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Hollywood has a diversity problem, so Starz chose to make its name on inclusion

Premium network Starz decided to overrepresent women and people of color at its network, and it found a secret to success.

Hollywood has a bleak track record for diversity, both in front of the camera and behind it. But as the television and film industry has grappled with improving representation of women and people of color, the network Starz leaned into diversity and found its edge. 

"The goal of Starz is to build our brand on fresh voices, voices that people haven't seen or heard before," Alison Hoffman, president of Starz's domestic networks, said in an interview for CNET's Now What series. "We feel like being different is the key to our success."

The network first glimpsed the potential to tap into overlooked audiences with shows like Outlander and Power, Hoffman said, both of which premiered on the network in 2014. Outlander -- a genre mash-up of time-travel sci-fi mixed with romantic period drama -- drew in female viewers, and Power, a crime drama created in collaboration with rapper 50 Cent, resonated with Black audiences, particularly Black women. 

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Power is among Starz's top shows

Starz

Both are among Starz's most-watched shows overall. 

So a strategy called #TakeTheLead emerged at Starz: a commitment to amplifying stories by, about and for women and underrepresented audiences. 

At Starz, 46% of its showrunners are people of color, as are 63% of actors and actresses with leading roles. Woman make up 55% of Starz's showrunners -- and 75% of the network's executive team (with half of those execs being women of color), according to a study Starz commissioned at UCLA's Center for Scholars and Storytellers. 

The picture on the rest of television looks a lot different. Although people of color make up more than 40% of the US population, they're represented by lead actors and actresses only about 24% of the time on scripted broadcast shows and 35% of the time on cable scripted programming, according to UCLA's Hollywood Diversity report last year. 

Though the presence of women in lead roles on TV is better, it's still not proportional to the population of women in the US -- and behind the camera, it's even more skewed. Show creators and episode directors are less than one-third women across broadcast and cable, according to the report. 

And it's even harder to find show creators who are people of color: Racial and ethnic minorities represent just 11% of broadcast showrunners and 15% of cable showrunners, the report said. 

Though Starz's own study of its diversity found it was outperforming in some respects, it also revealed areas for improvement, like the fact that fewer than half of Starz directors were women. "We thought we were better than that," Hoffman said. To correct course, the network began a program with the Alliance of Women Directors to put more women in directing positions.

"We really needed to take a look -- and take a hard look," she said. "We wanted to make sure we were holding up that mirror and holding ourselves accountable."

The #TakeTheLead initiative has manifested in recent Starz shows like P-Valley, a critical darling created by Katori Hall and praised for its nuanced view of Black Southern life and sexuality; Blindspotting, a series spinoff of the 2018 movie of the same name about a multigenerational, multiracial family; and a clutch of new shows building off the Power universe. 

But the initiative has also widened beyond its programming and hiring strategy to a series of panel discussions examining how to make TV more inclusive, which the company calls Transparency Talks. (The next Transparency Talk, available to stream live Thursday at noon PT, is set to discuss building inclusivity into TV producing.)

Although Starz's #TakeTheLead programming seems to resonate with viewers because it's different from the rest of what they can see on TV, Hoffman says she isn't worried that inclusion might become Hollywood's status quo. 

"That would be a great problem to have," she said. "We would feel really good that maybe we were part of the spark that that helps that happen."

Now What is a video interview series with industry leaders, celebrities and influencers that covers trends impacting businesses and consumers amid the "new normal." There will always be change in our world, and we'll be here to discuss how to navigate it all.