Racial Representation in the 20 most popular TV shows: how Friends, The Office and Brooklyn Nine-Nine compare

Majority of the top sitcoms from IMBd have no racial diversity at all

The plea for racial representation has been stipulated, stretched, sworn upon, neglected and debated. It’s been half-heartedly promised, evident through one amazing series before being yanked from beneath our feet.

It’s a necessary talking point, but it all feels pointless. Surely, if representation was to occur, it would have grown organically, parallel to the society shaping around us.

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Award-winning shows, such as Schitt’s Creek, have been proudly praised for its representation of the LGBTQ+ community. But what is plated up for us, in terms of racial diversity, are two People of Colour (POC) actors, one Black and one South Asian, filling the snug yet worn shoes of typical character traits for their race.

But as Associate Professor in Film and Media, Dr Beth Johnson of University of Leeds says: “Authenticity is really difficult to articulate.”

How diverse are sitcoms now?

On screen, there is a steady stream of increasing representation. Yet, from the top 20 IMBd lists of sitcoms, it would suggest diversity is in shambles. From the top 20 shows ranked, 11 had no visible POC.

From the nine shows who did, only two had over a third of POC main cast. These shows have been noticed for their racial diversity, namely Community (44.4% - 4/9 of main cast) and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, 44.4%, 4/9 main cast.

In sitcoms with large main casts, Freaks and Geeks totalled no POC characters, and Arrested Development stretched to one out of 10 people (10%). For Parks and Recreation, out of 11 people 3 were POC (27.3%) and in Cobra Kai, two out of 11 (18.2%) people were visibly POC.

For animated shows, voice actors were looked at instead. For everyone’s favourite cynical horse, Bojack Horseman, only 20% (1/5) were POC. Interestingly, in Bojack Horseman one episode plunged into a 20 minute exploration of growing up as a 1st generation Asian-American woman, and yet, the character, Diane Nguyen, was voiced by Alison Brie - a white woman.

Although Brie apologised for her lack of sensitivity, it resembles a lengthy battle into the correct moral standpoint of voicing POC animated characters.

Yet, through trawling the list of top sitcoms, which also churned out classics like Will and Grace, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Modern Family, diverse sitcoms are slowly surfacing. We are Lady Parts, I May Destroy you and Chewing Gum provide some flicker of representation - but it’s early days yet.

Behind the scenes

Dr Johnson says “Stories that are selected are considered to be popular or attractive to audiences. We’re not getting a good, diverse range because of that.

“Screenwriting is still hugely white, it’s still hugely ableist and it’s still hugely skewed towards male screenwriters. For me, what that means is that we don’t get a rich and representative reflection of stories.”

Behind the scenes is a whitewashed board scrambling to make the millions back they ploughed into producing a show in the first place. It becomes reliant on a pilot audience to test and feedback - and if representation is the rising trend then, representation is what needs to be delivered. But how can one make it authentic?

Ofcom’s diversity report of 2021 says: “Where minority ethnic groups (“MEGs”) were particularly underrepresented in 2017/18, they are less so now across the workforce as a whole.

“Radio has typically started from a lower base than TV but in some areas (race, religion) it has made more rapid progress. For example, people from MEGs made up 6% of the radio workforce in 2017/18 but are now at 10% (compared with 12% of the UK working age population).”

However, they mention “there is a woeful lack of diversity within senior positions and key decision makers.

“There is more promising news on promotion of minority ethnic colleagues in TV, who make up nearly a fifth of all those promoted, although we do not currently know if these colleagues are being promoted into senior management positions. Broadcasters appear to have focused on entry-level recruitment at the expense of retaining diverse staff and enabling them to progress.”

Hiring diversity

Dr Johnson said; “Television, for a long time, has been dominated through who you know, not what you know. There’s a huge amount of nepotism in the television and film industry. Since television is intense project work with 14,16 even 18 hour days, producing shows on a budget and under stress,  people pick who they know and think are like them. There’s a sense of homophily leading to less formal channels of hiring.”

Amro Mahmoud is a POC actor, recently breaking out into the industry. On hiring, he says: “I think nowadays people are more accommodating or preventive. So if there’s something that doesn’t align with you or you’re not willing to do as an actor, people say that’s fine. Maybe many years ago, they wouldn’t be like that.”

On the topic of increasing representation in the industry, he says “change has to happen organically with a supportive push in the industry.”

When asked why he thought there was a severe lack of diversity in the past, Mahmoud said: “maybe that there wasn’t enough demand for it. I say that because now there could be films made about an Arab superhero and it would work. It would make enough money because ultimately, that’s what the studios care about. But from a perspective of something making money it has to be something that people would want to go and watch.

“When Crazy Rich Asians or Black Panther came out there was this hesitation: what if it doesn’t work and it doesn’t make money. That could mean similar films won’t be made. I think that’s a real shame.”

All three sources say there are flickers of racial diversity and representation in sitcoms, but it’s slow. So for this generation, cult classics will contain a majority white ensemble, but maybe for the next we’ll finally see the change we’re waiting for.

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