Skip to navigationSkip to content
nicole kassell watchmen hbo
HBO
The first six episodes of HBO’s “Watchmen” were all directed by either women or people of color.
50-50

Half of TV episodes in the last year were directed by women or people of color

By Adam Epstein

Five years ago, only 14% of US television episodes were directed by women. Today, that number has more than doubled.

The Directors Guild of America (DGA) published its annual diversity report yesterday, revealing that while white men still comprise 50% of TV directors, women and people of color are making significant gains. According to the DGA, women directed 31% of scripted episodes during the 2018-2019 TV season, up 7% from the previous period. The percentage of episodes directed by people of color was 27%, a 3% increase from the prior period and 10% from 2014.

Together, women and people of color directed half of TV episodes over the past year. In 2013, they directed only about a quarter of episodes. The DGA examined more than 4,300 episodes across dozens of networks and streaming services.

One reason these diversity gains haven’t happened faster is because of what the DGA calls “insider perk hiring.” The group has found that many first-time directing jobs are given to TV insiders—most of whom are white—already working on a series as a perk. They are often actors or writers who rarely go on to have careers in directing.

“We still have a lot of concern over the underlying hiring practices that reduce the number of jobs available to budding and experienced directors alike,” said DGA president Thomas Schlamme, best known for his work on The West Wing. “The heart of the issue is that producers aren’t factoring in that every job given to someone who does not pursue a directing career equals an opportunity withheld.”

Still, 49% of first-time hires (111 out of 227) in the last year were women, up from 41% in the previous period. First-time directors of color, however, dropped from 31% to 29% (66 of 227).

While the TV industry still has some work to do, its population of directors is drastically more diverse than its film counterpart. Just 3.6% of 2018’s top-grossing movies were directed by women, according to the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Of the 1,200 highest-grossing films of the decade, 96% were directed by men. Movie editors and producers are also overwhelmingly male. In many cases, diversity figures in film have actually regressed in recent years.

The TV audience is generally quite diverse: African Americans, for instance, watch more television than any other consumer group, according to Nielsen, leading the networks to create more shows aimed at—and made by—viewers in that demographic.

And the explosion of content ignited by the streaming wars has led to more opportunities for everyone, including minorities and women. Meanwhile, film studios are making fewer movies than they used to as they forgo mid-budget dramas in favor of tentpoles and blockbusters.

While movie studios tend to give blockbuster directing jobs only to filmmakers who are already proven ticket sellers, TV networks have been more willing to take chances on relatively unproven talent—probably because the financial stakes of an individual episode of television are much lower than those of a major Hollywood movie.

TV executives are also under a lot of public pressure to improve diversity within their networks. Twice a year, executives undergo a barrage of questions from critics and reporters at the Television Critics Association press tour. When their answers about diversity are unsatisfactory, that often generates a lot of headlines.