to diversity. While our mission is to bring more diverse books to children, we hope our efforts as activists keep the wider conversation on race and inequality in the spotlight. Our other Diversity Gap studies on the Tony Awards, the children’s book industryUS politics, The New York Times Top 10 Bestseller listSci-Fi and Fantasy Films, Silicon Valley and the Academy Awards revealed a disturbing trend in ethnic and gender representation. We decided to focus on the television industry next.

Diversity Gap Emmy Awards infographic
Emmy Awards infographic (click for larger image)

Our Diversity Gap study on the Emmy Awards was the logical choice for objectively looking at the small screen. Since the Emmys will be presented on September 22, 2013, we collected data to see if a diversity gap exists in television. See our infographic above for Emmy related facts like:

  • No woman of color has ever won an Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series
  • In the last twenty years, winners in the Best Director of a Comedy Series were 100% white and 95% male
  • An African American woman has not been nominated for lead actress in a Comedy Series since The Cosby Show (1986)

We implemented the methodology we have used previously, with the help of the Writer’s Guild of America West, and we were fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with two talented writer/actors. Their combined insights into the mechanism behind making television illuminate why the lack of diversity in casting and writing remains a very real, very complex problem.

Luisa Leschin

Luisa Leschin definitely believes in the richness of diversity. She has enjoyed four very successful careers: ballet dancer, actress, voice-over artist and television script writer. Her writing credits include The George Lopez Show and Everybody Hates Chris. She is currently developing a children‘s sitcom pilot with EOne Entertainment with a theme of healthy living and is writing a pilot about Latino millennials called Homies.

Kelvin Yu Kelvin Yu is a Taiwanese-American writer currently working on the Fox animated series Bob’s Burgers. A Los Angeles native, Yu studied theater and communications at UCLA. His acting credits include Milk, Star Trek, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, and The Shield. He also has a small white dog named Yuki who used to live in New York. Neither of them are fixed.

Luisa, what types of roles were you being cast for when you were an actress?

LL: I was lucky enough to be a working actress during the 1980s and early 1990s. I started my career in New York, where I studied with Uta Hagen, a legendary actress and teacher. I speak un-accented English, but judging from my auditions, I soon realized that I better work on my Mexican, Cuban, Guatemalan, Colombian, and Puerto Rican spitfire accents because those were the only roles for which I was being considered. I remember walking onto the set of Hill Street Blues, where I was playing the pregnant girlfriend of a gang member. We had just been arrested. My fellow “actor” introduced himself to me and asked me how many times I had been arrested, because he’d been arrested twice! Toward the end of my on-camera career, I did a “role-count” and discovered that I had played a pregnant woman (in various stages of delivery) no less than six times, hookers, maids, gang-girlfriends, and as I got older, gang-girlfriend’s mothers . . . and not much else.People are just ‘writing what they know,’ which can be a virtue while simultaneously a tragedy.

Kelvin, in our initial conversation you said you felt that as an actor you have resigned yourself to always playing second banana—that you would never appear as a main character in a TV show. You attributed this to a standard of beauty. Could you elaborate on this for us?

KY: I may have used the word “resigned” but I think, more accurately, as an Asian American actor you just come to understand the market place as it is. That’s not to say that you don’t hope it could someday change, but you understand that American audiences are not generally even ready for a female lead most of the time, so it is unlikely they will mass-consume a television show or a studio feature with an Asian American carrying the story. That said, this year we’ve seen Mindy Kaling and Ken Jeong take on huge projects that are viewed by millions of people. But these are, of course, the exception rather than the rule.

As I said before, it’s not entirely an issue of race either. I don’t think Dan Devito had any illusions in Romancing the Stone that he was gonna get to kiss Kathleen Turner. The paradigm of the American hero is, in the main, a handsome white dude, say, six feet tall—and that’s just how it is. I truly feel though, at the end of the day, audiences are going to connect with the best storytelling. We’ve seen that movie goers will champion protagonists in every shape, color, or form (even a talking pig!) if the storytelling is honest and resonant. So in some ways, I just challenge Asian American writers, producers, and directors to introduce great stories that feature different types of protagonists. It wouldn’t be fair or realistic to charge other people to tell your stories. People are just “writing what they know,” which can be a virtue while simultaneously a tragedy.

