Despite some improvement over the past ten years, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are still vastly underrepresented on television, a new study finds.
The “Tokens on the Small Screen” study consisted of scholars at six universities who examined the numbers, screen time and portrayals of characters of Asian or Pacific Islander descent among 2,052 TV series regular characters across 242 broadcast, cable and streaming shows that aired during the 2015-16 TV season.
The study found that only 4 percent of series regulars on shows were Asian or Pacific Islander, compared to 70 percent white. Over 64 percent of shows had no AAPI series regulars at all, while 96 percent of shows featured at least on white series regular.
The study, which is a followup to a similar study conducted back in 2005 and 2006, does see some improvement in AAPI representation. In the 2005 study, only 2.4 percent of series regulars across the broadcast networks were Asian or Pacific Islander. By 2006, the number had only increased to 2.6 percent.
According to the new study, the Asian roles that did exist in the 2015-16 season also tended to exist either in concentrated areas – a full 10 percent of Asian roles existed on the now-canceled Netflix series Marco Polo – or in isolation: More than two-thirds of shows that featured Asian series regulars had only one such role.
“With successful shows like Master of None and Fresh Off the Boat on the air, it may seem that Asian
Americans are making greater strides on television. Yet, when we take a deeper look at the larger TV
landscape, we start to see that these shows are the exception rather than the rule,” said Christina B. Chin, Assistant Professor at California State University, Fullerton on the release of the study. “Asian American and Pacific Islanders actors and their stories are still tokenized or missing.”
The study also saw problems with many shows set in big cities. For all shows set in New York City ( which has a 13 percent AAPI population), 70 percent did not feature a single AAPI series regular and 53 percent of shows set in Los Angeles County (which has a 14 percent AAPI population) do not feature an AAPI series regular.
On the bright side, there is meaningful AAPI representation to be found. The study shouts out shows like The Walking Dead, Fresh Off the Boat, HBO’s The Night of and Master of None as excelling at their portrayals of multifaceted and important AAAPI characters onscreen. Other shows featuring prominent AAPI characters include Hulu’s The Mindy Project, ABC’s Quantico and AMC’s Into the Badlands.
“We should celebrate meaningful diversity on television, just as in real life,” said Meera E. Deo, Associate Professor, Thomas Jefferson School of Law. “Nobody wants a ‘TVsoWhite’ debacle, but that is exactly what we have.”
See the full report here for even more numbers and analysis.
Linda Ge | TV Editor