Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have made small gains in representation in prime-time and streaming television, but for the most part remain seriously underrepresented, according to a just-released study titled “Tokens on the Small Screen.”
The study was conducted by Christina B. Chin, Ph.D.; Meera E. Deo, J.D., Ph.D.; Faustina M. DuCros, Ph.D.; Jenny Jong-Hwa Lee, M.Ed.; Noriko Milman, Ph.D.; and Nancy Wang Yuen, Ph.D.
“We examine broadcast, cable, and digital platform television shows in the 2015–2016 season to measure the number of AAPI series regulars and how they fare in settings, screen time, relationships, stereotypes, and storylines,” they wrote. “A total of 242 TV shows and 2,052 series regulars are examined. This is a ten-year follow up study to our 2005 and 2006 studies of AAPIs in prime-time broadcast television.”
Their main conclusions:
TV So White: There are more AAPIs on television today than a decade ago, when they comprised only 2.6% of broadcast series regulars. Still, only 4.3% of series regulars on television and streaming services today are played by monoracial AAPIs, lower than their U.S. population share of 5.9%. Pacific Islanders are virtually invisible on television, with only four series regulars, representing only half of their share of the U.S. population.
In contrast, whites are nearly 70% of all series regulars, higher than their U.S. population share of 61.3%. A full 64% of shows exclude AAPIs from their casts. In contrast, 96% of all shows have at least one white series regular.
The sample of 142 AAPI actors includes 21 different ethnicities, plus one of unknown origin. The most prevalent ethnicities correspond to five of six of the most numerous Asian groups in the U.S. (Chinese/Taiwanese, Indian, Korean, Filipino, and Japanese). Filipino actors are underrepresented at a deficit of 7% while Vietnamese actors are also grossly underrepresented, with less than 1% representation on television.
Missing in Action: Regardless of the viewing platform, audiences may never see an AAPI regular on-screen, effectively erasing the AAPI population from a large portion of the television landscape. There are 155 shows that do not feature a single AAPI series regular. AAPIs are missing from 63% of broadcast shows, 63% of basic cable shows, and 74% of premium cable shows. While streaming television platforms, such as Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, feature the highest percentage of shows with AAPI regulars, 61% of streaming shows also lack an AAPI series regular.
Shows set in U.S. cities with high percentages of AAPIs should include greater numbers to reflect the accurate racial demographics of the environment. Yet, many shows set in AAPI-dense regions do not include (m)any AAPIs, further contributing to their erasure from the TV landscape. For all shows set in New York City (13% AAPI population), 70% do not feature a single AAPI series regular. Similarly, 53% of shows set in Los Angeles County (14% AAPI population) do not feature an AAPI series regular. Though they make up a handful of the 87 shows, series set in Seattle, San Francisco, and Hawaii have lower numbers of AAPIs compared to their regional population concentrations.
After Sandra Oh’s departure from “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC) in 2014, the show’s cast no longer features an AAPI regular despite being set in Seattle (14% AAPI population). “Fuller House” (Netflix), which is set in San Francisco (33% AAPI population), is also missing an AAPI regular. While “Hawaii Five-0” (CBS) features multiple Asian American series regulars, the show does not include a single Pacific Islander series regular in the 2015-2016 season, despite their high concentration in the state (10% Pacific Islander population).
Isolated: Intimate relationships (romantic and familial) add to a character’s complexity and draw an audience into that character’s development throughout the episode and series. A comparison of the percentage of intimately involved characters portrayed by AAPI actors to those portrayed by non-AAPI actors reveals that AAPIs are largely isolated relationally from other characters. Three times as many white series regulars as AAPIs have romantic and/or familial relationships on shows featuring AAPI series regulars.
Low Visibility: Screen time indicates the prominence of the characters in the narratives of their respective programs. Even on shows where AAPI series regulars appear, they are eclipsed by their white counterparts, who are on-screen more than three times longer. AAPI series regulars are on-screen for a total of 20 hours while white series regulars dominate the small screen at 64 hours.
This lack of visibility is further demonstrated by the fact that a whopping 87% of AAPI series regulars appear on-screen for less than half the total show time of the episodes coded. Furthermore, 17% of AAPI series regulars have the LOWEST screen times of all series regulars on their respective shows.
Tokens: More than two-thirds of the 87 shows feature only one AAPI series regular. As Aziz Ansari’s character, Dev Shah, observes in “Master of None” (Netflix), the television industry is often unwilling to cast more than one Asian actor per show for fear of stepping over an imagined threshold, creating an “Asian show.” The effect of this practice is increased potential for tokenization within the show context. AAPIs are often cast as sidekicks or supporting characters. There is often a lack of character depth and exploration of AAPI-related themes.
Of all four TV types, broadcast television is best at casting more than one AAPI actor per show, with basic cable and streaming doing second and third best at developing shows with more than one AAPI actor. Premium cable exhibits paltry outcomes on this measure — only two shows in premium lineups are cast with two or more AAPI actors.
Segregated and Endangered: AAPI actors are segregated on two ends of a spectrum of representation. As mentioned above, most shows feature just one AAPI actor. However, on the other end of the spectrum, one-third of all AAPIs are concentrated on just 11 shows. Without these 11 shows, AAPI representation would drop by a hefty 34.5%. One show, “Marco Polo” (Netflix), hosts 10% of all AAPI series regulars. It was recently cancelled, thereby delivering a significant blow to the overall number of AAPIs on TV. In all, over half of the shows with three or more AAPIs have been cancelled at the time of this report, cutting AAPI representation by 21%.
AAPI-dense shows are tokens within the overall universe of 242 shows (4.5%). When AAPIs are concentrated at this end of the spectrum, their representation is at greater risk of decimation when networks decide to cancel even one show. The canceled shows include “Dr. Ken” (ABC), “The Night Of” (HBO, no plans for renewal), “Recovery Road” (ABC), “Truth Be Told” (NBC) and “Hell on Wheels” (AMC). The other shows include “The Man in the High Castle” (Amazon), “Hawaii Five-0” (CBS) and “Wrecked” (TBS).
Stereotyped: The television landscape continues to be littered with problematic racial stereotypes, including Forever Foreign: Uncivilized and Mysterious Strangers (such as Jian-Yang on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” whose English is the frequent punchline of jokes); Yellow Peril: Dangerous Villains (such as Japanese pirates on TNT’s “The Last Ship”); Model Minority: Odd Nerds (such as Otto on Fox’s “Second Chance”); Gendered Stereotypes: Emasculated Men and Exoticized Women (such as Han Lee on CBS’ “Two Broke Girls”); Whitewashed and White Authorities on Asia (such as a Japanese-speaking white man who is the head of a yakuza criminal ring on CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0”).
Exemplary: Of shows that include at least one AAPI series regular, a handful stand out as exemplary in their development of multifaceted AAPI characters, garnering high ratings and/or awards for their efforts. Some of these shows actively engage with racial concepts, offering characters that work against problematic stereotypes rather than reinforce them. Other shows display well-rounded AAPIs who are engaged in their family life, enter into romantic relationships, and are equal partners among series regulars instead of playing the sidekick, villain, or comedic foil. These include “The Night Of” (HBO), “The Walking Dead” (AMC), “Master of None” (Netflix), and “Fresh Off the Boat” (ABC).
To see the full report, go to: www.aapisontv.com/uploads/3/8/1/3/38136681/aapisontv.2017.pdf