TV's making progress on diversity, but it's motivated by money

When it comes to racial and ethnic diversity, compared to movies TV is a rainbow coalition.

This year's #OscarsSoWhite campaign targeted the film industry, but midway through the fall TV season, with all 20 new shows now airing, more than a third of the actors on major-network sitcoms and dramas are racially or ethnically diverse, according to USA TODAY research. Eighteen series have minority actors in lead roles, up from just six five years ago, with ABC and Fox leading the way. And more shows are highlighting diverse themes and experiences, not just sprinkling black, Latino or Asian-American actors into their casts.

Based on our research, USA TODAY assigned each major network a letter grade based on the ethnic and racial makeup of scripted primetime fall 2016 series, the percentage of leading roles they represent and the prevalence of diverse themes in the shows. (Click here to see why each network was assigned the grade it received.)

ABC: A-
CBS: C-
Fox: B+
NBC: C+
CW: C+

While TV executives are aware diversity is a hot-button issue, their motives aren’t entirely pure.

We recognized pretty quickly this was not about social good, this was about good commerce,” says Gary Newman, co-chairman of Fox Television Group. “When you have a country as diverse as ours, you just have to have programming that appeals to different groups.”  Since Empire took off in early 2015, Fox has  added Rosewood, starring Morris Chestnut as a sexy coroner, and this fall’s Pitch, Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist, each with black or Latino lead characters.

“People have begun to recognize how much money they can make by targeting underserved audiences,” says Courtney A. Kemp, the creator and executive producer of Power, a popular Starz series about a black nightclub owner. “The color that’s relevant here is green.  It’s not about any kind of altruism, or a sea change in how people are feeling about diversity.”

Instead, it reflects demographic shifts, and TV executives' need to chase viewers as Hollywood faces radical shifts in how and where they find their entertainment.  U.S. Census data projects the percentage of blacks, Hispanics and Asians will continue to grow in coming decades, while the percentage of whites declines.  And amid steadily declining ratings, blacks are among the most loyal viewers, watching nearly 50% more TV each week than the general population, Nielsen says.

Whatever the cause, public advocacy groups are cheering the result.

“TV has done a really good job of having diverse representation, diverse storylines, whereas the movie studios, especially the Big 6, are light years behind,” says Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD.  “There’s a pretty dramatic contrast.”

GLAAD's own study of 2015 found a record 33% of regular characters on broadcast shows were people of color, up from 27% in 2014. Some cable and streaming networks have an equal or even better record, as more than 400 scripted series in total dwarf the volume of film releases, creating more opportunities. This fall alone saw the premieres of three critically acclaimed series — HBO's Insecure, FX's Atlanta and Netflix's Luke Cage — all featuring black stars and producers.

But across television, progress still lags behind the camera for writers, directors and producers, and at some networks, in front of it.

TV has tiptoed into inclusivity at least since the 1960s, when Diahann Carroll broke barriers playing a professional nurse and widowed mother on NBC’s Julia, and Nichelle Nichols co-starred as Lt. Uhura in Star Trek. In the 1970s, Norman Lear tapped the issue of race in Good Times, The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son, and Freddie Prinze was the co-star of Chico and the Man. A decade later, NBC's top-rated Cosby Show presented a mainstream, upper middle-class black family, and later, early seasons of Fox, WB and UPN had entire nights of black comedies aimed at establishing the startup networks.

While reality shows have often embraced diversity, scripted series largely faded away from the major networks, which sought more "mainstream" series, and migrated to niche channels. Black, Latino and gay characters popped up in ensemble casts as sidekicks and pals, in a pattern parodied by South Park’s Token character.  “Audiences were so happy (just) to see a diverse face on the screen,” says Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center of African-American Studies, that complaints were few.

Five years ago, about the only diverse leads on primetime network sitcoms and dramas were Kerry Washington (Scandal) and Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project), both in their first seasons.

But a new renaissance --  in which “people of color are at the center, driving the narrative,” Hunt  says -- is exemplified by Fox’s Empire, which proved there’s a big audience of all types for a drama with an almost all-black cast: Now in its third season, Empire is the top-rated network series among young-adult viewers, and 63% of its audience is black.

ABC – which last year named Channing Dungey the first African-American programming chief at a major network – has shows centered on gay, special-needs, African-American and Asian-American characters. The outlier is top-rated CBS: All six of its new fall series star white men. “Our goal is always to try to get more diverse,” programming chief Glenn Geller said in August. “We did not meet that goal this year in terms of leads” — though the network hastily added several diverse supporting actors to ensemble casts.

One business consideration: Sales to outlets overseas, a lucrative source of revenue, where shows like Empire have struggled. “People don’t like to talk about it, but it’s the flip side of what we experience here,” Newman says. “A lot of those countries are not very diverse, so it’s hard for shows like that to break through ... If you do a show you feel isn’t going to work internationally, you have to be more cautious about budgets.”

Still, for many actors the chance to right previous wrongs makes motives irrelevant. And they welcome non-stereotypical portrayals in shows like Cage, which cast diverse characters as  do-gooders rather than criminals.

“Growing up, I didn’t see too many positive heroes, American heroes, that looked like me on TV,” says Corey Hawkins, who plays the new lead on Fox’s upcoming 24 revival.

If trends continue, that shouldn't be a problem in the years ahead.

Contributing: Bill Keveney

USA TODAY


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