East Asian actors account for just 1.7% of cast appearances on primetime TV, major new research has shown. This figure drops to less than 0.5% when the one series with an East Asian-centred story during the study – ITV’s Strangers – is removed from the dataset.
The research was commissioned by Equity and carried out by theatre academic Jami Rogers with the chair of Equity’s Minority Ethnic Members Committee Daniel York Loh.
York Loh told The Stage that overall, the study confirmed that East Asian actors were “not only severely under-represented, but also badly represented” on television.
The research looked at cast lists in the Radio Times for TV shows on BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4 between about 6.30pm and 11pm over a six-month period from July to December 2018. This was limited to premieres, with repeats and films discounted. Across the period, from a total of 7,922 actor appearances, 133 (1.7%) were by East Asian actors. This compares with 81% of appearances from white actors.
York Loh explained that it is difficult to quantify what percentage of the general population is East Asian as there is no official figure and no specific box to tick on the census.
• Of the 133 appearances from East Asian actors, 61% were from men and 39% were from women.
• When there is an East Asian presence, it tends to be for more minor roles.
• Many East Asian actors are not British East Asian, but come from outside the UK.
• East Asian actors are “predominantly on screen when they’re pretending to be foreign and being asked to do accents”.
York Loh said: “Jami’s extraordinary research confirms everything I thought it would: that East Asian actors are nearly always only on UK television playing foreign characters in foreign settings, looking and sounding as foreign as possible.
“We are assessed on how generically ‘Chinese’ or ‘Japanese’ we appear to be, on our promise that we can speak East Asian languages and our ability to do the kind of orientalist accents that white gatekeepers
want to hear.”
He added: “The best roles often go to actors from other countries where (ironically) they have far more opportunities. We are not actors. We are racial ciphers who are encouraged to hawk our ethnicity.”
Rogers said: “It is disappointing to have the anecdotal evidence that British East Asian performers are rarely represented on television confirmed by the data amassed by this research project. The broadcasters need to realise that swathes of talent are being sidelined and work to improve their inclusive practices.”
These are preliminary findings from a larger study into diversity in TV broadcasting, with a full report to be released in the coming months.
Ian Manborde, equalities and diversity organiser at Equity, said: “Equity has agreed to fund the research of Jami Rogers, given the union’s long-term concern around poor levels of diversity and representation across TV broadcasting.
“We welcome the insight gained from this data and will be utilising this to initiate dialogue with mainstream broadcasters in order to generate long-term change in the broadcasting industry.”