YouTube could teach Hollywood a lesson in diversity

Story highlights

  • Mel Robbins: This year's Emmys were more diverse, but the entertainment industry still has a long way to go
  • Diverse talent is out there, and so are the viewers, she says

Mel Robbins is a CNN commentator, legal analyst, best-selling author and keynote speaker. She is a contributing editor for Success magazine. In 2014, she was named outstanding news talk-radio host by the Gracie Awards. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Last year, Viola Davis made history at the 2015 Emmys when she became the first African American woman to win best actress in a drama for her role in "How To Get Away With Murder."

Accepting the award, she called out the entertainment industry on its diversity problem, quoting abolitionist Harriet Tubman: "In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line, but I can't seem to get there nohow. I can't seem to get over that line."
    As she so eloquently put it: "You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there." And that is the crux of the diversity issue. Without opportunities in the entertainment industry, nothing is going to change. And without the entertainment industry first seeing opportunity financially, it won't create those roles.
    And that's where the industry is making a huge mistake. Diversity isn't just a good idea -- it's also good for business.
    The 68th Emmys appear to have stepped over that line Viola referred to by nominating the most diverse pool of actors yet: 21 non-white actors nominated in 16 different categories.
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    But while progress is always worth celebrating, don't clap too loud. The entertainment industry still has a tremendous way to go. The Oscars were an embarrassment: two years in a row, all 20 actors nominated in major categories were white. And the diversity problem isn't just in the entertainment industry. It's everywhere. There's no diversity on Wall Street, on corporate boards or in government.
    That's because what hasn't shifted yet is the attitude of people in power. Talking about diversity is one thing; doing something about it is another thing entirely. Without a very public commitment from the top, it's very hard to change this kind of institutional discrimination.
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    The studios are the ones choosing what projects to fund and what to put on air. When the people at the top all look the same, so do the movies and television series that get funded. Until leaders understand that diversity is great for business because it leads to innovation and new customers, nothing will change.
    Want a good example of how powerful diversity can be for business? Check out what the blockbuster hit Hamilton did to Broadway. Or, look at the entertainment industry that's bigger than both Hollywood and television: YouTube.
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    YouTube's tagline is simple: "broadcast yourself." Unlike television, music or movies, there are no studio heads and no gatekeepers. There aren't 15 slots for primetime shows -- there are infinite slots. If you want to act, write, shoot and express yourself, just hit record and the upload a video. If you are talented, people will watch. Over time, a fan base will grow. The only person who decides whether or not you will have a show on YouTube is you. With no gatekeepers, there's limitless opportunity.
    Just look at some of the biggest actors on YouTube -- Michelle Phan (more than 8.32 million subscribers and 1.22 billion views), Lilly Singh (a.k.a IISuperwomanII; more than 7.73 million subscribers and 1 billion views) and Yousef Saleh Erakat (a.k.a. FouseyTube; more than 8 million subscribers and 1 billion views). Their ethnicity: Vietnamese-American, Indo-Canadian and Palestinian-American, respectively.
    In fact, Indiewire reports that YouTube is where the entertainment industry is finding new diverse stars:
    "Issa Rae's YouTube series 'Awkward Black Girl' paved for the way for her forthcoming HBO pilot, 'Insecure,' Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer work shopped their 'Broad City' characters online, and gay vlogger Tyler Oakley just signed a development deal with Ellen DeGeneres's new digital production company. "
    The diverse talent is out there. And so are the viewers. With more than 3 billion views between them, these three YouTube channels easily beat viewership on my favorite show, "Game of Thrones."
    Which brings me back to my point about institutional racism. Chris Rock nailed it when he hosted the Oscars in 2015.
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    Rock said: "The real question ... what everybody wants to know ... is Hollywood racist? ... Is it burning-cross racist? No. It's a different type of racist. ... It ain't that kind of racist that you've become accustomed to."
    "Hollywood," Rock said, "is sorority racist. It's like, 'We like you, Rhonda, but you're not a Kappa.' That's how Hollywood is."
    That is how every industry is, until the leadership at the top decides not to be. And that'll only happen when they realize that diversity is great for business.
    When Lilly Singh won Best First-Person Series, her speech at the 2015 Stream Awards was not a call out, but a shout out:
    "Huge, huge shoutouts to Google and YouTube for not being scared to put a brown girl on a billboard."
    She was referring to a billboard campaign that YouTube did in major cities promoting YouTube creators. Of course, YouTube isn't afraid of diversity -- they understand the power in diversity and are laughing all the way to the bank.