Luisa, you founded the comedy troupe Latins Anonymous. Tell us the goal of Latins Anonymous and how this led to you become a writer.

LL: The resulting frustration of having a demo reel that was a hit parade of stereotypes led me to join forces with three other Latino actors who were in the same boat. We knew that as actors we were powerless to effect change from the stage. We just didn’t have the voice to do it. The real power came from higher up—the writers and producers. So that’s why I embarked on a writing career, to help change how Latino roles were written and perceived, and also just to get more Latino actors in front of the camera. Ironically, this move pretty much killed my acting career because casting directors who came to see our show skewering stereotypes were too embarrassed to offer us those same stereotypical roles.So that’s why I embarked on a writing career, to help change how Latino roles were written and perceived, and also just to get more Latino actors in front of the camera.

Kelvin, you attended college at UCLA, where the number of Asians make up 49% of the student population. Yet you mentioned that you are the only person of color in a thirteen person writing team. Why doesn’t the density of Asians living and working in Southern California amount to a larger representation of Asians in decision-making roles in TV?

KY: Don’t know. I know for a FACT that Asian Americans love to consume media—movies, television, video games, social media, all of it—so their lack of representation over the past several years is probably a combination of factors including cultural emphasis in different fields, a lack of avenues within the industry, and some level of systemic prejudice (particularly in the past).

However, I do think this is about to change big time. I think in the next few years you will see a flood of Asian content creators. Some of that is simply the rapidly closing cultural gap that social media and the internet are facilitating. Young Asian writers and actors and directors are growing up seeing Ang Lee and Justin Lin and Wong Kar Wai and Zhang Yimou win Oscars and BAFTAs. The world, for better or for worse, is remarkably smaller than it was a decade ago and audiences are more open, even hungry, for unique voices. I also think new media renders many of those past obstacles powerless against the thousands of outlets for Asian American creativity. For instance, even if your stern Korean father wants you to become a doctor, he can’t really stop you anymore from making small movies with your iPhone and cutting them with some app. People can write, shoot, edit, and even distribute content from a $300 laptop. How was an Asian American teenager supposed to do that in 1990? Not to make Asian parents seem like the only barrier, and also not to make them seem all like Kim Jong Eun. I just think we’re about to see an influx of new voices and, thus, new stories. Which is very exciting.

Luisa, during our conversation you mentioned “that there is a system” in place to break into writing for television. Describe for us what that system is and what are some of the hurdles involved with addressing the problem of the diversity gap in TV programs.

LL: We all know the famous quote by William Goldman: “In Hollywood, no one knows anything.” And we also know that many roads lead to Rome. . . . So, having stipulated that, I’m talking about the established network system. If you manage to get in on the ground level as a staff writer or story editor and then move up the ladder to senior story editor, producer, co-producer, and ultimately co-executive producer you will then become a known entity to the networks. At this point the powers that be feel confident that you have experienced firsthand about how TV shows are written and run. The network is willing to listen to show ideas from you, willing to consider ordering a pilot from you, because they know you have put in your time working under showrunners they trust and that you have experience on how things are done. This is the path that most showrunners have taken to rise to the position where a network trusts them to run a multi-million dollar show.There are very few diverse writers because there are few diverse showrunners/creators because there are few diverse executives who think that people of color and/or women tell stories that ”their” audience wants to hear.

Which brings us to the biggest problem facing us in trying to narrow the diversity gap. There are very few diverse writers because there are few diverse showrunners/creators because there are few diverse executives who think that people of color and/or women tell stories that ”their” audience wants to hear. Certainly there are other ways of breaking into television writing, especially with all the new media platforms, but ultimately there are no shortcuts for putting in the time and learning the workings of television from the bottom up.

Kelvin, what are some of the factors that may keep white writers and producers from taking a chance on casting or writing more characters who are people of color into TV shows?

