Black Is the New Black: ‘Empire,’ ‘Black-ish’ Success Puts Diversity on TV’s Must-Have List

Thanks to changing demographics and rising minority incomes, programmers are expanding their palettes

For years, conventional wisdom in the television industry dictated that having more than one minority-driven show was risky business.

But this year, it could be said that black is the new black. The television landscape is going through a sea change, ignited by viewers’ evolving tastes, the nation’s shifting demographics, advertisers’ designs on an ever-growing minority population and something called “Black Twitter.”

“America is basically a layered cake of a lot of different people,” ABC’s “black-ish” creator Kenya Barris told TheWrap. “People want to see themselves reflected in the entertainment world.”

The 2014-15 TV season was already well on its way to becoming one of the most diverse in TV history, thanks in part to the success of Barris’ comedy, about an affluent African-American family struggling to maintain its identity, and Shonda Rhimes‘ breakout hit “How to Get Away With Murder,” starring Viola Davis“>Viola Davis.

Then came “Fresh Off the Boat,” about an Asian-American family relocating to a mostly white suburban neighborhood in Orlando, Florida. The show’s premiere drew a strong 2.5 rating/8 share in the key 18-49 demo. Though it’s dropped off since then, the most recent episode had a respectable showing with a 1.9 rating.

When “Empire,” starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, aired on Fox in January, it not only became the biggest hit of the TV season, it was a game-changer. The show started off strong with a 3.8 rating and has only grown from there. Its most recent episode posted a whopping 5.2 rating among adults 18-49.


“It’s phenomenal,” said Esther Franklin, Executive Vice President at Starcom MediaVest Group, one of the largest ad-buying agencies in the world. “They hit the target and you’d better believe people are going to be following that.”

Before this year, Fox and ABC were in somewhat of a slump. Ratings for their shows were less than stellar, with few managing to generate any noteworthy buzz.

Not anymore.

Both networks seem to have found what can only be described as the latest TV “must have”: primetime shows created by and starring minorities.

It started with Shonda Rhimes. The ABC uber-producer took over the coveted Thursday night lineup with “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and this year’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” all airing back-to-back-to-back.

That’s not unprecedented, but it’s rare. ABC hasn’t stacked three shows by the same executive producer into one night since Aaron Spelling took over Saturday nights with “T.J. Hooker,” “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” in 1982.

Rhimes’ shows, while not exactly “niche,” feature many minority actors in leading roles.

Seattle Grace, “Grey’s Anatomy’s” fictional hospital, has consistently featured diverse doctors. “Scandal” brought us Kerry Washington as powerful D.C. crisis manger Olivia Pope, and “How to Get Away with Murder” stars Viola Davis as cutthroat criminal attorney, Annalise Keating.

Meanwhile, ABC’s “The Goldbergs,” about a Jewish family in the 1980s and now in its second season, is holding steady with a 2.2 rating in the key demo. Not quite “Empire” numbers, but enough to keep it from getting the ax anytime soon.

“Those shows are getting audiences that are broader than the audience that inspired the storyline,” Franklin said. “It seems to be on fire right now.”

While ABC leads the pack when it comes to diversity on TV, the networks don’t have a monopoly on heterogeneity.

Netflix, for its part, hit it big with “Orange is the New Black.” The prison dramedy features several African-American and Hispanic actresses, as well as a transgender character, played by Laverne Cox. Uzo Aduba, also known as “Crazy Eyes,” won SAG and Emmy awards for her performance.

After a notoriously bumpy start, Oprah’s OWN found its footing with a stream of Tyler Perry programs including “The Haves and the Have Nots” and “If Loving You is Wrong.”

The CW’s No. 1 show these days is “The Flash,” dubbed “the most diverse superhero show on TV.” Its other big hit, “Jane the Virgin,” won the network’s first-ever Golden Globe award for lead actress Gina Rodriguez.

“This is long overdue,” veteran actress Cicely Tyson told TheWrap. “My mother always said to me, ‘If you live long enough, you’ll see everything.’ Well, I never thought I’d see this.”

