Every network says it celebrates diversity. But ABC is going harder than any other broadcaster this season, airing three comedies in which race isn’t just in the background, but right out front.
In one case, it’s even in the name.
“To ABC’s credit, we didn’t want to do a show about a family that happened to be black,” Kenya Barris, creator of “Black-ish,” told TheWrap. “We wanted to do a show about a family that was absolutely black.”
The network has given the show its ultimate vote of confidence: It scored the spot after “Modern Family,” ABC’s top-rated show and the winner of five consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Comedy.
Why now? It’s a mix of demographics, ratings, trying to do the right thing, and the awesome success of Shonda Rhimes. In the 2014-15 season, the creator of ABC’s biggest dramas, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” will be responsible for the network’s entire Thursday primetime lineup.
“Black-ish” stars Anthony Anderson as a dad afraid that his kids are losing touch with black culture. “Cristela,” also debuting this fall, is about a Mexican-American woman living with her mother and her sister’s family. “Fresh Off the Boat,” which doesn’t yet have a premiere date, is about a family of Taiwanese immigrants that includes 11-year-old, hip-hop obsessed Eddie, who is inspired by celebrity chef Eddie Huang.
The network is also airing “American Crime” from Oscar-winning “Twelve Years a Slave” writer John Ridley. The multicultural series bluntly examines how racial prejudice pervades the criminal justice system.
Broadcasters have said for years that they want their shows to reflect all of America. But they’ve often demonstrated it by sprinkling a few members of racial minorities into ensemble casts often led by whites.
ABC’s diversity push this fall is different because the casts are led and dominated by people of specific backgrounds, telling stories directly relevant to those backgrounds. The shows are more color-conscious than color-blind. Rather than pretending stereotypes don’t exist, they acknowledge and subvert them.
ABC entertainment chief Paul Lee has said he chooses shows that tell good, authentic stories – and that authentic means specific.
“They’re into pure voices,” said Barris.
But ABC also has another incentive: The fourth-place network needs to do something different. Networks often take their biggest swings when they have little to lose.
ABC’s lower ratings in the key 18-49 demographic may have given it some freedom to experiment, says UCLA professor Darnell Hunt, author of “Channeling Blackness: Studies on Television and Race in America.”
“That may be what’s giving them space to try something new, since what they were trying before wasn’t as successful,” he said. But he says the network is “making a noble effort” to better reflect the diversity of America.
Hunt is one of the authors of UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report, which tracks underrepresentation in the entertainment industry. He has met with ABC to make the case that diversity is good business.
“The people who are currently there are thinking more long term,” says Hunt. “When we’re there, we’re telling them: Five years down the road, if you guys haven’t figured this out, you’re not going to be as competitive. It’s not just about politics, it’s not just about public relations. It’s also about dollars and cents.”
His study notes that television will need to change dramatically to keep up with its audience. For the first time in 2012, the study notes, most babies born in the U.S. were not white, and the U.S. is no longer expected to have a white majority by 2042. Whites will no longer be a majority in California by the end of this year.
A recent Nielsen report, meanwhile, found that African-Americans, who represent about 13 percent of the television audience, watch about 223 hours of traditional TV each month, compared to 159 hours for viewers overall.
Hispanics, who represent about 17 percent of the audience, watch about 126 hours, and Asians, who represent about 5 percent, watch about 93 hours. All the numbers are based on the first quarter of 2014, and the report doesn’t break out numbers for whites. (See chart, below, excerpted with permission from the Nielsen report.)
ABC’s dream scenario this season would be some variation on NBC’s success exactly thirty years ago. NBC was in last place when it unveiled “The Cosby Show,” which, like “Black-ish,” is about a well-off African-American family. “Cosby” helped NBC rocket to first place for the next five seasons.
“Cosby” and “Black-ish” are both part of a long series of trends and counter-trends in shows about African-Americans, says Hunt. Because they are relatively rare, shows about black families are often burdened with expectations that they represent all African-American experiences.
TV has failed at that impossible goal for more than half a century, but some decades have been worse than others.
In the 1950s, African-Americans were often portrayed as buffoons if they appeared at all, said Hunt. By the 60s, some TV producers tried to support the Civil Rights Movement with shows featuring the “sanitized, non-threatening Negro,” he said.
In that decade, Cosby won three consecutive Emmys for Best Lead Actor in a Drama for his work on “I Spy,” and Diahann Carroll won a Golden Globe for her titular role in “Julia,” the story of a widowed nurse raising a son.
But those roles – which defied the 1950s stereotypes – brought complaints that television wasn’t acknowledging the Black Power Movement or urban poverty. Hunt recounts in “Channeling Blackness” how those concerns spawned “ghetto-centric” sitcoms, which also soon fell from favor.
For a while, there were no black families on television — and then “The Cosby Show” arrived. Despite its popularity, it was criticized, again, for mostly featuring wealthy African-Americans.
In the subsequent decades, Fox and later the WB and UPN became the go-to networks for African-American shows, such as “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Girlfriends.” But the rise of cable splintered all audiences, and shows about African-Americans went to black-targeted networks like BET. Later, VH1 and OWN made big plays for black viewers, especially black women.
But now the pendulum is swinging back, and broadcasters are again trying shows led by people who aren’t white. One thing that is notable about the new shows is that ABC is bringing in “diverse talent not only in front of the camera, but behind the camera,” says Hunt.
One reason, Lee says, is the people working at his network. At a recent talk with reporters, he invited them to look at the employees on hand to watch him speak.
“I’m very proud of the fact that if you look at the back of the room to look at the executives who do development and do programming and marketing, across ABC, it’s a very diverse group of people,” he said.
Barris said Rhimes also proved that shows with diverse audiences can thrive at a time when most shows don’t.
“She is a voice that speaks beyond being a black writer — she’s a writer,” he said. “And she has a very clear-cut vision for what she wants to do. And I think that vision has opened so many doors for me.”