Are the #EmmysSoWhite? It’s complicated

New study shows more Black actors are nominated, even as behind-the-camera numbers lag

Black actors from 11 scripted multiepisode television shows are up for major awards at the Primetime Emmy Awards this weekend, a major change from the situation 20 years ago when just one Black actor — Andre Braugher — was nominated. But even on scripted television shows in which Black excellence is recognized, overall diversity is often lacking, especially when it comes to significant “behind-the-camera” roles.

A new study done for The Undefeated shows:

  • There has been a notable increase in the number of scripted television shows with nominated Black actors in the last six years, roughly coinciding with the #OscarsSoWhite movement in movies.
  • While the number of nominated Black actors has increased in the last two decades, the proportion of Black actors on the casts of these shows has remained largely the same.
  • Unlike the Oscars, in which films such as 2018’s Black Panther boosted diversity numbers in nominees for best picture, many scripted television shows with an Emmy-nominated Black actor do not have majority Black casts.

We compiled 20 years of data on more than 60 scripted, multiepisode television shows in which a Black actor was nominated for a Primetime Emmy. Our findings paint a complicated picture of diversity patterns, one where some of the most compelling findings reside behind the camera.

While there is a positive correlation between the percentage of Black members of the cast and the percentage of Black individuals working in critical behind-the-camera roles, those behind-the-camera numbers still trail the on-camera numbers, even on shows with an Emmy-nominated Black actor. These findings and many others reinforce the point that diversity and inclusion in scripted television are multifaceted issues and that diversity in showrunner, producer and writer roles is often the key to creating award-worthy Black characters and shows.

Over the last two years, several outlets have highlighted positive trends in the recognition of Black actors in scripted television shows. This is often identified as an industry response to the calls for social justice and inclusion that have rippled throughout many sectors of the economy, including sports, academia, music and tech.

Hollywood foreshadowed the current conversations about race and representation with 2015’s #OscarsSoWhite movement, which used the Academy Awards as a vehicle to bring deficiencies in representation to the forefront. While the attention has led to some improvements, including newly implemented diversity and inclusion standards, many other aspects of representation in movies have not changed much.

But what about television? To understand patterns in Black representation on the small screen, we studied Black actors nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards in scripted television shows between 2000 and 2021. 

We analyzed all 61 scripted television shows over that span in which a Black actor was nominated for a Primetime Emmy. We compiled numbers on the overall number of Black actors and women (of any race) in major recurring roles on these shows as well as Black and female representation on their behind-the-camera creative teams, the writers, showrunners, casting directors and executive producers who are the primary individuals responsible for shaping the identity of the show. (This study did not encompass all Emmy-nominated scripted television shows, instead focusing only on those in which a Black actor was recognized. Our data represents the best of the television industry in regard to Black representation. The overall status of diversity in television is substantially worse, especially in regard to Indigenous, Asian American and Latino representation.)

Basic trends support the notion that there has been an appreciable increase in the new millennium. In 2001, only a single scripted television show, Gideon’s Crossing, had a Black actor nominated (Braugher). By 2020, the number of total scripted television shows with a nominated Black actor had grown to 18. The upward trend started between 2013 and 2015, growing from two in 2013 to 10 in 2015. Of the shows we analyzed, comedies had the highest representation of both Black actors and behind-the-camera tasks (42% of casts, 29% behind the camera). A roughly equal percentage of Black actors and behind-the-camera workers were distributed among the other categories: 36% and 18% in drama, 33% and 19% in limited series, respectively.

But while the number of scripted television shows in which a Black actor was nominated increased, Black representation in the main casts changed only slightly — from an average of 34% between 2001 and 2010 to an average of 37% between 2010 and 2021. And the numbers are even less impressive in regard to behind-the-camera contributions: from 24% to 26% in the same window. That is, more Black actors were nominated in more scripted television shows, but there was no meaningful average increase in Black representation in these scripted shows, either in the main cast or in major behind-the-camera roles.

The connection between writers and the actors

Television differs significantly from movies, from the way television shows are funded and greenlit to how productions are carried out. For example, the showrunner is an uncredited title that often applies to a lead producer responsible for organizing and managing television productions. Because of its higher frequency and lower cost compared with most movies, television also can offer space for casting directors, producers and writers to influence the identity of a cast that they might not have on a Hollywood set.

Does higher representation of Black people in writer/producer/casting roles have an influence on the composition of the cast, and contribute to a notable performance by that cast? To answer this, we examined the correlation between the identity of the cast and the identity of those individuals who make the decisions.

Atlanta, for example, where the entire main cast is Black, had a behind-the-camera fraction of more than 60%. Similar numbers turned up for Empire (88% cast, 53% behind the camera) and The Bernie Mac Show (100% cast, 78% behind the camera). The translation? In nominated shows, Black casts not only work on scripted television shows where there are Black people in positions to cast them or write stories for and about them, but they frequently produce award-worthy performances.

