Shonda Rhimes, an African American writer-producer, is one of the most powerful people in the TV business. Last week, Disney’s ABC TV network made history by naming Channing Dungey to head its entertainment division, the first African American to fill that role.
In fact, even as the big screen industry is under fire for a lack of diversity, some of the most celebrated shows on TV showcase diversity, whether it is the African American family of ABC’s “black-ish,” the multiracial inmates on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” or the transgender dad on Amazon’s “Transparent.”
By most accounts, the small screen has become a more culturally inclusive place over the last decade, and for several reasons. The TV audience itself is diverse — one estimate is that black viewers spend 37% more time watching TV than other racial groups — which has forced network executives to find programming that reflects the people watching at home.
The TV industry is also significantly larger than the movie business, meaning more opportunities overall, and lately there has been an explosion of new programming.
TV gives us a great opportunity to tell many different stories from diverse points of view.
While film studios have been trimming their release slates — Paramount, for example, released just 16 movies last year, down from 21 in 2012 — networks are flooding viewers with new TV series. Last year, an all-time high of 409 original series were produced for television (including streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu), according to a study by cable network FX. That number has doubled in the past six years.
“In television, we are fortunate because we get to try a lot of things; we get to take a lot of shots,” Dungey said in an interview. “It gives us a great opportunity to tell many different stories from diverse points of view.”
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Fewer than 17% of the lead actors in a survey of 174 Hollywood movies released in 2013 were members of a minority group, according to a 2014 Bunche Center report (an updated report is expected this week). That compared with slightly more than 10% in 2011. Both figures lagged far behind the U.S. minority population overall, which the study collectively pegged at more than 37%.
Scripted series on cable TV fared somewhat better, with 19.3% of lead actors coming from a minority group, including such series as BET’s “Real Husbands of Hollywood.” Broadcast networks remain a long way from that level, with just 6.5% of lead characters played by minorities.
However, many hit reality shows such as “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Amazing Race,” “America’s Next Top Model” and “Shark Tank” have done a much better job with minority casting than scripted series or films have done.
“TV diversity is not great, as we know, but film is pretty abysmal,” said Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor and director of the UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. From actors to directors to executives, “women and minorities are underrepresented … in both television and film. But it’s much worse in film.”
Another part of TV’s progress stems from years of scrutiny of the issue.
Former CBS Entertainment Chairman Nina Tassler believes the television industry does a better job representing members of minority groups than its film business counterpart in part because of public pressure on TV executives.
The change stems from about 15 years ago, when advocacy groups began rating networks on their efforts to represent people of color in TV shows (the group said recently that it plans to target film studios). The network bosses, Tassler said, did not want to be getting Ds and Fs.
Tellingly, members of the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition, who had been at the forefront of efforts to diversify TV, launched a new initiative this month to focus on film studios.
Tassler, speaking on a panel at Bloomberg News offices in Century City last month, also noted that large numbers of women and minority groups watch TV — making it even more critical to have programming that reflects the audience.
Signs of further progress toward diversification on network TV are easy to find.
Rhimes now controls all of the Thursday prime-time programming on ABC, with her dramatic hits “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder.” Last year “Empire,” the hip-hop soap opera on Fox with a nearly all-black cast, became one of broadcast’s biggest breakout hits in years.
TV diversity is not great, as we know, but film is pretty abysmal.
Filmmakers have undeniably made strides toward diversity too. Last year, many of the most popular feature hits included black actors in top roles, including the Oscar-nominated Hollywood veteran Don Cheadle in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and Chiwetel Ejiofor in “The Martian.”
But sometimes moves toward diversity in film find unexpected stumbling blocks. Disney won plaudits for casting a major character, Finn, with black actor John Boyega in its smash “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” But the Chinese posters for the movie shrunk Boyega’s face so small that he could barely be seen, reigniting long-held fears in the industry that some foreign markets expect American blockbusters to have white stars.
Cheadle said last week that he was compelled to add a white costar, Ewan McGregor, to “Miles Ahead,” his upcoming biopic of jazz great Miles Davis, due to Hollywood’s “financial imperatives.”
Overall, film studios have remained true to their tradition of casting non-minorities in their superhero franchises and romantic comedies.
The protagonists and worldview of most major franchise pictures — such as “Jurassic World” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2" — remain white.
“The big movie studios are no longer in the character-driven drama business,” said Tom Nunan, a film producer and former network chief who teaches at the School of Theater, Film and Television at UCLA. “They’re in the franchise business, where it’s big special effects and opportunities for 3-D to help justify audiences leaving their living rooms and going out to a movie theater to watch something.”
As a result, TV has come to specialize in the sorts of smaller, more nuanced dramas and comedies that used to find their way to the big screen.
“That’s one of the things that’s kept us going, [that] everyone has such a different point of view about the world,” said Erica Messer, who serves as an executive producer on the series. “That makes for a really rich story environment.”
Such thinking has penetrated the executive suites. CBS sponsors the Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase, which bootstraps young performers, and also has mentoring programs for minority writers and directors (its broadcast rivals sponsor similar initiatives, as do talent unions such as the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America).
“These initiatives are embedded into our network operation and help secure employment every year for underrepresented actors, writers and directors in television,” Glenn Geller, the openly gay president of CBS Entertainment, wrote in an email statement. “The creative talent in these programs have been hired by CBS, as well as the broader entertainment community.”
Such moves have, in the space of a few years, changed the face of television.
Staff writers Yvonne Villarreal and John Corrigan contributed to this report.