Netflix Taps Annenberg Inclusion Initiative for Deep Dive Into Its Own Content

'Always Be My Maybe,' 'One Day At a Time,' 'When They See Us' and 'Special.'
Courtesy of Netflix

Clockwise from top left: 'Always Be My Maybe,' 'One Day At a Time,' 'When They See Us' and 'Special.'

The data revealed gender parity and proportional representation of Black cast members, but the streamer says it needs to do a better job of including other communities, including Latino, MENA, Native, LGBTQ and disability.

Last month, Netflix unveiled its first-ever inclusion report, a qualitative summary of what the company is doing to diversify its workforce and create a more inclusive workplace culture. Now the streamer has extended its commitment of inclusion—and transparency—by analyzing the diversity of its content, and making those results public.

To do so, Netflix commissioned USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, the leader in this space, to analyze all of its U.S.-based, live-action original scripted content released in 2018 and 2019, using the same rigorous examination protocols that AII applies to its independent studies of inclusion in the entertainment industry. (Last week, Starz partnered with UCLA's Center for Scholars & Storytellers to commission a similar study of its own programming as part of its new #TakeTheLead inclusion initiative.) Netflix's partnership with USC Annenberg is long-term; AII will release a report about Netflix original content every two years through 2026.

"An internal audit is a critical first step toward inclusive change," said AII founder Dr. Stacy L. Smith according to a blog post by Netflix co-CEO and chief content officer Ted Sarandos announcing the results of the report.

The study, "Inclusion in Netflix Original U.S. Scripted Series and Films," looked at the representation of gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ and disability status both onscreen and in director, writer and producer roles and compared Netflix's performance to real-world population numbers as well as, where possible, data from contemporaneous top-grossing movies or industry averages for series. At a symposium held to discuss the study's findings the day before its release, Netflix vice president of global film Scott Stuber agreed with moderator Elvis Mitchell that the streamer faces fewer external obstacles to inclusion because it doesn’t have to deal with exhibitors. "Our distribution platform definitely is an advantage because it's an equalizer," he said. "You're going directly to the audience, which you know is diverse."

Among the 126 movies and 180 series analyzed, key findings of the report include:

Gender parity in leads or co-leads, with a jump in female-identifying protagonists from 48.6% to 55.2% from 2018 to 2019. But when it came to populating the rest of the onscreen world, Netflix regressed to industry averages, with just under 40% of characters with lines identifying as female (15% as women of color). Stuber found that result particularly troubling, since having dialogue can significantly impact an emerging artist's career: "That SAG card is everything. That insurance is the beginning of a dream, and [could lead to] the next great artist." Women tended to work in key behind-the-camera roles for Netflix at a higher rate than the industry averages, but in no position did they comprise more than a third of the people in those jobs.

Netflix's non-white onscreen representation grew from 2018 to 2019 and bested industry averages, but white people still dominate in front of and behind the camera. Broken down by specific race/ethnicity, 15.2% of Netflix original content featured Black leads or co-leads, and nearly 20 percent of all main cast members across movies and series were Black. The other racial/ethnic groups were represented in single-digit proportions: 2.6% of content featured Latinos leads or co-leads (Latino actors comprised 4.5% of all main cast), 4% of content starred Asian protagonists (7% of Netflix's main cast members were Asian) and there were just seven pieces of original content in two years that featured leads or co-leads from either the Middle Eastern/North African (MENA), Native American or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (NHPI) communities.

Among Netflix movie directors, 9.2% were Black (nine men and three women), 3.1% were Asian, 1.5% were MENA and one person was Latino. In scripted television, 6.5% of show creators were Black, 2.6% were Latino, 1.5% were Asian and 1.9% were MENA.

The AII researchers noted that projects led by Black creatives were much more likely to yield more Black leads and other characters. Presumably, the dearth of key behind-the-scenes Latino, Asian, MENA, Native and NHPI creators can be tied to their respective underrepresentation onscreen.

"When you have people of color in the room voicing their opinions, objecting, complaining and celebrating, it changes the texture of what you see [onscreen]," said George C. Wolfe, director of the Netflix feature Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, at the symposium. "Diversity has to be a holistic assault. Without it, people are scared of making decisions because they don't want to make wrong ones, so they end up making no decisions."

Alan Yang, whose Netflix projects include Master of None, Tigertail and the upcoming adaptation of Min Jin Lee's Free Food for Millionaires, added that communities of color can cooperate to increase their impact. "We have to look out for each other, and that's a big thing for POC communities," he said, adding that, as an example, he recently reached out to Charles King's media company MACRO for a list of Latino writers to staff.

LGBTQ characters are significantly underrepresented. At the symposium, Netflix vice president of global series Bela Bajaria admitted she was shocked by the company's poor performance in this area: "I feel like we're so active with storylines and big impact, so I was shocked we were not doing great. As Dr. Smith knows, I almost fell off my chair." Although the streamer's numbers are in line with LGBTQ representation across the industry, Netflix's study does not give it a pass. At the symposium, LGBTQ people represent 12% of the U.S. population, yet 2.3% of Netflix original content featured leads or co-leads from the community (17 characters total, more than half of them female-identified, 29.4% non-white and most bisexual). The study dives deep into intersectionality, breaking down LGBTQ representation by sexual orientation, gender identity, race/ethnicity and age—and even points out that only 11 LGBTQ main cast members were depicted as parents. "That detail was a great takeaway for me, because that's not what the world looks like," Bajaria added.

Characters with a disability are underrepresented, and when they are portrayed, they are usually white, straight, cisgender men. According to the U.S. Census, 27.2% of the population lives with a physical, communicative or cognitive disability, yet just 5.3% of Netflix original content featured protagonists with a disability—of those leads or co-leads, nearly 65% were male, more than 70% were white and just one was LGBTQ. As with the analyses of the other marginalized groups, when it came to more casual benchmarks of inclusion (main cast members, speaking characters), the proportion of PWD was even smaller, at 4.7% and 2.1%, respectively.

In addition to releasing the statistical deep-dive into its own content, Netflix also unveiled the creation of the Netflix Fund for Creative Equity, which will see the company invest $100 million over the five years in internal programs and outside organizations to develop underrepresented talent for careers in the film and television industries. "Doing better means establishing even more opportunities for people from underrepresented communities to have their voices heard," wrote Sarandos, "and purposefully closing capacity and skill gaps with training programs where they are needed."