Trends in gender

Though our analysis focused on race, we were also able to identify trends in gender. Over the past two decades, women were underrepresented in terms of main acting roles (45%) and major behind-the-camera positions (36%) in scripted television shows where a Black person was nominated as an actor. Each figure, though, was higher than its counterpart for Black representation (37% acting and 22% behind the camera). Women also made strides behind the camera through time: From 2001 to 2010, they averaged 28% representation behind the camera; from 2011 to 2021, closer to 36%.

One notable finding highlights a surprising positive correlation between the representation of Black people and women behind the camera in scripted television shows where a Black person was nominated for an Emmy. That is, scripted television shows with a larger number of Black individuals in behind-the-camera roles also had more women. This suggests that shows with relatively open-minded hiring practices for behind-the-camera roles might be addressing multiple versions of diversity. 

Writers and casting directors

While our analysis focused on scripted television shows where a Black actor was nominated, we did collect data on Black writers and casting directors who were nominated for Primetime Emmys. The results highlight both the dearth of Black writers and casting directors over the years, and those few who have received accolades for their accomplishments.

Fourteen of the 18 scripted show nominations for Black writers have come since 2016. Among casting directors, the change is even more recent: All four of the nominations for Black casting directors took place since 2019, including winners in 2019 and 2020 (Aisha Coley for When They See Us and Victoria Thomas for Watchmen, respectively).

It is important to emphasize the stories behind the data that highlight the important role that writers play in scripted television shows with notable Black performances. For example, Tracy Morgan was the only Black cast member of 30 Rock to be nominated for an Emmy (in 2009). Notably, this overlapped with the window when Donald Glover was a writer for the show. And though Glover was not nominated for a writing Emmy in 2009, the experience undoubtedly opened doors for him. A similar story might describe the rise of Stefani Robinson, the only Black woman with more than one Emmy nomination as a scripted television writer (Atlanta, 2018; What We Do in the Shadows, 2020). Robinson, now one of the most respected writers in television, worked with Glover on Atlanta.

The strong association between nominated Black actors and Black writing, producing or casting teams suggests their importance in supporting successful Black performances. But within this resides a potential problem: Must Black writers, producers and casting directors work on Black scripted television shows exclusively? Or would true equality look different, where Black writers are able to find employment and critical acclaim writing for any scripted show, regardless of the racial composition of the cast? Of the Black writers nominated, only Robinson was recognized for a scripted television show without a Black member of the primary cast. Lena Waithe, the first Black woman to win an award for writing in the comedy category (2017, Master of None), writes for a show with a diverse cast but, until recently, she was the only Black member of the primary cast. (Naomi Ackie was cast as a regular in the most recent season.)

Phillip Atiba Goff, a professor at Yale University and the founder of JusticeRx, a company that works with Warner Bros. on social justice issues, said that “the dearth of Black writers speaks to the constraints that Black people have in crafting the story of all of us. And when Black people are excluded from telling our story, a paler version of the nation emerges.”

Liner Notes

Methodology: This study examined scripted, multiepisode television shows released between 2000 and 2021 in which a Black actor was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award.  We did not include ocumentaries, variety or sketch shows, game shows, reality shows or feature-length movies.  For example, variety shows such as Saturday Night Live were excluded as were films such as Hamilton. We focused on scripted television shows in which Black actors were nominated because they serve as a proxy for shows in which exceptional, newsworthy and notable performances were formally recognized. Our focus on these scripted television shows is not meant to capture industrywide patterns, nor all nominated productions. Our data represents the best of the television industry in regard to Black representation. 

The analysis was divided into two sets: major, recurring acting roles and significant behind-the-camera positions. They were then categorized by Black identity and gender. The actors who we analyzed were nominated in one of three categories: comedy, drama and limited series. We did not include the following categories: competition program, television movie, variety sketch or variety talk. While diversity is likely an issue for all of them, this study focused on multiepisode, scripted television shows in which acting is recognized by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Race and gender were determined by viewing photographs of the individuals from various sources (IMDb primarily, cross-referenced with Wikipedia). Three researchers viewed photos of every individual, and whether an individual was Black or not was determined by majority judgment. The same system was used to identify an individual as a man or woman. We recognize the possibility that an individual’s racial or gender identity may not overlap with these judgments. This approach is useful for dissecting patterns across dozens of shows and hundreds of individuals, but it does come with limitations. These limitations, however, are not specific to our study — racial identification is a challenging endeavor in any arena. While individuals may self-identify in ways that do not reflect their public perception, that perception is a key element in entertainment and media.  

For the behind-the-camera category, we were interested in those roles that crafted the identity of the show, framed the story and selected the cast. We included all Black individuals who had written, cast and/or executive produced on at least one episode in a year that a Black actor was nominated.


This study was conducted by Nelson K. Bennett and C. Brandon Ogbunu for QuantNoir. They would like to thank Nkemelue Candice for her assistance with data collection. The raw data can be made available upon request. For inquiries, please contact Ogbunu, @big_data_kane on Twitter and Instagram.

C. Brandon Ogbunu, a New York City native, is a computational biologist at Yale University. His popular writing takes place at the intersection between sports, data science, and culture.