“Boxed In” Report: Streaming Programs Feature More Female Protagonists Than Cable or Broadcast

Streamers such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon outstrip the likes of CBS, NBC, ABC, and HBO when it comes to the representation of women. According to the new “Boxed In” television report, from Dr. Martha Lauzen and San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, streaming programs “featured substantially more female protagonists than programs on cable channels or broadcast networks” in the 2019-2020 season. Streaming services also saw new records of women working as creators, directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and DPs last season.

The study, a content analysis, examined the characters and off-screen credits on dramas, comedies, and reality shows on broadcast, basic and premium cable, and streamers. More than 4,100 characters and over 4,200 behind-the-scenes roles were analyzed for the 2019-2020 edition.

Per the report, 42 percent of streaming programs included “clearly identifiable sole female protagonists,” as compared to 27 percent of cable shows and 24 percent of broadcast shows. In this study, protagonists are defined as the characters from whose perspectives the stories are told.

Further, original streaming shows “were just as likely to have female protagonists as male protagonists”: 42 percent of programs featured female protagonists, 42 percent featured male protagonists, and 16 percent were ensembles.

Overall, women and girls made up 43 percent of speaking characters across platforms, a slight dip from the 2018-29 season’s 45 percent. Females represented 45 percent of major characters, a figure on par with 2018-29. Twenty-nine percent of all programs featured a sole female protagonist versus the 37 percent that had a sole male protagonist

Female characters of color made a few gains but remain staggeringly underrepresented. Black female characters rose to 20 percent from the previous season’s 17 percent, and the number of Asian female characters increased from seven to eight percent. Latina characters fell to five percent from 2018-19’s six percent.

While “the percentages of women working in key behind-the-scenes roles on programs from the broadcast networks and cable channels remained stagnant or declined slightly” in 2019-20, the number of women creatives at streaming programs hit historic highs. Their gains include the very impressive jump to 17 percent of directors of photography from the previous year’s three percent. Women also made significant leaps as streaming directors, rising from 15 percent in 2018-19 to 32 percent.

“The gains demonstrate that streamers are outpacing both the broadcast networks and cable channels in hiring key behind-the-scenes women and in telling stories from a female perspective,” Lauzen said.

Women made up 35 percent of streaming shows’ creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography. They comprised 31 percent of those roles on cable programs and 30 percent on broadcast.

Across streaming, cable, and broadcast, women represented 39 percent of producers, 36 percent of writers, 32 percent of EPs, 30 percent of directors, 28 percent of creators, 17 percent of editors, and eight percent of DPs. The 2019-20 percentage of women creators marks a new high. Overall, women accounted for 31 percent of those working in key behind-the-scenes roles — the same as the previous year.

The progress made in streaming aside, television is still home to a huge off-screen gender gap. Sixty-three percent of all programs employed five women or less in key behind-the-scenes positions. Conversely, only 16 percent of programs employed five men or fewer. Ninety-four percent of shows featured zero women DPs, 81 percent employed no women directors, and 73 percent had no women creators.

Highlights from “Boxed In 2019-20: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television” are below. Read the full report here.


  • In 2019-20, programs on streaming services featured substantially more female protagonists than programs on cable or broadcast networks. By platform, 42% of streaming programs had clearly identifiable sole female protagonists, 27% of cable programs had female protagonists, and 24% of broadcast programs featured female protagonists.
  • Streaming programs were just as likely to have female protagonists as male protagonists. 42% of programs on streaming services had female protagonists, 42% featured male protagonists, and 16% had ensembles.
  • Women reached historic highs as creators, directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and directors of photography on streaming programs. The gains made by women working as directors and directors of photography were particularly impressive. The percentage of women directors increased from 15% in 2018-19 to 32% in 2019- 20. The percentage of women working as directors of photography increased from 3% in 2018-19 to 17% in 2019-20.
  • Across platforms, the percentage of female characters in speaking roles declined from 45% in 2018-19 to 43% in 2019-20. By platform, females comprised 42% of speaking characters on broadcast programs, 44% of characters on cable programs, and 43% of characters on streaming programs.
  • Females comprised 45% of major characters on broadcast, cable and streaming programs. This represents no change from 2018-19. By platform, females accounted for 44% of major characters on broadcast programs, 45% on cable programs, and 45% on streaming programs.
  • Across platforms, 29% of all programs featured clearly identifiable sole female protagonists, 37% had male protagonists, and 33% feature ensembles.
  • Regarding race and ethnicity across platforms, 66% of female characters were White (down 4 percentage points from 70% in 2018-19), 20% were Black (up 3 percentage points from 17% in 2018-19), 8% were Asian (up 1 percentage point from 7% in 2018-19), 5% were Latina (down 1 percentage point from 6% in 2018-19), and 1% were of some other race of ethnicity (no change from 2018-19). Latinas remain dramatically underrepresented when compared to their representation in the U.S. population.
  • The racial/ethnic representation of major female characters mirrored that for all female characters in speaking roles. 66% of major female characters were White, 20% were Black, 8% were Asian, and 6% were Latina.
  • Considering broadcast network programs only, over the last decade while the percentage of Black females has more than doubled (12% to 26%) and the percentage of Asian females has increased (5% to 8%), the percentage of Latinas has remained the same (5%).
  • Overall, female characters remain younger than males. The majority of female characters were in their 20s and 30s (58%), whereas the majority of male characters were in their 30s and 40s (53%).
  • Across platforms, male characters remain more likely than females to be identified by their occupational status, and to be seen at work, actually working. 75% of male characters but 65% of females had identifiable occupations. Further, 57% of males but 47% of females were seen in their work environment, actually working.
  • Across platforms, female characters were more likely than males to play personal life-oriented roles, such as wife and mother. In contrast, male characters were more likely than females to play work-oriented roles, such as business executive. For example, 52% of female characters but 38% of males were seen playing personal-life roles. In contrast, 56% of males but 42% of females played work oriented roles.
  • Overall, women accounted for 31% of individuals working in key behind-the-scenes positions. This represents no change from 2018-19. By platform, women comprised 30% of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography on broadcast programs, 31% on cable programs, and 35% on streaming programs.
  • Programs employed relatively low numbers of women behind the scenes. 63% of programs employed 5 or fewer women in the behind-the-scenes roles considered. In contrast, 16% of programs employed 5 or fewer men.
  • Overall, women fared best as producers (39%), followed by writers (36%), executive producers (32%), directors (30%), creators (28%), editors (17%), and directors of photography (8%).
  • Across platforms, startlingly high percentages of programs employed no women in the behind-the-scenes roles considered. 94% of the programs considered had no women directors of photography, 81% had no women editors, 76% had no women directors, and 73% had no women creators.
  • The percentage of women creators continued to inch upward in 2019-20 after years of stagnation. In 2019-20, women accounted for 28% of creators, up from 25% in 2018-19. This represents a historic high.
  • Across platforms, programs with at least 1 woman creator employed substantially greater percentages of women in other key behind-the-scenes roles and featured more female characters than programs with exclusively male creators. For example, on programs with at least 1 woman creator, women accounted for 69% of writers versus 20% on programs with no women creators.
  • Programs with at least 1 woman executive producer featured more female protagonists, and more women in other key behind-the-scenes positions, than programs with exclusively male executive producers. For example, on programs with at least 1 woman executive producer, women accounted for 39% of writers. On programs with exclusively male executive producers, women comprised 12% of writers.
September 12, 2020
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