| David Bauder, Lynn Elber & Frazier Moore |
KENYA Barris, creator of ABC’s “black-ish”, was motivated to write the comedy about an African-American family’s efforts to honour its heritage in part by the unreality of what he grew up watching on television.
“I saw ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld’ and thought, ‘What part of New York is this?’” recalled Barris, who is black. “It’s not about being diverse. It’s about being true to the world.”
His show comes 15 years after civil rights groups, galvanized by a lineup of new network series almost entirely devoid of minority characters, sought and ultimately won agreements from major broadcasters to put programmes on the air that better reflect the nation’s population.
An AP analysis of regular cast members on prime-time comedies and dramas on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox found progress since then in hiring black actors, but slighted other minorities. Casts at three of the four networks are still whiter than the nation as a whole.
That’s in contrast to a fall 2014 season that seemed to signal broad change. Besides “black-ish” and a trio of shows from black megaproducer Shonda Rhimes, it offered Asian-American crime fighters and Latino families.
Among the key findings of the AP analysis:
– ABC, NBC and Fox now have a higher percentage of blacks in prime time than there is in the general population — a significant change over 1999. The difference is most dramatic at Fox: 6.5 per cent of characters in lead or supporting roles were black in 1999 to 21 per cent black this past fall, a number that notched up again with January’s premiere of “Empire”, a drama about an African-American family’s music dynasty.
– Other ethnic groups don’t do nearly as well. While Latinos are the nation’s largest minority group at more than 17 per cent of the population, only Fox and ABC have Latino representation of as much as 10 percent.
– CBS, the nation’s most popular network, had the most diversity 15 years ago and now has the least. CBS programmes are whiter now than they were then. Time has not made broadcast’s role moot. Network fare remains dominant for most consumers despite an explosion of niche cable channels and streaming services that cater to seemingly every possible demographic. What Americans see – or fail to see – on the networks has a powerful impact on how individuals regard themselves as part of the nation’s mosaic.
Gina Rodriguez, the Golden Globe-winning star of the CW’s new telenovela-inspired comedy “Jane the Virgin,” knows what it’s like to be left out of the TV picture.
“Ten years ago, when I was looking at that screen and didn’t see myself at all, I knew there was no place (for me). Or I was too out of the box, too much of a risk,” she said. “People say this (show) is too much of a risk. … Which is so sad, because it’s the same story, just told by a new face.”
In 1965, after NBC cast Bill Cosby in “I Spy”, young Kweisi Mfume’s mother sent her son to knock on doors in their Baltimore neighbourhood to spread the word: “There’s a coloured man on TV!” Cosby had become the first black to star on a network drama. In 1999, as head of the NAACP, Mfume was among the leaders pressuring networks on diversity.
“One can make the argument it’s been progress over 15 years, but it’s still been 15 years and that’s a lot of time to go by to see some of these changes incrementally,” said Mfume. “We can get pleasantly and romantically drunk by looking at all (Rhimes) is doing. … But at the same time, she’s one person at one broadcast network.”
Hollywood’s commitment to diversity has been an issue on numerous fronts in recent weeks: Not a single Oscar nominee in an acting category is black, and the critically acclaimed “Selma” got just two Oscar nods for best picture and best original song. Emails exposed by the Sony Pictures hacking revealed racist jokes referencing President Barack Obama by Amy Pascal, head of that studio’s film division. Comic Chris Rock wrote a detailed essay for The Hollywood Reporter saying that entertainment is a white industry, “just as the NBA is a black industry.” (AP)