Last week, Tyson joined the cast of “How to Get Away with Murder,” taking on the role of Viola Davis‘ straight-shooting mother, Ophelia.

While diversity seems to be the buzzword around Hollywood these days, not all shows that focus on a specific ethnic group have hit it out of the park.

Earlier this month, CBS pulled “The McCarthys,” about an Irish-American working class family in Boston, from the schedule after 11 episodes.

But diversity may not have been a factor.

“When you look at the number of channels available, the number of platforms, there’s a lot of stuff out there, and there’s lots of stuff that fails all the time,” said Franklin.

So why are we seeing so many diverse shows now?

Experts say the timing has a lot to do with the way the TV industry operates as well as the country’s changing demographics.

Risk management
Unlike cable, broadcast networks are notoriously skittish about change. But when Rhimes struck gold with “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” others quickly followed suit, trying to get in on the action.

“Networks are very risk averse,” said Franklin. “Being the first one out is always the most difficult position [to be in]. Once they saw that you can actually have programming with diverse casting that attracts a broad array of viewers and advertisers, the model was set.”

America’s changing complexion
According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau numbers, more than half of all American children under the age of 1 belong to minority groups, and those numbers are going in one direction: up. In fact, the U.S. is projected to become a majority-minority nation for the first time in 2043. While the non-Hispanic white population will remain the largest single group, no group will constitute a majority.


Diversity = ratings
A 2014 UCLA study suggests that diverse television shows tend to perform better.

Even though minorities now represent more than a third of the U.S. population, among broadcast comedy and drama leads they were underrepresented by a factor of seven to one, as recently as 2012.

According to the study, shows that do best usually boast anywhere between 30 and 40 percent diversity, which is on par with the general population.

“This is definitely shaping up to be one of the most diverse broadcast seasons I’ve seen in a very long time,” UCLA sociology professor and author of the study, Dr. Darnell Hunt, told TheWrap. “Certainly shows like ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ and ‘Empire’ have had a big impact.”

Rising minority income
According to a recent study by the University of Georgia Selig Center, the buying power of minorities in the U.S. economy is growing exponentially. Last year, African Americans, Asians and Native Americans had a collective buying power of $2 trillion, 117 percent higher than in 2000. The report estimates the national buying power of African Americans in particular is currently $1.1 trillion and will rise to $1.4 trillion in 2019.

At the end of the day, TV is a business. Now that minorities are becoming the majority, there’s money to be made. Bottom line: expect to see more diversity on TV — and soon.

The proof is in the pilot season. Already new diverse shows are coming down the pipeline, including ABC’s “Dr. Ken,” starring Ken Jeong, as well as Whoopi Goldberg in “Delores & Jermaine.” CBS’ “Doubt” gets two diversity points for casting African-American transgender actress Laverne Cox.

“We do a lot of very nuanced research with culturally grounded audiences and we know that those communities have had a hankering for content that more accurately depicted the breadth of their experiences,” Franklin said. “At the same time, advertisers want to connect with those communities in a bigger way because they’re growing fastest and they haven’t had the spaces to place money and invest in the proportion that they would like.”

Crossover appeal
While shows like “Empire” and “How to Get Away with Murder” have huge minority followings, they’re not the only ones watching.

According to Franklin, “Empire” has connected powerfully with African-American viewers, who make up 61 percent of the audience. But that also means about 40 percent of those watching are non African-American viewers.

When Justine Sacco, communications director for IAC, published a tweet saying, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” before boarding her plane, Black Twitter, a subset of the “Twitterverse,” was up in arms. The tweet #HasJustineLandedYet was a trending topic within hours, and by the time Justine landed she was out of a job.

According to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, 26 percent of African Americans who use the Internet use Twitter, compared to 14 percent of online white, non-Hispanic Americans. In addition, 11 percent of African-American Twitter users say they use Twitter at least once a day, compared to 3 percent of white users.

“We have a black president now,” said Barris. “I love the idea of pulling back the curtain on a segment of the population that people may have not really known … and giving our audience a different viewpoint that they have not had before.”