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Emmy nominees are diverse this year. But that hasn't always been the case, data analysis shows.

Forty-two performers of color are nominated across 16 acting categories this year. But previous editions of the Emmys have been significantly less diverse.
Image: Regina King Watchmen
Regina King in HBO's "Watchmen."Mark Hill / HBO

The slate of acting nominees for the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday are notably diverse: Billy Porter ("Pose"), Zendaya ("Euphoria"), Sandra Oh ("Killing Eve") and Ramy Youssef ("Ramy") are among the 39 performers of color recognized across 16 acting categories.

But many awards shows have consistently lagged when it comes to inclusion and representation in their acting nominees — and the Emmys are no exception.

In analyzing Emmy Awards acting nominations from the past 10 years, NBC News found that the vast majority — nearly 80 percent — went to white performers.

By comparison, about 15 percent of nominations went to Black performers, just under 3 percent to Latinos, nearly 2 percent to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and barely 1 percent to those of Middle Eastern or Northern African descent.

The analysis encompassed the 12 acting categories presented at the Primetime Emmy Awards and four guest actor categories presented at a separate ceremony. (The data review excluded actors nominated for their work in "short form" content, such as programs on YouTube, because that category was introduced just four years ago.)

Rashad Robinson, the president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, said diversity at major awards shows deserves to be taken seriously because recognition can launch the careers of artists of color, opening doors to new and greater opportunities.

"In the midst of so many different racial justice issues I could care about, I care about this because of the economic consequences on real people," Robinson said in a phone interview this week.

The virtual Emmys show, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, comes after a summer of nationwide protests over systemic racism. The movement for Black lives has forced much of the entertainment industry to confront issues of inclusion, representation and diversity in both on-screen projects and behind-the-scenes workplace culture.

The legacy of American racial trauma is also one of the key themes of "Watchmen," an HBO miniseries featuring a diverse cast that leads this year's field with 26 nominations.

The series, which follows a masked vigilante (Emmy nominee Regina King) as she uncovers a white supremacist conspiracy, was filmed before the protests that followed George Floyd's death. But the show's creator, Damon Lindeloff, has said he set out to tackle modern anxieties around racism and policing in adapting the source material, a 1980s graphic novel of the same name.

"This year, we are also bearing witness to one of the greatest fights for social justice in history, and it is our duty to use this medium for change," Frank Scherma, the Television Academy's chairman and CEO, said in a video message introducing the nominees in late July.

In a statement to NBC News this week, a spokesperson for the Television Academy said the organization realized the need for change in the performers it recognizes as "outstanding."

"As an organization which is open for membership to all individuals working in the television industry, the Television Academy fervently agrees that there is still much work to be done across our industry in regards to representation," the spokesperson said.

"We feel it is a very positive sign that over the past decade the well-deserved recognition of performers of color has increased from 1 in 10 to 1 in 3 nominees across all performer categories," the spokesperson added.

The data showed that 10 years ago, 88 of the 93 acting nominations for the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards went to white performers. In the years since, the trend line shows a declining proportion of nominations for white actors, reaching about 58 percent for this year's ceremony.

The analysis showed that recent gains in diversity have not been equally distributed, however.

In the last five years, only two Latinos — Louis C.K., whose father is of Mexican and Hungarian descent, and Alexis Bledel, who is Latina — were among the nominees for lead or supporting performance in a comedy or drama series.

"It is embarrassing that an industry situated in Los Angeles continues to have such a lack of Latino representation," Robinson said. (Latinos make up about half the population of Los Angeles, where the majority of film studios and production companies are based.)

Latinos have gotten slightly more recognition in the limited series acting categories, such as Jharrel Jerome, the Emmy-winning Afro-Latino star of Ava DuVernay's "When They See Us."

"Clearly that increase in representation has not been equal for all groups, and clearly there is still more to do to improve both gender and racial representation across all categories," the academy spokesperson said.

The relative underrepresentation of performers of color in Emmy nominations may be a direct result of the underrepresentation of people of color in the entertainment industry overall.

UCLA's 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report discovered that performers of color played lead characters on just 21.5 percent of broadcast shows, 21.3 percent of cable shows and 21.3 percent of digital shows, such as original series on Netflix.

The lack of diversity at award shows, therefore, can be interpreted as "one of the lagging indicators of how the industry has operated for years: who has been given opportunities, who has had doors opened to them," Robinson said. "None of this, to me, is an accident or a mistake."

In comparison to the Emmys, the Oscars — Hollywood's marquee awards ceremony — has faced greater scrutiny in recent years over the racial makeup of its acting nominees. The ceremonies in 2015 and 2016 featured all-white acting nominees, inspiring the social media hashtags #OscarsSoWhite and #WhiteOscars.

In response, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the organization behind the Oscars — pledged to "advance inclusion in the entertainment industry and increase representation within its membership and the greater film community," most recently announcing new diversity standards for best picture eligibility.