September marks the start of the 2011 fall network primetime television season. Twenty-seven new evening shows are premiering on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW this year. Not one of the new scripted shows features a predominantly minority cast.
Diversity among the line up of returning network shows is just as bleak. Of these, just one scripted program—the animated comedy “The Cleveland Show”—is centered on an African-American family (yet the cast portraying the main characters is not predominantly black.)
A look back in time shows that network primetime television was in some ways actually more diverse 35 years ago than it is today. The 1976 fall series lineup included five shows—“Good Times,” “Chico and The Man,” “Sanford & Son,” “The Jeffersons,” and the quickly cancelled “Mr. T and Tina”—that were centered on minority characters.
Let’s take a look at some population data to put this in perspective. According to the 1970 Census, 12.6 percent of the population consisted of blacks, Asians, and other minorities (The Census had not yet begun tracking the Latino population). In 1980, blacks, Asians, and other minorities accounted for 16.5 percent of the U.S. population. Spanish-speaking Americans made up 6.5 percent of U.S. residents. Today, minorities (including those of Hispanic origin) make up more than a third (35 percent) of all U.S. residents.
How is it possible that in a time when the country is more diverse that ever before there are actually fewer network series portraying their lives? It seems as though while our country’s population has become more diverse, ideas about what mainstream television viewers will find engaging has become less so.
The media landscape has definitely changed for people of color, but the story may not be all doom and gloom? Here are some things to consider:
- While there may have been more shows featuring people of color in the seventies, these programs often perpetuated negative racial and ethnic stereotypes.
- With the expansion of cable television in the past three decades, viewers have more channels to choose from. Many scripted shows centering around people of color have found homes on cable channels such as BET and TBS.
- VH1, Bravo, The Style Network and other cable outlets have recognized the appeal of celebrities of color and reality television and have developed several shows to capitalize on this. “Basketball Wives, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” and “Tia & Tamera” as just a few examples. However, some of these programs have been criticized for promoting the angry, black female stereotype. In addition, there’s an absence of Latinos and Asians in this realm.
- There is a trend of increasing diversity among programs with ensemble casts. From “Hawaii Five-O” to “Grey’s Anatomy” to “30 Rock” to the new series “The Playboy Club,” many scripted primetime network shows feature blacks, Asians, and Latinos among the core characters. Interestingly, this diversity seems to be focused on workplace-based programs. Shows centered on families or friends still tend to be segregated. There is an exception to the homogenous social-comedy trend; the nearly homogeneous buddy comedy that features the token—the lone person of color in the group. Damon Wayans Jr.’s character on ABC’s “Happy Endings” and Lamorne Morris character on Fox’s “New Girl” are just a couple of examples.
Nearly 80 years after the dawn of network television, the state of diversity in primetime is a glass-is-half-full/glass-is-half-empty scenario. While there may be more actors of color employed across a range of network shows, there’s an absence of shows telling stories about the communities from which these actors come. It’s a sign that while the importance of diversity is coming into focus on the small screen, more work needs to be done behind the camera and in the executive suites.