White still a primary color
After years of catch-up, multiculturalism seemed primed for the major leagues of prime-time network TV when the culturally diverse “Heroes” and “Ugly Betty” zoomed to hit status in the 2006-07 season.
Executives charged with increasing diversity in front of and behind the cameras at the four major networks say the coming season demonstrates their continued commitment, since most new series contain minorities in prominent roles. Among the series attracting early diversity buzz is “K-Ville,” starring Anthony Anderson (“The Shield”) as a policeman in post-Katrina New Orleans, and “Cane,” CBS’ drama built around a predominantly minority cast.
But instead of celebrating, leaders from the NAACP, in addition to Latino and Asian advocacy groups monitoring the TV industry for years, are disappointed, saying network television is sending mixed messages when it comes to diversity. Although they say there is obvious progress, they contend the fall lineup, particularly when it comes to the new comedies and dramas on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, falls short after what they feel has been positive momentum on shows such as “Ugly Betty,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Heroes” and “Lost.”
Though minorities are featured in most of the 29 new series on the major networks, only five feature performers of color in central starring roles. While most of the shows have at least one regular minority cast member, the performers are mostly in support of the main white characters. Many shows with ensemble casts (ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Big Shots”) feature predominantly white casts.
Unhappiness over the relatively small number of people of color in lead roles has reignited the ongoing debate between leaders of advocacy groups and industry insiders over how network television is still grappling with diversity, less than 10 years after ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox were accused of excluding minorities for prime time.
“It seems to me that we’re losing ground,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, which calls itself the largest Hispanic advocacy and civil rights organization in the country. “I’m puzzled. Where there has been diversity, there’s been success. And we’re very excited about ‘Cane.’ But with a few exceptions, this is the least diverse lineup we’ve seen in recent years.”
And some advocates said there appeared to be a clear cultural divide between prime-time TV and the film industry when it came to the reflection of diversity in today’s society and the examination of racial issues at center stage in the political, sports and entertainment arenas.
Said Vic Bulluck, head of the Hollywood bureau of the NAACP: “Look at Denzel Washington, the Rock, Will Smith, about 10 African American males that can open a movie. But where are their counterparts on TV? They’re happy to go out with us, but they won’t take us home.”
The CW remains the primary network venue for multiculturalism. The network has renewed most of its African American comedies, including “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Girlfriends,” and has scheduled three new series with diverse casts: “Life Is Wild,” about a New York veterinarian and his family who relocate to South Africa; “Aliens in America,” about a friendship between an insecure 16-year-old and a Pakistani Muslim exchange student; and “Eight Days a Week,” a comedy about twentysomethings that stars Mario Lopez (“Dancing With the Stars”) and Christina Milian (“Clueless”).
The leaders said they were more troubled by the shortfall on the major networks, particularly because they had been encouraged by initiatives and programs to increase multiculturalism. Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori this year warned more than 40 producers of current shows and pilots to increase their efforts to hire minority performers, writers and technicians.
The disenchantment with the lead roles for performers of color on TV parallels concerns voiced by Bulluck and other leaders last month after the release of a Writers Guild of America, West study that concluded that although female and minority writers have received more opportunities in recent years, white male writers disproportionately dominate film and TV jobs in Hollywood. The study, conducted by UCLA sociology professor Darnell Hunt, said that minority writers accounted for fewer than 10% of employed television writers between 1999 and 2005.
The absence of minority star power prompted George Lopez, whose self-titled sitcom was just canceled by ABC, to put its demise in racial terms, by declaring to The Times, “TV just became really, really white again.” Lopez said he felt his veteran show was being dumped not because of its middling ratings but to make room for “Cavemen,” which the network is calling a “hilarious and thought-provoking commentary on race relations in today’s America.” The series, which stars three white actors under a ton of makeup, is based on characters from the popular Geico commercials. ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson told reporters in May that the comedy focuses on a new “minority.”
ABC executives declined comment for this article.
Despite the concerns raised by advocacy groups, network executives said that performers of color were dominant in this season’s shows and that the drive to increase diversity was a priority.
Misty Wilson, Fox’s senior vice president of diversity, said: “We’ve really spent a lot of time and effort into casting. No longer are you seeing ‘Let’s just plop one minority in and we’re finished.’ All of our returning shows have people of color in prominent roles.”
CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler said she was particularly excited about programming “Cane,” which represents a rarity in broadcast network television: Jimmy Smits leads a predominantly Latino cast in a drama.
“This series illustrates our overall philosophy about diversity,” Tassler said. “It’s the quintessential American dream. In its specificity, it becomes universal. We have to tell universal stories, and this is an American family.”
Tassler also pointed out she was pleased with Dennis Haysbert, the star of “The Unit,” which is returning for its third season, and that African American actor DB Woodside (“24") is one of the key stars of “Viva Laughlin.”
NBC’s Paula Madison, who was named recently to the newly created title of executive vice president of diversity, said her network’s strategy was largely focused on promoting multicultural ensemble casts in new shows such as “Chuck,” “Lipstick Jungle” and “Journeyman.” “We see a lot of opportunities to cast people of color in co-lead roles. This is my full-time focus.”
“We will be watching what happens this season very closely,” said Bulluck, noting that his NAACP chapter would release an update report on TV diversity at the end of June. “But right now, we’re not happy.”