Nearly Two-Thirds of TV Shows Have no Regular Asian Presence

Daniel Dae Kim left Hawaii Five-0 over the issue of equal pay with white co-stars.
Daniel Dae Kim left Hawaii Five-0 over the issue of equal pay with white co-stars.
s_bukley/Shutterstock.com

A new analysis of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) on television found that nearly two-thirds, or 64 percent, of shows examined had no "series regulars" of those backgrounds.

The report from researchers at six universities covers broadcast, cable and streaming television scripted shows from the 2015-16 season and claims to be "the most comprehensive report on this topic to date," according to a statement.

April Reign, the former attorney who launched the #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign in 2015, said via email that the findings "serve to underscore the importance of #OscarsSoWhite, which champions the premise that all marginalized communities deserve to see themselves on screen."

"Even when AAPI characters are on screen," she said, "they are too often relegated to less significant roles. One can only imagine what the statistics are with respect to AAPI artists behind the camera such as directors, screenwriters and showrunners."

Researchers argue that the dire figures come a time of near peak success for actors of Asian and Pacific Islander background — so they're almost assured to get worse. This as Hollywood has faced unprecedented pressure to diversify its productions and as the AAPI population in Los Angeles County is nearing 16 percent.

"The numbers were concentrated in a few shows, many of them already canceled," says report co-author Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociology professor at Biola University and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. "The situation is very precarious."

The analysis, titled "Tokens on the Small Screen," covers a season when Hawaii Five-0 featured three recurring Asian-American stars in primetime and Fresh Off the Boat chronicled an entire Chinese-American family. Yet, among its findings:

  • Whites composed 70 percent of TV series regulars while AAPIs composed 4 percent; Pacific Islanders alone showed up in only 0.2 percent of programs analyzed.
  • Shows set in "AAPI-dense cities" such as L.A. and New York had no series regulars of Asian or Pacific Islander background. At the same time, 96 percent of shows had at least one white regular.
  • Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders who did make it as show regulars didn't portray characters of much depth. "Three times as many white series regulars have romantic and/or familial relationships as AAPIs, heightening their isolation," according to a summary.
  • White actors were also on screen three times longer than actors with AAPI backgrounds.
  • More than two-thirds of the shows that did have a regular AAPI character had only one.
  • A few shows, including Netflix's Marco Polo, over-represented people of AAPI heritage. That program has been canceled, so the figures could decline for the current season and beyond. "Over one-third of all Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders appear on just 11 shows," according to the summary. "More than half of those shows have been canceled or not renewed, cutting AAPI representation by 21 percent."

The roles people of AAPI descent do get often are for characters in tech support, crime lab analysis, professors or geeks, observers say. "Hollywood sells this one-dimensional view of Asian folks," says Robert Chan, president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA). "You don't have too much diversity."

And when people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent do get roles, they rarely have parity with white actors. Hawaii Five-0 lost its three Asian-American stars earlier this year, with Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park notoriously quitting the show after demanding the same pay as white co-stars.

"The recent controversy regarding Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park, two AAPI actors from Hawaii Five-0 demonstrates that, when the cameras are turned off, AAPI actors and actresses face even higher hurdles to be recognized as equal cast members," April Reign said. "Inclusion of traditionally underrepresented communities has been proven to attract viewers. I will keep striving to ensure that more opportunities are possible for the AAPI community and all communities."

Guy Aoki, founder of MANAA, says that it's been proven in the past that diversity sells. UCLA's annual Hollywood Diversity Report has long tied diverse casts to the films that make the most box office cash. The Fast and the Furious franchise is such a money maker, and it's largely rooted in Asian-American import tuner culture.

"The economic incentive is there," Aoki says. "I think that Hollywood will start to listen when they realize they're leaving money on the table."

Yuen, the report's co-author, plans to get the word out via social media, #OscarsSoWhite-style. The authors are using the hashtags #TokenAsian and #AAPIsOnTV, she says.

"I'm hoping the report this year will garner enough public relations and public support for wanting to see more
Asian-Americans on television," she says. "On TV there needs to be more data to pressure studios and networks to be more mindful in casting Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders."


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