Study Finds Senior Characters Represent Fewer Than 10 Percent of Speaking Characters on TV

Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg) on 'Game of Thrones'; William Hill (Ron Cephas Jones) on 'This Is Us'

USC’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative published the report in partnership with the health insurance company Humana.

USC’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative’s latest study on inclusion in entertainment focuses on aging.

“Seniors on the Small Screen: Aging in Popular Television Content,” released Wednesday in partnership with the health insurance company Humana, examined one episode from each of the 50 most popular broadcast and cable series of 2016-17 among viewers age 18-49 as well as the top 50 shows among viewers age 65 and up. That resulted in an overlap of 28 series (including CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, NBC’s This Is Us and ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy) for a total sampling of 72 shows.

Among the sampling, characters aged 60 and above represented 9.4 percent of speaking characters and 8.2 percent of series regulars, which is below the U.S. census share of 19.9 percent. Sixteen of the 72 episodes sampled had no senior speaking characters, and 38 had no senior women onscreen.

Of the 151 senior speaking characters in the sample, 27.8 percent were female. Nearly three-quarters (72.2 percent) were white, 14.6 percent were black, 6.6 percent Latino, 1.3 percent Asian and 5.3 percent mixed race or Other. None of the shows sampled included a senior Asian female speaking character, while senior Latinas were in just two shows and senior black female characters in six.

The USC researchers, led by Stacy Smith, counted 48 total LGBT series regulars in its sample. Seniors accounted for four of those characters: two bisexual men, one gay man and one transgender woman.

The study also examined the qualitative aspects of the senior characters. Seventy percent were depicted with an occupation, although women were slightly less likely than men to associated with some form of job (62.8 percent versus 73.9 percent). Senior characters of color were more likely to be employed than their white counterparts (74.4 percent versus 69.4 percent). Taking a deep dive into how many senior characters were depicted as powerful or at the top of their field, 29 male characters (seven men of color) qualified, shown as president, secretary of state, congressman, ruler, chief justice, doctors, police and fire chiefs, police commissioner, general and oil company owner. The six senior female characters deemed to have clout included two judges, a hospital administrator (the only high-clout senior woman in healthcare), a CIA director and Lady Olenna Tyrell of Game of Thrones (the only high-clout senior woman in politics). Half of these six women were black, and one was Latina.

Health-wise, 12 of the 154 senior characters studied, all male, had a health issue, and nine of those characters died in the shows. Twenty-four total senior characters were shown to be grandparents, and 47.1 percent were shown to be using some form of technology, such as a cellphone or a computer.

“Storytelling may communicate ideas or stereotypes about seniors that capture the attention of audiences,” the study's authors wrote. “Nielsen estimates that in the first quarter of 2017, Americans age 65 and older spent over 50 hours per week watching TV. Given the time seniors devote to this medium, it is important to consider the messages TV transmits regarding its audience.”

Looking behind the camera, 12.6 percent of the 296 individuals involved were age 60 and up. Eleven out of 100 showrunners in the sampling were seniors, one being a woman and none being people of color. Nineteen (25.3 percent) of the directors in the sampling were age 60 or older, with only two being women and five (including one of the women) being people of color. There were even fewer writers “of a certain age” — six (one woman) out of 121 were age 60 and up, and all were white.

The researchers found that having senior showrunners or writers on staff reduced the likelihood of ageist references in the scripts. Of the 16 series tagged with ageist references, 75 percent had showrunners under the age of 60 and 81.2 percent had no senior writers.