TV net­works are tout­ing di­ver­sity — at least in their fall pi­lots. But they’ve still got a long way to go, ex­perts say.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Scott Collins

If TV pi­lots are any in­di­ca­tion, the four ma­jor net­works are plan­ning fall line­ups that could make prime-time tele­vi­sion more di­verse than ever.

NBC has “The Curse of the Fuentes Women,” a drama with a mag­i­cal-re­al­ism bent about a Latino fam­ily, and “Love Is a Four Let­ter Word,” a cross-cul­tural com­edy from Korean Amer­i­can writer Diana Son.

ABC is re­mak­ing the film com­edy “Un­cle Buck” with African Amer­i­can comic and rap­per Mike Epps in the ti­tle role made fa­mous by the late John Candy. CBS is re­boot­ing “Rush Hour” with Justin Hires, a black ac­tor and stand-up comic whom net­work ex­ec­u­tives dis­cov­ered at a di­ver­sity show­case in 2011.

Sev­eral fac­tors are driv­ing the trend, in­clud­ing the un­ex­pected suc­cess this sea­son of at­ten­tion-grab­bing pro­grams such as Fox’s hip-hop soap “Em­pire” and ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Black-ish.”

Then too, the mi­nor­ity pop­u­la­tion is grow­ing while net­work view­er­ship is de­clin­ing. Tar­get­ing more shows to mi­nor­ity groups is seen by the net­works as a way to build their au­di­ences, while also dis­tin­guish­ing them from ca­ble’s elite dra­mas, which are over­whelm­ingly white.

“The net­works aren’t ex­actly rolling in view­ers, and I think part of that is be­cause maybe the pro­gram­ming hasn’t been as di­verse as it could have been,” said Jen­nifer Salke, en­ter­tain­ment pres­i­dent of NBC. “It’s good busi­ness.”

To help connect with a broader, more di­verse au­di­ence, Salke said her net­work is seek­ing pro­grams that re­flect “what the world ac­tu­ally looks like.”

The devel­op­ment trend par­al­lels what view­ers have been see­ing for the last few

years on TV screens. Broad­cast se­ries are grad­u­ally get­ting less white, at least in front of the cam­era.

Mi­nor­ity ac­tors had 6.5% of the lead roles in broad­cast TV se­ries dur­ing the 2012-13 sea­son, up from 5.1% the pre­vi­ous sea­son, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 re­port on di­ver­sity in TV and film re­searched by UCLA’s Bunche Cen­ter. The re­port cited the ef­fect of se­ries such as “Scan­dal” and “The Mindy Project,” both of which have found de­voted au­di­ences and fea­ture non­white women in the lead roles.

“Tele­vi­sion took awhile to catch up to the idea that the pop­u­la­tion had changed,” said Pa­trick Mo­ran, who runs the stu­dio di­vi­sion for ABC. That’s the net­work home of African Amer­i­can show run­ner Shonda Rhimes, whose hits such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scan­dal” have changed the face of prime time. “Tele­vi­sion was kind of lag­ging be­hind.”

But TV still has a long way to go be­fore it ad­e­quately rep­re­sents the U.S. pop­u­la­tion.

“Given that mi­nori­ties ac­counted for 37.4% of the [U.S.] pop­u­la­tion in 2013, their 2012-13 share of lead roles ... cor­re­sponds to un­der­rep­re­sen­ta­tion by a fac­tor of nearly 6 to 1,” the UCLA re­port says.

Broad­cast net­works are more ag­gres­sively court­ing mi­nor­ity view­ers partly be­cause that might be one of the few au­di­ence seg­ments left in play.

Ca­ble net­works such as AMC, FX and HBO have done an ef­fec­tive job of split­ting the au­di­ence with highly ac­claimed shows such as “The Walk­ing Dead” and “Game of Thrones.” Those two se­ries have been crit­i­cized on di­ver­sity grounds, how­ever — “Dead” for fre­quently killing off black male char­ac­ters and “Thrones” for be­ing too white in gen­eral.

“The broad­cast net­works seem to be aim­ing to­ward eth­nic mi­nori­ties, and the ca­ble net­works seem to be aim­ing to­ward elite whites,” said Tom Nu­nan, a pro­ducer and for­mer net­work en­ter­tain­ment chief who teaches at UCLA. “It seems to be break­ing apart that way.”

In­deed, the trend is so pro­nounced that a back­lash has al­ready mounted in some quar­ters, re­veal­ing the high level of sen­si­tiv­ity sur­round­ing the sub­ject.

