Hannah Scribbles

Television Diversity & Why We’re Lucky to Have YouTube

In Movies/TV, News & Media on February 6, 2014 at 8:05 pm

I had the opportunity to catch up with one of my best friends over Skype last week. Among other things (the futility of Tumblr Savior and the craziness of shipping wars), we discussed diversity in recent television shows and the importance of representation.  Suddenly she stopped, frowned and said,

 “Seriously, though. Where the Asians at?”

where is the Asian representation?, media representationsI am always surprised by mainstream television programs when I emerge from my self-created television bubble, and her question gave me pause. Where is the Asian representation in TV? I ran through some shows off the top of my head and came up with just 10 Asian and Asian American actors and actresses:

  1. Lucy Liu, in Elementary
  2. John Cho, in Star Trek & Sleepy Hollow
  3. Daniel Dae Kim, in Hawaii 5-0 (formerly, Lost)
  4. Yunjin Kim, in Lost
  5. Grace Park, in Hawaii 5-0 (formerly, Battlestar Galactica)
  6. Reggie Lee, in Grimm
  7. Osric Chau, in Supernatural
  8. Steven Yeun, in The Walking Dead
  9. Masi Oka, Hawaii 5-0 (formerly, Heroes)
  10. Arden Cho, Teen Wolf

This list is based on shows I’ve actually seen, which means it is limited (I am open to additions! Leave a comment below). Still, I’m sad that I can think of so few actors after a week – and even fewer actresses. The bottom line is that Asian American actors make up a tiny percentage of characters played on traditional television.  Here’s the excuse why:

If the Formula Isn’t Broken, Don’t Fix It.

The traditional TV formula is about race and the power of advertising revenue (Today, I’m not touching Hollywood’s racist history with a 23-foot pole). Advertisements support air time, so TV shows become more lucrative as the audience grows. When a theme (singing/dance/talent competitions) takes off in the public eye it spawns similar products with the idea that the formula for success can be studied and reproduced. American Idol begat America’s Got Talent begat The X Factor begat The Voice.

Basically, if the formula worked once (i.e., it was popular) it will work again.

First of all, this is a terrible investment strategy that overloads the market with cupcake reality television and procedural crime dramas. Any other business plan would tell you to diversify your investments when the money is rolling in. It protects the business from market collapse and funds the growth of smaller, more innovative ventures.  Somehow, Hollywood hasn’t gotten this memo.

Secondly, anyone can tell at first glance that Hollywood’s formula system gives a terrible portrait of diversity in America. Hollywood is ages behind where it should be, but the industry is also in the business of catering to the masses. By nature, the broader an audience the more general the content becomes to placate every viewer’s tastes.  But the formula excuses today’s lack of film/television diversity as a product of the status quo, which is a really lazy way of saying, “We’re not racist. We just give society what it wants to watch.”

If Web 2.0 taught us anything it’s that we are both products and creators of the status quo. The media aren’t innocent mirrors of society, and consumers have the power to make a difference. There is no excuse.

Bottom Line:  We are lucky to have YouTube.

YouTube empowers creatives to sing, write, act, direct, film, teach and ramble without relying on traditional media guardians. While the site has its positive and negative aspects (variable product quality), I think YouTube offers a glimpse into the future of television.

YouTube enables people from vastly different walks of life to collaborate and build online communities. These communities make amazing things happen, whether it’s Nerdfighteria’s Project for Awesome or Tim H.’s YouTube series Project: Library.

For now, Hollywood remains the stronghold of Pretty White People. But the Internet is giving all actors and filmmakers an alternate arena to create and collaborate. Anna Akana and Nigahiga make quality videos. Jimmy Wong is one of the lead characters in Video Game High School, where he plays the son of Freddie Wong (played by his actual brother, Freddie Wong). You can check out the Nerdfighter network, the Multiverse or Wong Fu Productions on YouTube for great content.

The next generation of filmmakers is on YouTube right now, engaging with viewers and creating small, passionate audiences that support their work and thwart the traditional television revenue model. While it’s not really a proper consolation, at least we have our little bubble of Internet television to keep us company until Hollywood wakes up. Who needs a TV anyway, right?

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