KY: I honestly think most writers just write what they know. Particularly in TV, which is by definition on a deadline, it’s just not going to be your instinct to pitch a story about a Pakistani family if you have never had any experiences with Pakistani families. Nor do I blame writers and producers for remaining within a personal wheelhouse of stories that reflect their particular vantage point on the world. Every once in a while, you get an Ang Lee or a Coen Brothers—storytellers who find a way to turn something quite foreign to them into something deeply personal. But I think most of us, when given that rare chance to tell a story, want to tell the stories we dreamed of sharing with the world. Our own stories. And that’s okay. That’s not just okay; that’s good. So the issue is, how do we get more eclectic people into the room? How does the face of TV writing start to look more like the face of America?So the issue is, how do we get more eclectic people into the room? How does the face of TV writing start to look more like the face of America?

Luisa, you worked on The George Lopez Show, which aired for five seasons. From your description of the system, how did a show like this get made in the first place?

LL: It took a movie star, an established showrunner of multiple hit shows and an exceptional talent. At the time, Sandra Bullock had a development deal at Warner Brothers. Someone told her about stand-up comedian George Lopez and she and showrunner Bruce Helford (Creator of Norm, The Drew Carey Show, and Anger Management) went to see his show. Sandy fell in love with George’s talent and told Warner Brothers this was the show she wanted to develop. It took a lot of pull and star power to get the show on the air.

Everyone always has that one great idea for a pilot. But it’s seldom about the idea. All you have to do is look at most hits on TV. Cosby, a show about a family; Seinfeld, a show about nothing; Friends, six friends sitting on a couch. The salability of a pilot really rides on the team behind it. Who is the talent big enough to carry a show that has broad appeal for middle America? And who will be writing and running the show? This is why the same dozen showrunners get pilot after pilot every season. (Can you say Chuck Lorre? Bill Lawrence?) It’s because they have a track record in the network system and executives know they can deliver a show.

Luisa, you have done considerable work on some successful sitcoms over the years. Are there shows that you have worked on, or actors and actresses, who have been overlooked by the Emmy Awards?

LL: Yes! Every show I have worked on had brilliant actors who should have been at least nominated to receive an Emmy: George Lopez, Constance Marie, Belita Moreno from The George Lopez Show; Terry Cruise, Tichina Arnold, both from Everybody Hates Chris. Too often shows that feature diversity are overlooked by voters of the Academy. I don’t believe it’s any kind of conscious bias. Having been a judge for a few award shows myself, I discovered that I was more favorably inclined to a show if I had already watched the show, if I was familiar with the characters or if I might have already seen the nominated performer or episode. In short, I was already a fan. The sad fact is that most judges in the Academy are not diverse and may not be watching shows that feature diversity and/or diverse characters.

One thing worth noting about the 2013 Emmy Awards: Kerry Washington is nominated for best actress in a drama for Scandal. If she wins, she will be the first actress of color to win an Emmy Award for a drama in the sixty-five year history of the award! The fact that she is nominated at all is a testament to Shonda Rhimes’s style of ethnically inclusive casting and writing. Ms. Rhimes is essentially the embodiment of what Luisa Leschin describes as the television system for breaking into writing. Ms. Rhimes worked her way up the ranks, paid her dues, and became a showrunner. Her version of television presents a real world example of what TV shows could look like: ethnically and gender inclusive, entertaining, and . . . successful.


This is not an isolated incident, but a wide reaching societal problem.
Read more Diversity Gap studies on:

The Tony Awards
The Academy Awards
The children’s book industry
The New York Times Top 10 Bestseller List
US politics
Sci-Fi and Fantasy Films
Silicon Valley

Further resources on how to teach content and visual literacy using Lee & Low Books’ infographics series on the Diversity Gap:

Using Infographics In The Classroom To Teach Visual Literacy

57 thoughts on “Where’s the Diversity? A Look at the Emmy Awards and TV”

  1. Was sad to realized I had reach the end of the article. I could keep reading and reading, because there is certainly more to say and write about cultural diversity’s faithful representation in the media, as well as the need for it; there is also certainly more that needs to be done to meet tv audience’s hunger for it.

    A big thank you to Luisa Leschin and Kelvin Yu for their deep and knowledgeable insight, and to Jason Low for yet another concise, to the point article on that topic.

