Diversity On-Demand: Are Over-the-Top TV Services Like Netflix Making the Small Screen More Inclusive?


Subscription video on demand services like Netflix have recently been celebrated as providing TV of greater diversity.

In the wake of a roll-call of actors excusing themselves from this year’s #OscarsSoWhite ceremony, and in the wake of a recent study from the University of Southern California which found that only  28.7% of speaking roles in cinema go to women, there are modest yet promising signs that change may be afoot in the entertainment industry. Not so much in Hollywood itself, mind, or even in broadcast television, but rather in the rapidly expanding world of subscription video on demand (SVOD) services. These services include Netflix, Amazon Video and Hulu, and as of late they’ve been showing how diversity and multiculturalism can make a home for themselves on television.

They’ve been doing this via a range of shows that are, appropriately enough, quite diverse. There’s “Orange is the New Black” and its tales of existence inside a minimum-security federal prison for women; there’s “Master of None” and its comedic insight into the experience of Asian Americans; there’s the gender-crossing drama of “Transparent”; and there’s the Colombian drug-pushers that the universe of “Narcos” turns around. These four count as only a small slice of the shows that are reflecting what life can be like for the non-white-male segment of the American population, and aside from merely being a refreshing deviation from the norm, there’s a strong case to be made that they’re one of the main reasons why SVOD services have enjoyed such precipitous growth recently.

Yet the question remains: if the likes of Amazon Video and Netflix are gravitating towards this kind of diverse programming, then why are they? Are they simply being opportunists, cashing in on a gap in the market, or is there something inherent to the on-demand, subscription model they employ that makes them more responsive to the diversity that today characterizes the US population? Well, the answer recognizes that these alternatives are two sides of the same coin, that the model used by Netflix and its ilk allows it to be more opportunistic and adaptable in the face of social change and gaps in the market. However, rather than simply affirming that an increasing shift towards subscription-video-on-demand television will bring an increasing shift towards diversity-on-demand television, this article will argue that the very model that has propelled a spike in multiculturalism will also allow such multiculturalism to be ignored more effortlessly. Added to this, it will suggest that if streaming becomes the rule for television, its liberalism may eventually thin and balance out, as service providers move to accommodate and compete for those remaining demographics that haven’t been early adopters of on-demand TV and the diversity it offers.

Demanding Diversity

If your sole source of information were news articles and anecdotes, then it would seem that this diversity is already a major fixture in the original programming you can find on Amazon Video and Netflix. In a piece from last year, CNBC declared that, partly because of SVOD services, “diversity is the new TV.” No less triumphant, Inverse reported that Netflix programs feature “some of the most diverse casting in recent memory,” while Variety added that “TV Is Finally Embracing the Realities of Race” now that on-demand subscription services are on the scene.

Their affirmations are supported by a string of high-profile shows that have made a name for themselves partly because they boast underrepresented characterizations and provocative plots. Beyond the four programs mentioned above, these shows include “Sense8” — a jet-setting sci-fi series from the Wachowski siblings notable for its inclusion of central LGBT roles — and “Jessica Jones” — a drama that pits its female superhero lead in vigorous sex scenes with her black lover and lesbian subtexts with her employer. Along with such other norm-pushing fare as the “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Grace and Frankie,” these series pride themselves on depicting the kind of people who are normally neglected by the big networks and Hollywood, and in the process they heap plausibility on the idea that there’s something about on-demand TV that lends itself to souped-up diversity.

That SVOD services do offer the greatest diversity in television was also borne out to varying degrees by the aforementioned USC study. Other than substantiating the commonly held belief that Hollywood is a kind of glorified masonic lodge that occasionally casts a token minority in order to whiteblackwash its image, this study also confirmed that streaming platforms are often more open and inclusive than traditional broadcast networks. It revealed, for instance, that 38.1% of speaking characters on SVOD programs were women, a proportion higher than the 37.3% for cable and the 36.4% for broadcast TV. Likewise, it noted that streaming services had the highest percentage of main characters belonging to underrepresented social categories, with its portion standing at 29.6% in contrast to the 27.6% of broadcast television and the 24.6% of cable. It must be said that these hardly embody massive leads, yet nonetheless they bode well for the future of SVOD, especially in view of its comparative youth (Netflix began streaming in 2007 and Amazon Video in 2006) and its already strong repute for diversity.

