Two years into the Trump presidency, New York was the epicenter last week for both dispair and hope about the state of our nation. For those fearing the decline of civility, empathy and respect for others, the tale of Aaron Schlossberg represented the depressing state of affairs: The Manhattan lawyer was caught on tape at a Midtown restaurant in an angry, screaming tirade because workers spoke to a customer in Spanish.
But elsewhere in New York, there was also bit of hope and encouraging sign from the networks last week as they unveiled their new lineups during the upfronts presentations to advertisers. The promise of diversity and inclusion isn’t just feel-good Hollywood talk: As evidenced by the shows they’ve chosen and many of those new series’ auspices, TV continues to improve in how it embraces voices and stories from all walks of life.
Nowhere was that more noticeable than at two of TV’s youngest-skewing networks, The CW and Freeform. Both outlets target Millennials, and tout their diversity as a cornerstone of good business practice.
According to Freeform president Tom Ascheim, every single one of its series is executive produced by a woman, including upcoming series “Besties” (which Renata Shepard created with Kenya Barris) and “Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists” (I. Marlene King), as well as recent addition “Siren” (Emily Whitesell). And behind the camera, 60 percent of Freeform’s writers are female or diverse, and more than half of the network’s episodic directors are female, LGBTQ or people of color.
“We have great characters who are both strong women role models for our shows and some great diversity in our shows,” Ascheim said. “We are extraordinarily proud of what we are accomplishing in front of the camera, but we’re equally proud of what we’ve been able to do behind the camera… something that really makes us proud every day to work at Freeform.”
Ray Mickshaw/The CW
At The CW, the network’s new shows include a reboot of “Charmed” with a Latina cast, and the new series “All American,” based on a true story about a high school football player from Compton who’s recruited to play for Beverly Hills High. Add those shows to the return of “Black Lightning” and the retiring “Jane the Virgin,” and this remains a priority for The CW.
“You talk a little bit about inclusion or representative programming, and our 2018-2019 schedule will reflect that 30 of our 37 new series regulars are women and/or people of color,” The CW president Mark Pedowitz said. “Four of our 12 series have casts that are majority people of color, and all five new series have women writers and executive producers attached.”
But even the most mainstream of the broadcast networks, CBS, has made big strides. Last year, the Eye network was criticized for ordering few series with diverse casts, and instead leaning into a string of shows with middle-aged white guys at their core. But now it boasts new sitcoms starring Cedric the Entertainer (“Neighborhood”) and Damon Wayans Jr. (“Happy Together”), plus a revived “Magnum P.I.” with a Latino lead (Jay Hernandez) and freshman series “God Friended Me,” a drama with a spiritual twist starring Brandon Micheal Hall. (Yeah, it’s still mostly dudes in the lead, but CBS does have a “Murphy Brown” revival and strong female characters in most of those shows.)
In midseason, new shows include the provocative limited-run series “The Red Line,” from executive producer Ava DuVernay, about what happens when a white cop in Chicago mistakenly shoots and kills a black doctor.
“We’re feeling good about our diversity,” said CBS senior executive vice president Thom Sherman. “It’s an inclusive schedule.”
CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl noted that the Eye network was hammered last year by critics for not enough diversity in its freshman shows.
“In development, it was very clear, we sat in front of a lot of you at the [Television Critics Association press tour] and said we were going to do it, and quite frankly I think there were a lot of eye rolls. And I think if you look at the schedule we did what we said we were going to do.”
At the other networks, new Fox series include the sitcom “Rel,” starring Lil Rel Howery. At NBC, freshman shows include “I Feel Bad,” starring Sarayu Blue, an actress of Indian descent. ABC’s new series include “Grand Hotel,” from Eva Longoria and featuring a predominantly Latino cast, led by Demian Bichir and Roselyn Sanchez.
It’s a start. But Latino and Asian-American audiences are still under-represented in primetime, and this is no time to unfurl a “Mission Accomplished” banner. Diversity and representation in primetime continues to fluctuate. Network execs like to point out they schedule the best pilots they have, which is why they sometimes fall short with inclusiveness — but that means it starts at the development stage.
More scripts from a wide cross-section of writers, and deals with talent from all backgrounds are some of the things that continue to be needed — and yes, that means aggressively looking for diverse voices that might not be in the traditional pipeline.
And it’s needed more than ever. The antics of Schlossberg, unfortunately, aren’t an isolated case these days. Trump’s blatant racism and attempts to marginalize minorities have emboldened white supremacists, sexist men and homophobes to go public with their hate.
It was encouraging to see how quickly Schlossberg was shamed and ostracized online by New Yorkers and people across the country. Just as it’s encouraging to see the networks balance the messages coming out of the White House with more positivity and acceptance. More than ever, the entertainment industry will have to provide this country with a compass for tolerance and understanding — and TV will lead the charge.