    A few thoughts:

    1- I’m still surprised that the most diverse country on earth showcases so little diversity in TV, among other platforms (I will “try” stick to TV in this response, since we’re talking Emmy Awards.), yet the majority seems surprised when a TV show (or movie for that instance) catches the industry off guard by either winning major awards or by breaking box office records – Movies: SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a stunning example, not even set in America yet speaking and touching so many people, spurting so many interesting conversations worldwide; LIFE OF PI, etc. just to quote a few. – TV: As Jason pointed out, pretty much anything written by Shonda Rhimes, whose persistence to move forward, even when facing a setback, I salute.

    2- Talking about Shonda Rhimes’s work, I remember a trip to China, and discovering that the favorite show among the Chinese student population -the one I most hung out with, and I am sure you are aware how big it is, was GREY’S ANATOMY. All my Chinese fellow students were bigger fans than me, in knowing all the actors, story lines, songs, finding ways to watch every single episode, being tremendously entertained, and actually genuinely happy to see diversity on screen. Indeed, their favorite actor was not necessarily the Asian in the show, Cristina Yang, but they equally fell in love with Bailey or Callie Torres. -I’m still waiting for Chandra Wilson to receive a much deserved award for her consistent, very strong performance in the show. That woman has made me cry and laugh like no one else.

    3-Is the phenomenon similar to what we see in the publishing industry, i.e. not many people of color hired as editors/writers or else, meaning in a position where understanding diversity and how it is perceived and received by the public matters? I agree with the point made by Luisa stating that familiarity with a culture will sway you. Having a diverse cast of friends, and therefore being exposed to cultural diversity in a friendly environment, does make a major difference in understanding and surfing cross-cultural communication dynamics. Yet we’re witnessing a case of the snake biting its own tail, because breaking stereotypes about “someone looking different from you not wanting to be your friend,” is made much much easier when you actually do see people of diverse backgrounds engaged in fun interactions on TV.

    4- My wish list:

    a- More boldness in TV shows with the storyline. And let’s forget about being politically correct and the whole “don’t talk about racism” thing. There is more than one way to address racism. There are ways to acknowledge it is still there with antagonizing an entire population, but rather by building bridges. We can’t pretend racism doesn’t exist, when many Americans young or old still have to deal with it on a daily basis.

    b- More daring choices in casting atypical actors and actresses – Thank you, America Ferrera and Tony Shalhoub, and any other Black actor not playing a gangster or any other Hispanic or Asian speaking without an accent, etc. Atypical multicultural characters are a well of potential when it comes to thought-provoking story lines and and entertainment.

    c- THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN adapted for TV show. Break down the walls between diverse communities: help us all understand what life is like beyond the confine of the made-for-TV stereotypical middle class neighborhood.

    d- As much as I LOVE HAWAII 5-0 and tune in faithfully for the snippets they include about the island and its culture(s) – the action scenes are cool too, I confess that I’m craving a TV show set, yes, in Hawaii, but with at least ONE ASIAN LEAD CHARACTER. I want to see the life there through the eyes of someone from that end of the spectrum too, not just through the McGarrett family (no offense to the executive producers, to the writers and to Alex O’Loughlin who’s doing a fine job).

    e- About those amazing websites that regal us with spoilers and therefore create a buzz even before an episode airs, I hope to see as much excitement from the viewers of shows with diverse casts, beside GREY’S ANATOMY… Graceland comes to mind, but there are a few more out there. I just wish viewers enjoying the show would be more vocal.

    f- May someone one day explore and write about cultural diversity and NBC past shows, and help me understand. NBC, in my humble opinion, has consistently taken chances on shows featuring a culturally diverse cast, even with a person of color as main character. Unfortunately almost none of them did according to the high expectations placed on them. Why were these shows not given enough time, again this is just my opinion, to build up a a strong following? It’s been proven that it takes more than two weeks for most shows to get a strong fan base (SEX AND THE CITY seems like a good example). One of the shows I regret for the potential creativity it hinted at is OUTLAW: Interesting concept; too bad it ended the way it did.

