Study: Audiences want more authentic on-screen representation

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ViacomCBS, parent company of Paramount+, CBS, MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central, has released the findings of its newest Global Insights project, Reflecting Me: Global Representation On Screen, which uncovers that global audiences feel entertainment companies have a responsibility to increase authentic, accurate on-screen representation.

The study is an expansive in-depth exploration of how television and entertainment teach people about themselves and others, with more than 15,000 people surveyed from across 15 countries worldwide.  The study was commissioned by ViacomCBS Networks International’s Race and Equity Taskforce, as part of Content for Change, a global ViacomCBS initiative that aims to counteract racism, bias, stereotypes and hate through the company’s culture, creative supply chain, and ultimately the content it creates.

Representation matters to audiences all around the world, with more than 80 per cent calling for more to be done to improve representation both on and off screen. It is also widely recognised that representation has an impact on the real world by influencing people’s perceptions, with 85 per cent of respondents in agreement. Those that feel poorly represented suggest that this is not only due to not seeing enough people like them on screen but also due to seeing inaccurate portrayals, with more than half (52 per cent) of people who feel poorly represented saying accuracy is lacking.

“Representation in media is a critical component to authentically connecting with diverse audiences and communities,” said Colleen Fahey Rush, EVP, Chief Research Officer, ViacomCBS. “Along with launching our expanded Content for Change initiative, this study reflects how ViacomCBS is proactively taking steps to transform our entire creative ecosystem to better serve our audiences and create meaningful change now and for the future.”

“Through this study, for the first time, we see evidence of the connection between representation on screen and mental health,” said Christian Kurz, Senior Vice President, Global Streaming and Corporate Insights. “We know representation done right can aid in improving the lives of people globally and have the responsibility not only to continue the changes within our industry but also serve as a catalyst for positive social change around the world.”

“From the early days after the formation of the VCNI Programming and Audience Task Force, we knew that in order to succeed, we had to understand the opinions behind the scenes — those of our audience,” said one of ViacomCBS’ Race and Equity Task Force Leaders, Susan Nave. “Made up of an international team across all aspects of our business, we worked in close collaboration with the global insights team to identify key markets and individuals, giving us a truly international view around on-screen representation. We think it’s eye opening, thought provoking and an excellent road map for our business.”

Additional key findings include:

The Importance of Representation

Representation matters to audiences all around the world.

  • More than 80 per cent of people globally say it is important that TV shows and movies offer diverse representation of lots of different groups and identities
    • This rises to 85 per cent among people with mixed heritage, nearly 90 per cent among marginalized ethnic groups, and more than 90 per cent among Black people

The Complexity of Representation

Respondents agreed, effective representation is not just about seeing themselves reflected on screen, it’s also about how they’re represented.

  • Among those who feel poorly represented in TV shows and movies, nearly 6 in 10 feel that people like them are not represented enough
  • Among those who feel poorly represented in TV shows and movies, more than half feel that people like them are represented inaccurately

Around the world, the feeling of being poorly represented is due to a combination of factors, which vary somewhat country by country. Interestingly, in every country, the #1 issue with representation is either around race or ethnicity or economic status.  

  • Top factors poorly represented in TV shows and movies:
    • “Race and ethnicity” ranks #1 in Australia, Netherlands, Nigeria, Singapore, South Africa, UK and USA
    • “Economic status” ranks #1 in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Poland

However, how well represented you feel depends on who you are and where you are in the world. 

  • For example, some country differences between the factors poorly represented in TV and movies are:
    • “Race and ethnicity” is not in the top 5 for Argentina, Chile, Germany, Italy and Poland
    • “Age” ranks #2 in Australia, Germany, Poland and the UK
    • “Religion or beliefs” ranks #2 in Brazil, Malaysia and Singapore

Although appearance is very important, representation is not just about how people look – often the sorts of lives people see reflected on screen don’t look like theirs.  

  • Those who feel poorly represented, also say they do not see enough people that:
    • “Behave like me” (33 per cent)
    • “Are the same economic level as me” (29 per cent)
    • “Speak with the same accent or dialect as me” (22 per cent)
    • “Have a family like mine” (21 per cent)
    • “Live in a home like mine” (21 per cent)

Reasons for Feeling Poorly Represented

Many who feel poorly represented do not see enough people like them on screen, based on aspects of their appearance.

  • Nearly 70 per cent of people who feel poorly represented globally say they do not see enough people like them on screen, based on aspects of their appearance, such as their body type, and how they look and dress.
  • Colorism is also an issue that globally more than half of women agree, the impact of colorism means that women with lighter skin tones are often seen as more appealing – and equally are often more present on screen.
  • Conventions of appearance also negatively impact gender non-conforming and disabled people, and among those who feel poorly represented, nearly 40 percent of those with a physical disability say they don’t see people with their body type on-screen.

The Impact of Poor Representation

Perpetuating stereotypes and lazy portrayals of different groups are hugely damaging to audiences. Harmful stereotypes are especially apparent among certain ethnic groups, who feel they are portrayed in particularly negative ways. For example: 

  • Middle Eastern and Arabic people (20 per cent) and Black people (18 per cent) feel they are portrayed as criminal
  • Middle Eastern and Arabic people (19 per cent) and Indigenous people (10 per cent) feel they are portrayed as angry
  • Middle Eastern and Arabic people (17 per cent) and Black people (16 per cent) feel they are portrayed as dangerous

Poor representation has a negative impact on the way people feel. 

  • Nearly 60 percent of those who feel poorly represented say it makes them feel unimportant, ignored, or disappointed
  • Among those that feel poorly represented, the top three areas that a lack of representation impacts are:
    • “Self-esteem and confidence” (41 per cent)
    • “Sense of belonging” (40 per cent)
    • “Opportunities” (34 per cent)
  • Globally, nearly 60 percent of those who feel their gender identity is poorly represented say their self-esteem and confidence is affected
  • Among those who feel their disability is poorly represented on screen, more than 40 percent say this lack of representation has affected their mental health (more than twice as likely as others who feel poorly represented)
  • Nearly 40 percent of those who feel their race or ethnicity is poorly represented say their connection to their cultural heritage is affected (more than twice as high as the average among all people who feel poorly represented)

The Need for Change…

Globally, most people agree that change is needed.

  • Nearly 80 per cent agree more diversity is needed in TV shows and movies.
  • This rises to more than 80 per cent among people who consider themselves part of an under-represented group, and nearly 90 per cent among Black people.
  • Only half of people globally are satisfied with the current level of representation that they see in TV shows and movies

Audiences give equal weight to the importance of authenticity and diversity when it comes to on screen representation.

  • More than half of people globally feel there needs to be more accurate representation of certain groups and identities in TV shows and movies.

There is widespread optimism for the future of representation on screen, even among those who feel poorly represented. 

  • In the next five years, nearly half of people globally think representation in TV shows and movies will get better

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