We asked for it, we got it: More black and brown faces in prime-time TV. Will it last?
By TIFF JONES
Lots of words have been written about the diversity of the fall television season. It’s true that we’ll soon see more black and brown people on TV that we’re supposed to be able to relate to, but will any of the shows be worth watching?
We’ve already learned the hard lesson to be careful what you ask for. Just look at the glut of reality shows we’ve been saddled with in recent years. And we won’t even discuss the high hopes we had for Aaron McGruder’s “Black Jesus.” What a mess that turned out to be. Don’t get me wrong, I am excited at the prospect of seeing more black and brown faces on television this fall, but will it be the kind of high-quality TV that we got hooked on in years of yore? Shows that include NBC’s The Cosby Show and A Different World, UPN’s Girlfriends and Fox’s Living Single, a series starring six African-American friends living in New York, which actually pre-dated that other series about six white friends living in New York.
This type of quality programming built around African-American actors all but disappeared in the early aughts. Instead of creating vehicles prominently featuring black and brown actors, network executives tried, and failed, to integrate them into other vehicles or offered cheap reality shows featuring them instead.
For years networks and TV writers have made half-hearted attempts (if any) to diversify casts of popular cable and network shows or to create ethnic characters that deviate from tired racial TV tropes. For years black and brown people have practically begged network executives to offer more programming; some relented, practically kicking and screaming the entire way. Or they tried, and fell flat, leaning heavily on stereotypes or sloppily developed rhetorical devices to prop up popular white cast members. Many viewers had simply gave up, and turned away, opting to support and view creative content on the Internet instead of legacy television.
Armed with Nielsen data that show black people surpass the general public in TV consumption, social media and buying power past decisions. On top of that, media executives cannot ignore the massive success and popularity of shows with an integrated cast of characters that prominently feature or revolve around actresses and actors of color, such as, The Mindy Project, starring Mindy Kaling, Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, Sleepy Hollow, starring Nicole Beharie and Being Mary Jane, starring Gabrielle Union, networks can no longer remain tone deaf and ignore that writers, producers and actors of color are capable of generating shows that bring in ratings.
Network executives also can no longer ignore that minority viewership is tired of having its capacity for varied, intellectual and creative tastes insulted. It has been proven and said time and again that media representation matters and people want to see themselves and their stories reflected on television.
In a comment to the New York Times, Robert Thompson – who teaches television courses at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University – said he found it “amazing it has taken this long for television to figure some of these things out.” And it is amazing, and bemusing, considering a 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report, outlining that diversity in Hollywood not only appeals to wider audiences, but also generates more money… findings that negate the go-to excuse most industry execs like to employ to justify its hegemonic casting, film and TV content: diversity doesn’t sell.
With ABC leading the pack, this season’s 2014-15 fall lineup features plenty of multicultural programming. Programming cable channels and networks are, undoubtedly, hoping will appeal to the sensibilities of viewers of color as well as generate impressive ratings and advertising revenue. Interestingly, a couple of the shows won’t shy away from actually addressing issues of race and ethnicity.
Here’s what we’ll be watching:
Black-ish (a title that has already made some people uneasy), a comedy premiering on ABC about an affluent Black family living in an upscale, predominantly white neighborhood. The show’s stars, including Tracee Ellis Ross, Anthony Anderson (who’s also one of the executive producers) and Laurence Fishburne, is the first show on a major network in almost a decade, that’s centered around a Black family (The Bernie Mac Show was the last such show). Black-ish has also been granted a coveted time-slot right after the Emmy Award-winning Modern Family. Its provocative title notwithstanding, Black-ish is being compared to The Cosby Show, but will delve into issues about cultural identity, upward mobility and assimilation.
Cristela (a sitcom starring Mexican-American comedienne Cristela Alonzo) will also, purportedly, address race, white privilege and class.
How to Get Away with Murder presents something else from Shonda Rhimes on ABC, and will star Viola Davis as a professor and criminal defense attorney.
Fox network’s Red Band Society (starring Octavia Spencer) and CW shows Jane the Virgin – a comedy-drama with another Latina lead (Gina Rodriguez, who reportedly turned down a role on Lifetime’s Devious Maids), and The Flash (co-starring Jesse L. Martin and Candice Patton who serve as surrogate father and best friend — both characters are white in DC Comic books the series is based on — to the titular character), are also part of this season’s shift towards more diversified programming.
Now that networks have finally allowed more minority writers, producers and actors to expand their reach and creativity, and have recognized the benefit of catering to non-white television viewers (who often use social media and hashtags to help drive ratings), the next hurdle is endurance. We’ll see whether the bulk of this season’s lineup make it beyond the preliminary chopping block.
What will be on your TV screens?
Tiff Jones is the creator and writer of Coffee Rhetoric, a blog about women, pop-culture, film and race. A contributor to both print and digital platforms, she has offered commentary on HuffPost Live and WNPR’s Where We Live.