    Sometimes, and to be a match to the mainstream competition out there, a show with culturally diverse cast (and stories) can’t just count on the viewers’ sympathy or interest in the topic. Just like with books tapping into the cultural diversity our world offers, the writing has to be as strong and gripping as it can be to start a cultural, literary or media spark that will lit our brain on fire and wet our appetite, make way for more materials of the some vein in the current market.

  2. While I’m more of a movie buff I do catch a show from time to time. Usually when I do take in a show it happens much later through Netflix. I am very aware of casting and always take note of when a cast is diverse, who are the lead characters, and are the characters written authentically or stereotyped.

    Some shows and characters worth mentioning:
    I was into the reboot of Battlestar Gallactica for the first couple seasons. I loved Edward James Olmos’s Commander William Adama and thought his part really cemented the series having him as the lead.

    I watched a couple of episodes of Longmire and was intrigued by the Lou Diamond Phillips character Henry Standing Bear, as it was a pretty meaty role. I wondered what Native folks thought of his character, but from an outsider’s point of view Henry was my favorite part of the show.

    I caught the first two seasons of Walking Dead, and aside from the show making me extremely paranoid and somewhat depressed (I had to stop watching it for these reasons) I did like Steven Yeun’s Glenn Rhee character. I thought it was interesting how they developed the Glenn character and that he actually gets the girl, which NEVER happens to Asian American male characters in Hollywood.

    And how can I not mention Firefly? Great show, but I did wonder about the lack of Asians in the ‘verse considering everyone was cursing in Mandarin.

  3. Nathalie makes some great points, and I think what she points out, connected to what Kelvin says about a possible upcoming flood of Asian American content, ties into the growing demand for Korean dramas here in the US, too. US audiences are looking past Hollywood, and Hulu and DramaFever and Viki are making it possible for Americans and people all over the world to have a cultural exchange of TV and movies without having to bother with Hollywood. You can also pick up TV shows from Latin America that way, as well.

    What’s most interesting about this is that I was just at a DramaFever meetup last night here in New York, and happened to run into the producer and cast of a new indie Korean drama that’s set to start production in the next couple of weeks–right here in New York City. They’ve got a soundtrack from someone who works with Beyonce, actors from Korea (and Korean Americans) who will be acting in Korean, locations all over the city, and it’s being produced by an African American woman and staffed by a multicultural staff. Fans of dramas are from all over the world and from every walk of life in the US, and it’s just growing.

    I think we’ll see more of this kind of thing, bypassing Hollywood and the TV system entirely, going straight to the web the way that Orange is the New Black went straight to Netflix (which, while having a diverse cast, still has the problem of seeing those people’s stories through the lens of the middle-class white woman who is in prison with them).

  4. I have always loved TV as a medium because it allows us to watch the characters grow and change over an extended period of time, and over the past 10 or so years I feel like some TV shows have come out that are truly works of art (a few of my favorites are Buffy, Six Feet Under, and The West Wing). But it’s disheartening to realize that TV is less diverse now than it was 20 years ago. A show like “The Cosby Show” that once would have run on a major network and had a big mainstream audience would now probably be relegated to one of the smaller or more specialized networks. I don’t know where that decision originally came from but I do wonder what kind of long-term effect it’s had on viewers, and how it’s trained us to view which TV/movies are “for us” or “for someone else.”

    I was happy to see a few diverse shows in the fall 2013 lineup – usually there’s just one, but this year there are several that feature main characters of color. The only one I’ve watched so far is Sleepy Hollow, but I thought it was great fun. The main female character is African American (and a cop, but doesn’t fall into the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype as many African American female cops on TV shows tend to) and plays opposite Ichabod Crane, who has somehow woken up in the 21st century. I’m interested to see where the show goes and hope that, with such a unique premise, the network will give it a bit of time to build an audience. As Nathalie said above, it does sometimes take time to build a viewership and so often I feel like shows – especially shows with main characters of color, that are already “unique” in that regard – are not given the time to hit their stride before they’re cancelled. Seems like Fox is throwing a lot of money behind this one though, so I hope they see it through.

  5. Sorry, Kerry Washington did not win best actress for a drama so that statistic remains 100% white for the last 65 years of the Emmy Awards. Better luck next year.

