Opinion | Civil Rights

Why don't Emmy nominees reflect America's diversity?

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

On Sunday, the people who create some of our most popular television programming will stroll down the red carpet for the 71st annual Emmy Awards. Among the nominees are some binge-worthy and paradigm-busting shows like "Game of Thrones," "The Good Place," "Killing Eve," and "When They See Us." 

But something is missing from this year's nominees.

Despite the growing amount of programming, there has been no real increase in the diversity of nominees. In fact, in key categories there has been a decline.  

In 2018, there were 38 acting and hosting nominations for people of color - a record high. In 2019, there are only 26, fewer than in 2017. There is not a single woman of color nominated in the Lead Actress in a comedy category this year. This lack of diversity is not limited to in front of the camera. Only one-quarter of directors nominated for dramas and 17 percent for comedies are women. 

These numbers matter. They are a rough proxy for progress in diversifying what we see on the screen. The bottom line is that this set of nominees does not look like America.

Likewise, the ownership of television stations does not reflect the full diversity of our great nation. Women own just 7 percent of commercial television stations and people of color own only 3 percent of these stations, according to the most recent data from the Federal Communications Commission. What's worse, the number of stations owned by people of color may be at risk for falling even lower. Similarly, the workforce here falls short, with people of color serving as only one-in-ten television station general managers.

It's imperative that we address the diversity crisis, both behind and in front of the camera, that has been a part of the entertainment industry for far too long. More than 50 years ago, the integration of African-Americans "into all aspects of televised presentations" was a key recommendation from President Johnson's 1968 Kerner Commission report, which examined the causes of civil unrest following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

We can start by acknowledging those who seek out diverse perspectives. This includes Ana DuVernay, who used female directors for her show "Queen Sugar," and Natasha Lyonne, the star and creator of "Russian Doll," who hired an all-female writer's room. With any luck, folks who make efforts like this should be among those claiming Emmy statuettes later this month.

We also can use the tools in the law. In the Communications Act, Congress charged the FCC with developing policies to support diversity in broadcast ownership. In addition, Congress tasked the FCC with enforcing rules that prohibit discrimination in broadcast hiring. 

To this end, the FCC is now reviewing its equal opportunity rules to update its policies to help make sure hiring practices at television stations and pay TV providers comply with the law. As part of this effort, the FCC should update its data collection regarding workplace diversity - an effort that has languished in the agency bureaucracy for fifteen years. It's past time to get this work underway and make it a priority.

Above all, it's time for this industry that we honor during award season and see year-round in our living rooms to reflect the diversity of this country. Representation matters, because it plays a big role in how we picture ourselves, as individuals, communities and as a nation. Diversifying the teams behind what we see will not happen overnight, but it's vital that we succeed and the time to start is now.

Marc H. Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.

Jessica Rosenworcel is a Federal Communications Commissioner.

Outbrain