ABC is taking a bold step this fall to diversify prime-time television by prominently showcasing African Americans, Latinos and other minorities on a scale never before seen on a major American network.
The broadcast networks have traditionally cast white actors in lead roles, calculating that they would help boost a show's chances of success in the ratings and international sales. Not only that, but the creative team behind the camera has also been typically white as well.
But those traditional biases are fading, Paul Lee, ABC's entertainment president, said Tuesday during ABC's presentation at the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour in Beverly Hills.
"America doesn't look like that anymore," said Lee, a native of Britain. "When I came here, I wanted to find shows that reflected America. That's our job."
Shows with all-white casts "feel dated," added Lee.
But it was the blockbuster success of writer/producer Shonda Rhimes' hit, "Scandal," starring Kerry Washington, that paved the way for this season's changes. The drama, which launched in mid-season two years ago with seemingly low expectations, demonstrated that America would embrace a show starring an African American woman.
Add to that ABC's hit comedy "Modern Family," which features a gay couple who just got married and the marriage of a crusty white guy and his much-younger wife, a voluptuous Latina. The popular sit-com soared in the ratings, proving that TV viewers would find humor in subject matter that was usually off-limits on mainstream TV.
The Walt Disney Co.-owned network's big bet for this fall is another drama executive-produced by Rhimes called "How to Get Away with Murder."
Critically acclaimed film star Viola Davis headlines the drama as a tough and morally complex university law professor teaching students how to defend criminals. "How to Get Away with Murder" is scheduled to run on Thursday nights, paired with Rhimes' other two hits, "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal."
When asked about the breakthrough nature of fielding two dramas featuring strong black women, and on TV's most profitable night, Rhimes seemed uninterested in discussing the topic.
"We'll see. It remains to be seen," she said during a session for "How to Get Away with Murder."
Davis, however, embraced the topic. She noted that it was no longer questioned when a talented movie star accepted a role in a TV series, a trend that has increased -- particularly for women over 40.
Davis said she "spent too much time in my career trying to force writers" to create bold characters for her to play.
"I've gotten so many wonderful film roles.. but it's like I've been invited to a really fabulous party, only to hold up the wall," Davis said. "And I wanted to be the show."
Lee, for his part, said many factors contributed to ABC's more diverse prime-time line-up. Key among them has been ABC's decision to welcome a more diverse group of writers and producers, telling them to bring their passion projects.
"You need storytellers and you need executives ... who truly reflect America as it is and we have a very diverse group of people," Lee said.
ABC also is launching "Fresh Off the Boat," a story of a young Asian American boy who moves with his immigrant family from Chinatown in Washington, D.C., to Orlando. The network has high hopes for "Black-ish," a family sit-com created by Anthony Anderson and also starring Laurence Fishburne.
"Cristela" is about a high-achiever law school student from a large Mexican American family. And ABC is moving "The Goldbergs," a sitcom about a Jewish family, to Wednesday nights, although some TV writers questioned whether the TV family has showcased its Jewishness enough. Those decisions are made by the show's creator, Adam F. Goldberg, Lee said.
"Specificity is so key to great television, and you can smell it if it is not authentic," Lee said. "These are American stories, all of them."
ABC just wrapped up a somewhat disappointing season, finishing in fourth place in the coveted demographic of viewers 18 to 49 years old. The network averaged 7.5 million viewers a night in prime time, down 3% from the previous season. ABC ranked third in total viewers.
Lee acknowledged some of the network's disappointments, including "Rising Star," and last year's "Trophy Wife." After a lackluster January and February, the network has been gaining momentum, Lee said.
Lee also made a point to say that television's efforts to field a more diverse slate was a project not yet complete.