In July 2014, ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee boasted to a room full of reporters about the diversity of the executives who work at ABC. Speaking from a stage before a hotel ballroom, he invited the journalists to turn around and look at the ABC executives behind him, to see just how diverse a group they were.
The next time people want to see diversity in ABC’s executive ranks, they won’t have to look to the back of the room. They can look to the person speaking on stage.
Lee was replaced Wednesday by Channing Dungey, who becomes the first African-American woman to lead a broadcast television network. She ascends at a time of a black renaissance on television: Black-led series such as “Scandal,” “Empire” and “How to Get Away With Murder” have thrived. At the SAG Awards in January, black talent dominated the Television portion, with Viola Davis, Uzo Aduba, Idris Elba and Queen Latifah taking home awards.
Compare that to the big-screen landscape, where the overwhelmingly Caucasian slate of Academy Award nominees gave birth to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.
Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, told TheWrap that Dungey’s promotion is a “significant” step in diversity. But he also feels it’s long overdue.
“It’s the type of thing that you wonder why people didn’t do it five years ago,” Hunt said.
Hunt said it’s no shocker that ABC, which has been on a diversity campaign for the last few years, would be the network to break this particular barrier.
“There’s no question that if you factor in the Shonda Rhimes shows, ‘Black-ish,’ ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ some of the other shows they’ve done in the last few years, that they’ve taken an aggressive step in the direction toward changing American demographics,” Hunt said. “Having someone in the executive suite who has a track record, who is sensitive to that marketplace, just makes sense.”
Hunt’s studies have noted in the past that the U.S. is no longer expected to have a white majority by 2042. A 2014 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.
With 39 percent of the overall population being minorities, and minorities comprising a disproportionate share of the viewing audience, Hunt said, “You need to have people making greenlighting decisions who understand that.”
Hunt added that he hopes other networks will be spurred toward more diversity by Dungey’s promotion. Despite TV’s jump on the film industry, Hunt said, “There’s a lot of room for improvement, particularly behind the camera more than anything, and that’s why this particular appointment is so important.”
“This is not the end of the game; there need to be more choices like this made across the industry,” Hunt added.
In terms of what he hopes Dungey will personally do to advance the status of minorities, Hunt said that he’d like her to send “a clear message to talent agencies that we’re in the diversity business. Don’t bring me a roster of talent that’s devoid of color and women.”
Dungey would do well to “encourage diverse voices to pitch projects, pitch ideas” in her network’s own pilot development process, Hunt said.
“That’s something that I’m hopeful will happen in this case, and frankly should be happening at all the networks,” Hunt said.