What this all means is that, even if on-demand TV isn’t yet quite as far-reaching in its delivery of televisual social justice as some of us would like to think, there’s still reason enough to hold the tentative opinion that it’s indeed more equable, more diverse and more liberal than other modes of broadcasting. Given that more than half of the US population now prefer to stream their TV instead of watching it live, and given that the number of subscribers to Netflix and its competitors is predicted to snowball by around 350% by 2019, this greater inclusivity makes for a very interesting situation indeed, since at first glance it implies that an increasing ratio of America will in the future be receiving television programs of increasing diversity.

The question of why SVOD television is ostensibly more multicultural and pluralistic than other forms of TV therefore holds more than its fair share of importance, since the future of American and even international values may very well depend on it. Its simplest answer is that Amazon Video and Netflix (although not all Hulu packages) do away with advertising, protecting their programming from the importunate commercials that often blight shows on network television. By doing this, and by earning the vast bulk of their revenue via customer payments and subscriptions, they correspondingly protect their programming from the need to make it attractive to advertisers and the brands these advertisers want to sanctify. They don’t have to march down to the yearly upfront meeting with ‘Mad men’ so as to sell these men (and women) ad space on their networks, using carefully predetermined, focused-group television programs and schedules as the bait to lure funding. Instead, they sell direct to the viewers themselves, circumventing the need to forge shows that are more likely to cohere and conform to (or at least not contradict) what the suits think is good for the products they’re selling.

In other words, the only people they have to please are their customers. Only having to sell their programming direct to these TV lovers, and knowing that they’re becoming ever-more diverse and ever-more concerned with issues of race and equality, they understandably decide to produce content that reflects this becoming and this concern. As we have already seen, they green-light programs starring women, senior citizens, Asian Americans, African Americans, hispanics and other underrepresented types, being able to respond fully and effectively to specific demands within society without being disrupted or thwarted by any need to secure advertising dollars. Without such a need, they’re liberated to make exactly the kind of pioneering shows people want to see, and not the kind that would hypothetically provide the most direct route to the pockets of some abstract demographic.

And yet, apart from the absence of advertising constraints, there’s another reason why the SVOD model is so sensitive to demand and therefore more fertile for diversity. It’s that such services as Amazon Video are carried online and able to exploit superior masses of user data in deciding which shows to run. In fact, in the case of Amazon, its service is famed for commissioning programs on the basis of making their pilots available to its customers and enabling the latter to rate what they watch. This is what happened with “Transparent,” and it’s what happened with “Mozart in the Jungle,” two shows that may not have been given much of a chance if they’d been pitched to network executives a decade or more ago.

In a similar vein, Netflix are known to commission their programming via reference to the activity and preferences of their subscribers. “House of Cards,” for instance, was approved partly because access to customer tags and other feedback supplied the company with a more intimate insight into what precisely these customers want. Not only that, but the possession of detailed user information — name, age, gender, location, favorites etc. — allowed the Los Gatos corporation to create substantial, multi-dimensional profiles of their 75 million subscribers, thereby making themselves far more attuned to any popular demands for innovation and diversity than more traditional broadcasters.

With this knowledge of how SVOD providers have the digital equivalent of a ‘finger on the pulse’ of viewer tastes and expectations, it becomes apparent that they’re heralding a new age not simply of on-demand TV services, but of data-driven TV services. They incorporate constant, constantly updated user data and feedback into their very fiber, relying upon the very ‘big data’ they generate to renew and reform themselves in accordance with the responses of their audience. It’s this very reflexivity and responsiveness as much as the absence of advertising that accounts for their improved diversity credentials, since even though such cable/satellite networks as HBO are free from the compulsion to attract ad revenue, they don’t quite sport as multicultural a range of lead characters.

Demanding Non-Diversity

This is all very exciting for those of us who’ve spent decades watching fictitious all-white universes we barely recognize, yet the complete picture is far more nuanced and ambiguous than the foregoing would have you believe. This is because, even while the on-demand, data-driven model currently being honed by Amazon and Netflix affords a greater degree of multiculturalism than we’ve previously ever seen, it also affords more conservative and less tolerant individuals the ability to ignore this multiculturalism entirely, to have on their TV sets only those shows that reinforce their possibly blinkered, white-dominated and patriarchal view of reality. With the convenience it provides, those who aren’t into diversity can sidestep “Master of None” or “Transparent” altogether, safe from the danger of idly turning on the box one evening and confronting themselves with images that challenge their less liberal world-views.

