At the Upfronts earlier this month, a spate of freshman and sophomore series led by actors of color that were initially greenlit seemingly in order to address broadcast TV’s representation problem were canceled, including “The Passage,” “The Fix” and “Happy Together.” This caused some initial concern that networks may not be as enthusiastic about ongoing attempts at diversity, but as Fall 2019 new series orders were unveiled, the picture proved to be more assuring.
As broadcast TV networks set their 2019-2020 programming lineups, diversity concerns still very much remain at the fore, as Hollywood overall continues to be under pressure to address its historical erasure of characters of color in front of and behind the camera. TV continues to outpace film in both regards, with recent improvement on how voices and stories from all walks of life are embraced within the space.
The good news is that, on all five broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, The CW) for the 2018-2019 season, the percentage of series regulars of color on scripted shows was nearing 50 percent, including eight fall series led by actors of color, compared to four in the fall of 2017. It’s a healthy continuation of a trend that UCLA’s Ralph Bunche Center began capturing, starting with the 2011-2012 TV season, in what has since become an annual “Hollywood Diversity” report.
According to the 2019 edition of the study, people of color more than quadrupled their share of broadcast TV scripted leads over the years of the report: from 5.1% during the 2011-12 television season to 21.5% in 2017-18. Nonetheless, people of color would have to nearly double their current share in order to reach proportionate population representation (39.4%). So while progress has certainly been made, even more can be done to reach parity.
Nowhere is that path to improvement more noticeable than at CBS. During the presentation of the network’s fall 2019 lineup, CBS Entertainment President Kelly Kahl said that casting decisions were a continuation of efforts to improve diversity in the network’s programming that began last year. It’s clear that even more of an emphasis is being placed on representation this year, following a very tough 2018, having to contend with scrutiny of the corporate environment for women and people of color at CBS amid the Leslie Moonves scandal.
Its standalone CBS All Access streaming platform offers a far more diverse, inclusive and edgier lineup, and CBS appears to be striving to match, with new series including “All Rise” (a legal drama starring Simone Missick – a very rare original scripted series on the network starring a black actress) “Bob ❤ Abishola” (about a Midwestern salesman who falls in love with a Nigerian immigrant nurse), and “Evil” (which co-stars Mike Colter as a priest-in-training who investigate mysteries). They join a lineup that already includes renewed freshmen series with leads of color in “God Friended Me” (the network’s top-rated new drama), “Magnum P.I.,” and “The Neighborhood.” Additionally, there are slightly older series, like “S.W.A.T.”, which has been renewed for a third season.
Notable is that this is the first CBS primetime schedule in over 20 years that did not have former chairman, Moonves’ stamp on it, after his run at the company ended last year after sexual harassment allegations. In addition, CBS Head of Casting Peter Golden left the company earlier this month after 23 years at the networking, according to Deadline.
At the other end of the spectrum, Fox seems to have given up its leadership position in the representation race, canceling several of its most diverse series, including “Lethal Weapon,” “The Passage,” “Star,” “Proven Innocent” and “The Cool Kids,” all featuring leads of color. And while the network renewed its hit soap opera “Empire” for a sixth season, it was later announced to be the final season of the series.
While its newly ordered series – “9-1-1: Lone Star,” “Bless the Harts,” “Deputy,” “Duncanville,” “Filthy Rich,” “The Great North,” “neXt,” “Not Just Me,” “Outmatched,” “Prodigal Son” – don’t entirely fail the diversity test, with supporting roles in some cases filled by actors of color, none of them feature leads of color.
Fox chief Charlie Collier addressed diversity challenges at the network during Fox’s Upfronts press call earlier this month, saying, “effort continues” and that “it never stops.” This comes after the network received an F grade or incomplete from the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition for lack of Asian American representation during the 2017/18 season.
The diversity story at the other three broadcast TV networks remains largely unchanged. Canceled series that pass the diversity test have been mostly replaced by new series that check the necessary boxes.
The CW builds on its #CWOpenToAll campaign launched last fall, that enforces a commitment to diverse and inclusive representation. As network President Mark Pedowitz said in a statement, “We believe in all voices being heard.” Returning series that meet the diversity challenge include “All American,” “Black Lightning,” “Charmed,” “Dynasty,” “The Flash Legends of Tomorrow,” and “Supergirl.”
They will be joined by new orders “Batwoman” (which stars an out lesbian played by Ruby Rose as the caped crusader) and “Katy Keene” (which is a “Riverdale” spinoff that follows the professional and romantic lives of four Archie Comics characters, including singer-songwriter Josie McCoy, played by Ashleigh Murray, and “it girl” Pepper Smith played by Julia Chan).
Meanwhile, under new leadership at ABC Entertainment (Karey Burke replaced Channing Dungey last fall), it’s business as usual. ABC has long been at the front of the representation race, with its varied diversity-focused ABC Talent Development initiatives. Its returning series include “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Black-ish,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” “A Million Little Things,” “Schooled,” and “Station 19.” Notable new series include a second “Black-ish” spin-off series, “Mixed-ish” (which recounts matriarch Rainbow Johnson’s experience growing up in a mixed-race family in the ’80s), as well as family sitcom “United We Fall” (a comedy following a mixed white and Latinx family led by Will Sasso and Christina Vidal), and legal drama “For Life” (co-produced by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson via G-Unit Film & Television).
And finally at NBC, which hasn’t been on the receiving end of much diversity criticism in recent history, joining returning series “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Chicago Med,” “Good Girls,” “Superstore” and “This Is Us,” are new orders “Bluff City Law” (a legal drama starring Jimmy Smits, with a supporting cast that includes Michael Luwoye and MaameYaa Boafo), “The Kenan Show” (a family comedy starring Kenan Thompson), “Lincoln” (based on “The Bone Collector” series of novels, starring Russell Hornsby) and “Sunnyside” (a political comedy series created by and starring Kal Penn that’s as timely as any other new show this season, following a former New York City councilman who finds his calling when faced with immigrants in need of his help and in search of the American Dream).
It’s clear that broadcast networks are paying more attention than ever to the diversity in front of and behind the cameras of their series, especially with stiff competition for eyeballs and talent from streaming giant Netflix and other newer players in the space. The gains made during the past six years are due to the explosion of competition in original programming, and the development stage is where it all starts. This means that more scripts from a wide variety of writers, and deals with talent from all backgrounds, are two key improvements that need to be made by network executives who may have to look beyond their traditional pipeline of talent for more diverse voices. And while this apparent dedication bodes well for the future, Latino and Asian-American audiences are still relatively under-represented in primetime, so victory remains elusive as overall representation continues to fluctuate.