Netflix received well-deserved plaudits last month for its documentary about Nina Simone, the iconic African-American jazz singer, composer and pianist. Unfortunately, the documentary was exceptional not only for its quality but also for its rarity. It was one of the very few original programs that Netflix has funded involving a black or Latino program creator.
Hollywood has a long, troubling history of excluding people of color. The emerging Internet-based media titans are using new technologies and creating new business models, but they also are imitating and, to some degree, exceeding the old media in excluding minorities from meaningful roles on or off screen.
That’s both unusual and unsettling. Historically, new technologies and new business models in media have meant new opportunities for minorities. The advent of the cable television industry sparked opportunities for minorities at new channels such as BET, Univision and Televisa.
Similarly, the expansion of the three broadcast network (ABC, CBS, and NBC) system to six networks in the 1980s and ’90s including, initially, Fox, UPN and “The WB,” also dramatically expanded diversity and opportunities for minorities.
Unfortunately, there has been no similar expansion of opportunities for minorities as new Internet-based media outlets emerge today. Amazon has tested more than two-dozen “pilots” over the past several years and, as best as can be determined, none of the pilots offered have been by minority programming creators or aimed at minority audiences. The same is true with regard to Netflix’s series.
It is unclear what percentage of Netflix’s or Amazon’s audiences are minority. Neither company shares such information. They either have significant minority audiences that they aren’t serving or they are missing potential growth opportunities.
The programming choices made by Netflix and Amazon reflect determinations made by their companies’ management. Neither company has black or Latino members on their boards of directors or among their senior corporate leadership. The lack of diversity in their executive suites appears to be impacting the diversity of their original programming offerings.
That neither company has sought to find or fund promising minority programming creators to create series is not just baffling, but ultimately self-defeating as minorities are, and for the foreseeable future will be, an increasingly large segment of their customer base.
Although neither Amazon nor Netflix relies on advertising, their continued growth in the U.S. will depend on attracting subscribers from an increasingly diverse American audience.
Moreover, minorities consume more media and spend more time consuming streaming media. Minority Americans, particularly younger minorities, drive popular culture and popular taste not just in America but globally. Yet, media companies still disproportionately are run by and employ primarily white males. And those white males seem to have no interest in diverse programming or diverse program creators.
The new media gatekeepers no longer live just in Hollywood and New York. They now live in Silicon Valley and Seattle. But they are no more welcoming to diversity and minority audiences than their predecessors. To paraphrase Nina Simone, in the eyes of the new media gatekeepers “to be young, gifted and black (or Latino) ain’t where it’s at. …”
Larry Irving is CEO of the Irving Group, consultants to telecommunications and technology companies. He is a former assistant secretary of commerce for information and communications and served as a principal media and technology policy adviser to the Clinton-Gore administration. He wrote this for this newspaper.