Netflix’s new study shows progress, but there’s still room for improvement.
Netflix has long challenged the way we consume content, but in more recent years, it’s also been the force behind a long list of original films and series, playing a pivotal role in not only how we watch but indeed what we watch. From early winners, like “House of Cards” and “Orange Is The New Black” to recent favorites, including “Bridgerton” and “The Queen’s Gambit,” the streaming platform has always prided itself on telling stories that couldn’t be found anywhere else and on spotlighting underrepresented voices. But even with a reputation for inclusivity, Netflix wanted to see the hard numbers behind this progress, and in late 2019, it tapped Dr. Stacy L. Smith, the founder and director of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, to study its original US content from 2018 and 2019. On Friday, the comprehensive study was released, revealing where Netflix has had gains in diversity and where it still has work to do.
While myriad organizations, including the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, regularly conduct surveys of the film and television industries at-large, this is the first such study to come from Netflix or any of its competitors—and to Dr. Smith, the reasons for it are obvious. “I think for any company that really wants to reflect the stories of their consumer base and their audience, it’s wise to do an internal audit and see where they might be reflecting the world, where they may be leading, and where they may be coming up short,” she says. “It’s something we’ve advocated for for years, and it’s just fantastic given the volume of the content Netflix has and the values of the company, that all of these aligned and they decided to undertake this process and be transparent in rolling out the results.”
Dr. Smith’s notable experience looking at representation of various identity groups gave the study a good framework from the beginning, but it also presented a new opportunity for her and her team. “One thing that we did in this report that we haven’t always been able to do or haven’t done in the past is really spotlight specific racial and ethnic groups and their depiction in content,” explains Dr. Katherine Pieper, who also worked on the study. “We typically include those groups but to really be able to take a deep dive across the entire sample and provide information as we did really allowed us to see where there’s room to applaud Netflix but then to also identify other areas for growth and demonstrate to the company internally and then to the public where there’s room to improve.”
The study used 22 inclusion indicators in analyzing 126 movies and 186 scripted series and found an improvement in 19 of them year-over-year. It also saw a strong showing of gender parity, with 48 percent of films and 54 percent of series having girls or women as leads or co-leads. “On the most prominent indicators, we’re seeing proportional representation with the US population being reflected,” Dr. Smith notes. “There are other places where there’s vast room for improvement, but it’s very similar to what we have found in evaluating film generally—in particular, the epidemic of invisibility.” While increases for women and for underrepresented groups occurred, for instance, women of color were largely left out of this progress, especially in series, where only nine percent of leads and co-leads were underrepresented females.
Overall, the results show promise for Netflix’s diversity, but Dr. Smith believes continued upward trajectory is not yet a sure thing. “Sustained progress is what will become really important in order for us to be really confident that there’s change,” she says. “And with Covid and with 2020 looking the way that it did, I think it’s going to take a little more time to think critically about whether we’re seeing an uptick in some of these other indicators.” She points to the gains that female directors have seen recently in the broader industry, asserting that we cannot attribute this trend to greater access and opportunity for women until we see whether it persists post-Covid. “With this study, we only evaluated one year, but we’re also going to be doing this over time through 2026, and it’s going to be really interesting to see what happened in 2020 with Netflix,” she adds.
With what has arguably been the streaming platform’s best year ever, Netflix has an enormous stature in the industry and indeed the chance to be the proponents of yet another trend. “Netflix is in a leadership role unlike their peers, and what we hope to see happen is that other companies will do the exact same thing,” Dr. Smith says. “They’ll work with social scientists to do an evaluation, both on the company side and on the content side, to really understand where they’re at, what they’ve achieved, where they’ve missed the mark, and where the way forward for them is.”
But as crucial as it is to do such an audit and to be transparent about it, that alone is not enough. “The measurement is just one piece, and there have been years when we’ve measured the industry, and there’s been no change. So, it clearly has to be one tool in a series of tools for companies to use to create change in terms of how they look internally, the stories that they tell, and the storytellers they greenlight for those narratives,” explains Dr. Smith. “You also have to create a plan for the way forward and evaluate where you’re measuring up to those benchmarks that you’ve set out for yourself as a company. What I’d like to see is companies large and small embrace that entire process so that systemic change can actually take place.”
With this sort of holistic approach in mind, the streaming platform announced the Netflix Fund for Creative Equity. Over the next five years, the fund will distribute $100 million to external organizations known for setting underrepresented communities up for success in film and television, as well as in Netflix programs to identify, train, and employ up-and-coming talent. “I think that’s the kind of accountability that you want to see, and if our work is to be the mechanism to continuing to hold the company accountable, then it will be interesting to see how the metrics they take internally, the strategies that they employ, and how they use this fund for creative equity to create things that will actually impact change over time,” says Dr. Pieper. “That’s the piece that’s exciting from a science-based standpoint, and it’s why I think Stacy and I got into the game of social science—you want to see if interventions actually create change, and this is an opportunity to do just that.”
I’m a New York-based journalist who covers beauty and wellness, food and travel, and lifestyle. My work has appeared in Fortune, ELLE, Departures, Air Mail, Travel