The in­dus­try news site Dead­line came un­der fire in March af­ter it pub­lished a story say­ing un­named tal­ent rep­re­sen­ta­tives were grous­ing about lack of work for white clients.

Rhimes sent a mes­sage to her Twit­ter fol­low­ers, say­ing the story was “so ig­no­rant.” Dead­line’s co-edi­tor, Mike Flem­ing, later apol­o­gized, but nei­ther he nor the story’s writer re­turned emails seek­ing ad­di­tional com­ment.

Net­works will an­nounce their fall sched­ules in mid-May. They are cur­rently screen­ing pi­lots — test pro­grams for long-term se­ries — be­fore sam­ple au­di­ences, which will help them de­ter­mine which shows make the cut.

But TV’s spring of di­ver­sity may be de­flect­ing at­ten­tion from larger forces at work. It’s go­ing to take a lot more than a pi­lot sea­son filled with non­white faces for the main­stream TV in­dus­try to change its ways, some ex­perts say.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2015 TV staffing brief re­searched for the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­ica, fewer than 6% of ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers on TV se­ries this sea­son were mi­nori­ties. Staff writ­ing jobs were just 3.5% mi­nor­ity.

Head­lines about non­white cast­ing tell only part of the story, said Darnell Hunt, a UCLA so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor who has spent years study­ing race and the me­dia in­dus­tries and who helped lead work on the WGA and di­ver­sity re­ports.

“Di­ver­sity be­hind the scenes does make a huge dif­fer­ence in terms of the ac­tual con­tent of what you pro­duce,” Hunt said. “The sto­ries that are told, the way char­ac­ters are sketched has a lot to do with what hap­pens in the writ­ers’ room.”

Thus, se­ries such as “Em­pire” and “Fresh Off the Boat” re­main ex­cep­tions, stand­outs that draw at­ten­tion partly be­cause se­ries told from a mi­nor­ity point of view re­main rel­a­tively rare.

“De­ci­sion-mak­ers are of­ten quite risk-averse,” Hunt said. “They go with what’s com­fort­ing to them … sur­round­ing them­selves with col­leagues who travel in sim­i­lar cir­cles, have sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences and of­ten kind of look like them — i.e., white men, for the most part.”

Hunt said he’s hope­ful that the new shows will “seal our un­der­stand­ing that di­ver­sity in front of the cam­era needs to be sup­ported by di­ver­sity be­hind the cam­era as well.”

A glance at the pi­lot lineup re­minds one that the net­works re­main busi­nesses that tend to­ward the triedand-true rather than the in­no­va­tive. Fox is re­boot­ing the sci-fi fea­ture “Mi­nor­ity Re­port” as well as one of the most-re­cy­cled sto­ries in Hol­ly­wood, “Franken­stein.” “Un­cle Buck” and “Rush Hour” may fea­ture non­white lead ac­tors, but they are still de­rived from old movies (and in the case of “Un­cle Buck,” it’s even been adapted for TV be­fore, as a 1990s sit­com star­ring Kevin Meaney).

Of course, it’s pos­si­ble that come next month, net­work ex­ec­u­tives will an­nounce fall line­ups that fea­ture lit­tle of the di­ver­sity seen on dis­play in the pi­lots cur­rently be­ing made.

But for right now, broad­cast TV — a for­mat in need of all the sell­ing points it can get — is tout­ing di­ver­sity as a draw.

“Peo­ple want to see them­selves on tele­vi­sion,” NBC’s Salke said. “That doesn’t mean we need to pro­gram that way ex­clu­sively. It should be a bal­anced view of the world.

“We’re broad­cast­ers,” she said. “We’re try­ing to bring every­body into the tent. And that tent is full of ev­ery color of per­son.”

Adam Tay­lor ABC

“BLACK-ISH,” a fresh­man ABC fam­ily com­edy that fea­tures An­thony An­der­son, left, and Mar­cus Scrib­ner, has been a sur­prise hit for the net­work.

Chuck Hodes Fox

“EM­PIRE,” with Taraji P. Hen­son and Ter­rence Howard, is a prime-time soap fo­cus­ing on a hip-hop mogul and his fam­ily. It’s been a huge hit for Fox.

Isabella Vosmikova Fox

“THE MINDY PROJECT,” with Chris Messina and Mindy Kal­ing, is among the net­work tele­vi­sion se­ries fea­tur­ing a woman of color in the lead role.

Gilles Mingasson ABC

“FRESH OFF THE BOAT,” with Con­stance Wu and Randall Park, fo­cuses on a Tai­wanese Amer­i­can fam­ily and is based on chef Ed­die Huang’s mem­oir.

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