Diversity in Action, as Well as in Words
ABC Aims for Diversity with Shows Like ‘Black-ish’ and ‘Fresh Off the Boat’
By Bill Carter
It seems like a parody put together by a coalition of the activist groups that have dogged television networks for years about their halfhearted (or less) commitment to presenting a range of racial and ethnic groups among their series:
On Wednesday, a black family comedy; on Friday, a Hispanic family comedy; in midseason, an Asian family comedy; on Thursday, an anticipated new drama starring a standout black actress; and all the way through, an assortment of show creators just as diverse as the casts.
This is ABC’s actual new-season plan, and it is not one of those developments that seem to sweep over television all at the same time. The other new-season entries are hardly a festival of nonwhite faces. (One notable exception: the critical favorite “Jane the Virgin” on CW.) CBS, for example, pressed for evidence of diversity among its continuing lead roles, could come up with only one name: Lucy Liu, a star of “Elementary.”
“We did go out with a mission this year to reflect America,” said Paul Lee, the head of programming for ABC. The network sent a message to show creators in every shade and range of ethnicity: Bring us a personal story about people like you.
The result is that medley of comedies: “Black-ish,” created by Kenya Barris and its star, Anthony Anderson, about a successful African-American dad trying to ensure that his increasingly homogenized kids don’t forget their heritage, a story straight from Mr. Barris’s own experience; “Cristela,” created by the comic Cristela Alonzo, about a Latino family that does not always celebrate a young woman’s ambitions, exactly what happened in the star’s own life; and “Fresh Off the Boat,” based on the chef Eddie Huang’s memoir about his Taiwanese family’s experiences after emigrating to the United States.
ABC’s big drama for fall, “How to Get Away With Murder” will look to duplicate the success of “Scandal” with another black female lead, Viola Davis. Shonda Rhimes, the network’s prolific show creator known for her diverse casts (starting with “Grey’s Anatomy”) is an executive producer of this one as well. And John Ridley, the Oscar-winning writer of “12 Years a Slave,” has created the midseason drama “American Crime,” which will be deeply immersed in a racially charged murder case.
Mr. Lee said ABC was doubling down on what has already been working. “We’ve championed faces like Sofia Vergara on ‘Modern Family’ and Kerry Washington on ‘Scandal’ for a long time,” he said. “But here we really made a concerted effort to bring in these show runners. It’s an exciting plate. It’s not just diverse, it’s extremely authentic.”
He referred to the emphasis the creators, especially of the comedies, are putting on stories from their own experiences. “The specificity is everything,” Mr. Lee said.
Often, shows with ethnic casts have pronounced themselves generic at heart. Mr. Barris of “Black-ish” said: “I didn’t want to tell a story about a family that happened to be black, but about a family that was actually black. I felt like race was being talked about less than ever, when I feel it should be talked about more.”
Not in confrontational ways, he said, but in the way it takes place in his own home, with his children and wife, who is a doctor like the wife on the show, played by Tracee Ellis Ross. Mr. Barris and Mr. Anderson, who were joined in the production by Larry Wilmore of “The Daily Show” (and soon “The Minority Report,” the coming successor on Comedy Central to “The Colbert Report”), pitched the show to many networks. Mr. Lee won them over “by convincing us that what he wanted was complete honesty,” Mr. Barris said.
Ms. Alonzo’s script was turned down at first, but she wound up making a presentation tape instead of a full pilot, one that demonstrated how the comedy could match her experience. Mr. Lee noted how moved he was to hear Ms. Alonzo’s family spent eight years as squatters in an abandoned Texas diner. “Her comedy is so completely in the moment,” he said. “That’s what we were looking for.”
The question is why ABC alone seemed to be comprehensive in seeking material like this. Mr. Barris noted that black Americans are among the heaviest media consumers in the country, and the demographic inroads by the Hispanic population are well known.
Robert Thompson, who teaches courses in television at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, said: “It is amazing it has taken so long for television to figure some of these things out. Look at some of the biggest shows of all time: ‘Cosby’ and ‘Roots.’ Then it takes Shonda Rhimes to convince the networks that diversity might be a good business model.”
Ms. Alonzo echoed the sentiment. “It feels weird to say ABC is being so edgy by trying to show an accurate representation of our country,” she said. “They’ve been edgy by not being edgy, by being realistic.”
What could account for the apparent reluctance by some networks to make this kind of commitment? A former network program executive told a story about “The Bernie Mac Show,” a trenchant black comedy that ended its run on Fox in 2006. (Mr. Wilmore created it.) The executive, who has since left the network and asked not to be identified because he still works in TV, said the show’s run was curtailed because advertisers would not pay high rates for the lower-income viewers who were a part of its audience.
Mr. Lee dismissed that example as irrelevant to ABC. “Look at how valuable our shows like ‘Scandal’ are,” he said. “They sell all over the world.”
Mr. Barris noted that ABC could hardly have concerns about selling the “Black-ish” audience to advertisers, because “they put us on the schedule after the show with the top rates on television.” (“Black-ish” will play Wednesdays after “Modern Family.”) He added: “Hollywood is not about black and white. It’s about green. They know there is money to be made with this show.”
Not that ad rates are the only risk involved. Both Mr. Barris and Ms. Alonzo conceded they felt some pressure to reflect their ethnic groups accurately.
Ms. Alonzo said, “Nobody wants to fail and have people say: ‘Oh remember when they tried to do those shows about real people, and they didn’t work?’”
And Mr. Barris said, “I don’t want to let my people down, or comedy, down.”
The key to avoiding that is, of course, being funny. “The better the show, the better the chance of succeeding,” Mr. Lee said. “But if you can be lucky enough to reflect America when you do succeed, all the better.”
Reflecting America could impose other challenges. For any Hispanic series, Mr. Thompson said, the contentious issue of immigration is an unavoidable topic. “To not reference that issue would make the show look like a throwback to days when Gomer Pyle could be in the Marines in the 1960s and not mention Vietnam,” he said. (Ms. Alonzo said her show would cover all the topics a family might encounter.)
And then there is the seemingly intractable issue of racial conflict that played like ominous theme music to the summer. Mr. Barris said his show, for all its emphasis on being funny, could probably not ignore the undercurrents from events. “Look at what’s gone on in Ferguson and with Donald Sterling,” he said, referring to the protests after a policeman shot an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., and to the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was forced to sell the team following his racially charged comments.
“We’re trying to be a comedy that is funny,” Mr. Barris said, “but if while doing that, we can actually make people think about some things, that’s not something bad.” He added: “It’s a time when we really need to start looking at our country and saying as a country we are a lot of different parts but it’s the sum that makes us strong. That’s why diversity is such a perfect thing.”