by Daphne Ford
Last March, Deadline came under fire for publishing an article titled “Pilots of 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings—About Time or Too Much of a Good Thing?” in which co-editor Nellie Andreeva argued that the recent growth of roles for minority actors on television is leaving white actors in the dust.
From the use of the word “ethnic” to suggestions that racial diversity in television has gone too far; the article was altogether misguided and ill-conceived. The backlash Deadline received from readers, as well as members of the media and entertainment industry, has been endless, and frankly, well-deserved.
The headline has since been changed “as it did not correctly reflect the context of the article” and co-editor Mike Fleming Jr. has apologized, but the question still stands: How on earth could Deadline, or anyone for that matter, even begin to consider a shift towards more racially diverse casting and an increase in opportunity for minority actors as “too much of a good thing?”
The flawed opinions expressed in the article have drawn negative attention, but the focus of the article itself is not grounds for criticism. In fact, we have seen a positive shift in television this past year, with many networks hosting shows with more racially diverse casts than America is used to.
Fox’s drama “Empire” is carried by a primarily African American cast. A huge hit this season; it has broken records in ratings for the network and garnered critical acclaim.
ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Black-ish” focus on an Asian and a Black family respectively, while “How To Get Away With Murder” features African-American actress Annalise Keating in the lead role. Though these series are not breakout hits to the extent that “Empire” is, they have received praise for their representation of different ethnicities and cultures. ABC is also been home to African-American screenwriter, producer and director Shonda Rhimes’ series “Scandal” and “Grey’s” Anatomy”, both of which feature racially diverse casts and women of color in prominent lead roles.
“Jane the Virgin” on the CW features a Latina actress in the lead, as will NBC’s upcoming drama “The Curse of the Fuentes Women.”
“The Mindy Project,” a staple on NBC for the past three years, is led by Indian actress Mindy Kaling. In addition, NBC took a step towards increasing racial diversity last year by adding three black feature players to the Saturday Night Live cast, bringing the count of black cast members up to five, which is significantly higher than we have seen in recent years.
Comedy Central has assigned black South African comedian Trevor Noah to host “The Daily Show,” which is an attempt to step in the right direction regardless of recent controversy.
Yes, in the past few years there has been a significant rise in racial diversity on network television, and no, it definitely isn’t “too much of a good thing.”
For years, the racial makeup on television has been far from reflective of the population in the United States. A 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report conducted by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA states that minorities make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, and are projected to become the majority within the next few decades. Yet in 2013, minority actors were underrepresented by a factor of nearly six to one among broadcast scripted leads, and white actors dominated top credits.
This begs the question: Why haven’t networks managed to attain a realistic and balanced depiction of racial diversity?
Generally, we tend to surround ourselves with media that we can identify with on some level. It isn’t unusual or unreasonable for people to prefer shows that feature actors who look like them, talk like them, dress like them and so on. The flaw here is that currently, television doesn’t reflect what “we” want to watch, it reflects the preferences of a handful of people designated to make decisions. The UCLA study also shows that television and network studio heads were 96 percent white and 71 percent male in 2013. For the most part, white males choose which pilots air, as well as which do not. It’s a flawed system that isn’t justifiable, but it makes perfect sense that network television reflects these preferences, and so often neglects the perspectives of minority men and women.
People crave relatable television and because of the industry’s disarranged order of priorities, it has lead to an abysmal display of racial diversity.
The painfully obvious alternative is to use this as an effective, easy tool to increase viewership. According to the same UCLA study, “Median 18-49 viewer ratings (as well as most median household ratings among whites, black and Latinos) peaked for broadcast and cable shows that at least match the minority share of the population in terms of overall cast diversity” and “Median 18-49 viewer ratings were highest for broadcast and cable scripted shows in which minorities wrote between 21 percent and 30 percent of the episodes.” It would be profitable across the board to start catering to a wider array of racial groups, and African Americans in particular. A 2013 Neilson Consumer report shows that African Americans watch 37 percent more than other consumer groups, making them the most aggressive consumers of media in the market. Clearly, networks would benefit greatly from securing their viewership.
It’s in the numbers: America prefers television shows that feature actors of various races because the fact of the matter is that the U.S. population is not entirely white, however hard this may be for network executives or the editors over at Deadline to admit. It would be in the best interest of network executives to welcome minority actors to the small screen because it could be increasingly beneficial for business. It makes one wonder if television and network executives haven’t clued in or if they are simply that afraid of change.
The financial benefits are apparent, but the social reflection and potential influence are of the most importance. The issue with Deadline’s article doesn’t have to do with television, it has to do with the attitude towards race in this country. Some worry that white actors are having their roles taken away from them, but what makes these roles theirs to take? Sixty percent of the population have been given roughy 90 percent of opportunities in Hollywood, so it isn’t as if white actors haven’t had their chance. Minority groups have consistently been underrepresented in the media, and to take away some of this new-found representation would stunt social progress. People of all races deserve representation in the media. Based on patterns, this isn’t going to happen organically or in a timely manner. Change is a slow process and we can’t expect to see anything too significant in the near future, but the request isn’t unreasonable. Networks need to continue making an active effort to diversify, as well as hire minority executives who can help to broaden the perspectives of networks. It isn’t going to solve the issue of racism, but because people learn from and mirror what they see on television, an increase in positive representations of minority groups on television could contribute to a more tolerant society at the very least.
To pity white actors in hollywood is fruitless. An increase in opportunities for minority actors poses a threat to no one. It gives us a glimpse into a future where shows featuring African American leads can be counted on more than two hands. Though some feel that the pendulum “may have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction,” as Deadline put it, the current display of racial diversity on television is far from ideal, regardless of how far the pendulum has already swung.