That SVOD television may in fact turn out to be just as much a bulwark of non-diversity and unadventurousness is already partly indicated by the USC report discussed earlier. Disregarding the slightly increased proportion of female characters and underrepresented leads, streamed TV fares poorly on a number of other fronts. For instance, 63% of shows on digital platforms have either no black or no Asian characters whatsoever (whether lead or supporting), in contrast to the 51% each of cable and broadcast television, and the 50% of film. Similarly, when it comes to portraying a “balance” of racial and ethnic minorities in proportion to US census figures, only 2% of streamed programming was confirmed to be so balanced, significantly behind the 19% of broadcast TV, the 13% of cable and the 7% of film.

What this reveals is that, while privy to several notable exceptions that feature prominent characters of marginalized social categories, the programming of Amazon, Hulu and Netflix is just as responsive to and accommodating of subscribers who don’t want diversity as those who do. This is evident in the above statistics, and it’s also evident in the various reboots of arguably conservative shows that these services have been spearheading. These include resuscitations of “Gilmore Girls,” “Full House” and “Degrassi,” rebirths which have been licensed presumably because of viewer data concerning the respective original series, and which feature a pretty much exclusively white cast.

If subscription video on demand is to continue growing and swallowing a greater segment of the TV-doting public, then it’s highly probable that this commissioning and re-commissioning of relatively ‘non-diverse,’ mainstream programs will become more common, as the likes of Netflix compete with the old-guard networks for the remaining 50% of the US population that haven’t migrated to over-the-top television. Using their fine-grained user data, they will likely produce a greater quantity of less challenging and socially progressive content the more people subscribe to their services. They’ll cater for more than the young and higher-income (i.e. better-educated) demographics they predominantly serve at the moment, incorporating content that sits more comfortably with the older, potentially more conservative generations who were five times more likely to subscribe to cable as of 2013. Because of this, their programming will potentially become less reflective of diversity, or to put it more cautiously, as non-reflective of diversity as their increased mass of subscribers and the population-at-large wants it to be.

This, to a considerable extent, is what happened to Fox. In the 1990s, it made a name for itself by ordering ‘alternative’ programs like “Living Single” and “Martin” that featured non-white casts, only to become the “whitest network on television” once it reached a certain critical mass around the turn of the century. Accordingly, it may be feared that once Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video use the respective niches they’ve carved for themselves to become the primary means of watching television for most of the population, they will similarly dilute the diversity they now offer. In competing to poach viewers from more traditional, broadcast TV, they may very well produce a greater quantity of the kind of mass-appeal programming that often attracts people to such TV. Their ‘big data‘ may inform them that their growing user base wants a growing proportion of shows with pretty white people, as well as yet more reboots. As a result, they may give this user base just that, thereby restricting their ‘diversity’ to an isolated corner of shows that might be a hit for a correspondingly isolated corner of viewers, but can be swept under the rug for almost everyone else.

Televisual Social Justice

If SVOD television does indeed allow the very diversity it reflects to be “swept under the rug,” and if its use of data will increasingly instruct it to order more permutations of “Beverly Hills 90210” or whatever, then there’s one very salient message that needs to be taken from the foregoing. Instead of simply rejoicing at the few prominent instances of critically lauded multiculturalism that now pepper the cultural landscape, it would be wise if we remembered that the most important struggle resides, not in commissioning and applauding the occasional television program, but in reforming norms, values and cultures on the ground, through discourse, activism and our own conscientious day-to-day behavior. It would be wise if we remembered that a handful of award-winning programs are not a surefire sign that prejudice, inequality and underrepresentation are on the way out, since copious statistics and reports indicate that they’re not.

Such a confusion of televisual social justice with actual social justice is potentially dangerous, since it risks hiding and denying the very real injustices millions of people regularly confront behind a facade of seeming inclusion and equality. It’s therefore imperative that we never lose sight of the other, less glamorous side of equation, not least because it’s arguable that TV will reflect the full diversity of America only if the hearts and minds of the American viewing public have been sufficiently enlightened by reasoned discussion, political action and cultural change. As it stands, the data-driven, demand-following approach of Netflix and Amazon Video will only mean that this public will continue to receive television that’s just as indifferent or averse to the underrepresented as it sadly often is.

Still, the progress streamed television has made in recent years is encouraging. With shows like “Orange is the New Black,” “Transparent” and “Master of None,” it’s brought a modestly widening spectrum of human life into our homes, conceivably thawing or correcting some of the resistance or blindness we may have had to alternative lifestyles and under-appreciated minorities. While its content may ultimately only be as accepting, liberal and diverse as the constituency of TV consumers it serves, there’s little doubt that it has made some inroads into the prejudices that still mar life in the 21st Century. If only we could make some more inroads outside of the screen.

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