For decades the overwhelming majority of lead roles on television shows have gone to white actors, but a new University of California study has findings that may finally get studio executives to pay more attention to actors of color.

UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies analyzed more than 1,000 scripted shows on cable and broadcast TV during the 2011-2012 television season and found that shows that included more actors of color saw above-average ratings.

The analysis found that for cable television shows, median household ratings were highest among programs with casts that were made up of 31 to 40 percent actors of color. Examples of shows that reflected this level of diversity were “A.N.T. Farm” (Disney), “The Closer” (TNT) and “Falling Skies” (TNT).

Hunts study also found that broadcast shows with the highest ratings had writing staffs that were significantly more diverse — from 21 to 30 percent minority — than those of most broadcast shows.

“It’s clear that people are watching shows that reflect and relate to their own experiences,” said Bunche Center director Darnell Hunt and author of the new study, “Hollywood Diversity Brief: Spotlight on Cable Television.”

People of color make up over 36 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Yet, only 11 percent of roles in broadcast television go to actors of color. Cable television scored slightly higher, with about 15 percent of lead roles going to actors of color in the 2011-2012 television season.

“While this brief is just the first snapshot in what we envision as a multi-year study, it certainly lends support to an argument we have been making for a long time,” Hunt said. “Everyone in the industry talks about the importance of diversity, but it clearly isn’t priority one when decisions are made. And it’s not going to be a priority until people realize how it affects the bottom line.”

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