  6. As far as the depiction of Native Americans on TV, the best
    job ever done was by NORTHERN EXPOSURE. That was a great show. Several strong Native characters portrayed by actual
    Native people.

    Also, there was the native character in STAR TREK VOYAGER of First Officer Chakotay. Though he was from a made-up tribal nation, his part was not bad, though he did fall into stereotypical behavior now and then–like his wear paint. But at least it showed that they believed Indians would still be alive in the future. Jason Beltran who played
    the part is a Mexican American who refers to himself as “Latindio.”

    Of all the Native (actual Indian) actors out there, the one who has been in the most and most meaningful TV and movie roles is Gary Farmer, who is Iroquois from the Mohawk nation and a real renaissance man–musician, publisher, actor, and a cool dude to hang with. His first notable role was in the semi-classic film POWWOW HIGHWAY. “M’ pony is dead…” He’s been on LONGMIRE,(which I have seen and which is not that bad, but not great) co-starred with Johnny Depp in DEAD MAN, and has played major roles in several Canadian TV series. (Canada, by the way, has a much better record in casting Indians. And there was a wonderful series called NORTH OF FORTY that ran for several years and took place on a Canadian Reserve with a bemused white guy mountie as a fish out of water character trying to figure it all out on a Reserve.) A decade or so ago the late Floyd Westerman, who was an important Lakota singer and activist played the recurring role of Chuck Norris’s adopted
    “uncle” on WALKER, TEXAS RANGER. And was even cooler than Chuck. (However, if you can’t beat them, you’re not Chuck Norris, who counted to infinity twice. After all,
    Santa Claus believes in Chuck Norris, the Boogeyman looks under his bed at night for Chuck Norris and Death once had a near-Chuck Norris experience.)

    As far as Lou Diamond Phillips goes, while I like him a lot and love the way he has grown with age since LA BAMBA (the real Richie Valens was a Yaqui Indian, by the way, folks) I do not think of him as a Native American actor. While he has Native ancestry he has no real tribal affiliation and used to joke about being the actor they could call on for any part that demanded someone other than a White or Black actor.

    Oh, and about Johnny Depp now claiming Native blood? And the Lone Ranger movie sort of being as popular with the reviewers as a week-old-walleye? Hey, the dude is Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp, man! We’ll take him!

  7. Why would latino’s be other people then white people? Why would they need to be ‘represented’? Aren’t they represented by human beings? I find the whole article to be racist in another form; suggesting there are actual differences between people of different colour…

  8. Sorry, it’s even worse than that as you have incorrectly classified Tony Shalhoub as a person of color. According to the Census he is considered white.

  9. MissTBlu, Tony Shalhoub, though born in America, is of Lebanese ancestry and is considered to belong to a minority…

    As for the “race” classification of the Census bureau, it is skewed in so many ways and in my opinion might need to be revised, both ethically and etymologically: Identifying “races” where scientifically it’s long been proven that there is only “one” race (the Human race) is obsolete; it should be asking by for ethnicity; the label “White” is of no help in identifying someone’s cultural group and ethnicity, therefore many people in the Northern part of Africa, though considered a minority, in America would be classified as “White” despite being discriminated on because of their names, accent, facial features, etc…

  10. Hi MisTBlu,

    Nathalie did a great job already of responding but just to clarify how we reached the conclusions presented in the infographic, we use a different definition of “people of color” than the census. The census counts people of Middle Eastern descent as white while we define people of color as people of African, Asian/Pacific Islander, Latin American, Middle Eastern, or Native American/Indigenous descent.

    Ultimately, whether someone is a person of color is not always black or white (so to speak) and it gets tricky whenever we try to put people in boxes of any kind. But either way, the general patterns hold and the numbers are quite grim.


  11. This infographic is being passed around the web a lot, is there any chance you could upload a higher-resolution image so we can read the sources in the bottom-right?

  12. Diversity is only powerful if it is authentic. Any attempts to artificially create diversity will fall flat and ultimately does more harm than good when it results in resentment. Let the market embrace diversity instead of forcing the market to accept diversity.

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