Coffee Rhetoric: TV Diversity Report: Networks Decide to Embrace Color This Fall

September 14, 2014

TV Diversity Report: Networks Decide to Embrace Color This Fall

For years  networks and TV writers have made half-hearted attempts (if any) to diversify casts of popular cable and network shows or to create ethnic characters that deviate from tired racial TV tropes; and when prompted to do so they relent, practically kicking and screaming the entire way, or have fallen flat … leaning heavily on stereotypes or sloppily developed rhetorical devices to prop up popular white cast members or to merely silence TV viewers looking for stories that aren't white-washed.  

Save for well-scripted shows of yore –Living SingleGirlfriends, A Different World and, of course, The Cosby Show and today's steady diet of contrived shenanigans cranked out by the ‘Reality’ TV machine, and until very recently, prime-time network TV’s diversity landscape had been bleak, notwithstanding that Black people surpass the general public in TV consumption, social media and buying power. 

Frustrated with a lack of industry access and resources, content creators of color turned to the internet to independently produce and showcase the type of material befitting their respective demographic, flexing their creative muscles in a myriad of refreshing ways, much to the delight viewers looking for multidimensional characters of color. One such creator is producer, writer and director, Issa Rae.

Prompted by Hollywood’s narrow depictions of Black women, Issa Rae was able to successfully utilize 
crowdfunding to finance the creation of her wildly popular and award-winning web-series The Mis-adventures of Awkward Black Girl, which premiered on YouTube in 2011.  The masses proved they were hungry for more of what she had to offer by responding via donations, positive feedback and signal boosting the episodes. Now Rae has become an up-and-coming industry power-player to watch. 

The popularity of … Awkward Black Girl (thanks to Rae’s keen writing and production, and a talented and hilarious cast of characters) has opened up other opportunities for her to act and produce content on an even grander scale – which includes co-writing a pilot for HBO.  As if that wasn't noteworthy enough, Rae is currently rolling out an initiative called ColorCreative TV, which is a Launchpad for women and minority TV writers to present and sell their work, and will premiere three half-hour comedy pilots at the Urbanworld Film Festival on September 19th and 20th, with the eventual goal of landing TV deals.

Also, with the massive success and popularity of series with an integrated cast of characters and that prominently feature or revolve around actresses and actors of color, such as, The Mindly Kaling Project, Scandal, Sleepy Hollow, Being Mary Jane, Orange Is the New Black and The Walking Dead (which has a frustrating history of unceremoniously killing off compelling Black characters), networks can no longer remain tone deaf and ignore that writers, producers and actors of color are capable of generating shows that bring in ratings, and that minority viewership is tired of having its capacity for varied, intellectual and creative tastes insulted. It’s been proven and said time and again, that media representation matters and people want to see themselves and their stories reflected on television.

In a comment to the New York Times, Robert Thompson – who teaches television courses at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University – said he found it “amazing it has taken this long for television to figure some of these things out.” And it is amazing, and bemusing, considering a 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report, outlining that diversity in Hollywood not only appeals to wider audiences, but also generates more money... findings that negate the go-to excuse most industry execs like to employ, to justify its hegemonic casting, film and TV content: diversity doesn't sell.

With ABC leading the pack, this season’s 2014-15 fall lineup features a dearth of multicultural programming cable channels and networks are, undoubtedly, hoping will appeal to the sensibilities of viewers of color and will generate impressive ratings. And interestingly, a couple of the shows won’t shy away from actually addressing issues of race and ethnicity.

Here are some of the offerings scheduled to premiere this fall... 

Black-ish (a title that has already made some people uneasy), a comedy premiering on ABC about an affluent Black family living in an upscale, predominantly white neighborhood and starring Tracee Ellis Ross, Anthony Anderson (who’s also one of the executive producers) and Laurence Fishburne, is the first show on a major network in almost a decade, that’s centered around a Black family (The Bernie Mac Show was the last such show). Black-ish has also been granted a coveted time-slot right after the Emmy Award-winning Modern Family. Its provocative title notwithstanding, Black-ish is being compared to The Cosby Show, but will delve into issues about cultural identity, upward mobility and assimilation.

Cristela (a sitcom starring Mexican-American comedienne Cristela Alonzo) will also, purportedly, address race, white privilege and class.

How to Get Away with Murder presents another exciting offering from Shonda Rhimes on ABC, and will star Viola Davis as a professor and criminal defense attorney.

Fox network’s Red Band Society (starring Octavia Spencer) and CW shows Jane the Virgin – a comedy-drama based on a Venezuelan telenovela and that features another Latina lead (Gina Rodriguez, who reportedly turned down a role on Lifetime’s Devious Maids), and The Flash (co-starring Jesse L. Martin and Candice Patton respectively serving as surrogate father and best friend -- personae that were white in the comics -- to the titular character), are also part of this season’s shift towards more diversified programming.

Now that networks have finally allowed more minority writers, producers and actors to expand their reach and creativity, and have recognized the benefit of catering to non-white television viewers (who often use social media and hashtags to help drive ratings), the next hurdle is endurance and will see whether the bulk of this season’s lineup make it beyond the preliminary chopping block.