Diversity on TV has not been easy, but ABC is visibly trying
Beverly Hills, Calif. • All TV networks talk about diversity ABC is visibly doing something about it. In the upcoming television season, the Alphabet Network has:
• "black-ish, " a sitcom about a successful black man (Anthony Anderson) who fears his family is losing its ethnic identity.
• "Cristela," a sitcom about a Latina (Christela Alonzo) and her family. (Oct. 10)
• "Selfie," a sitcom based on "My Fair Lady" that stars a white actress (Karen Gillan) and an Asian-American actor (John Cho). (Sept. 30)
• "Fresh Off the Boat" (midseason), a sitcom about Chinese immigrant parents and their Americanized sons.
• "American Crime" (midseason), a crime drama that features white and Latino characters and actors.
ABC has the most identifiably Jewish family on TV in "The Goldbergs." There are gay characters in "Grey's Anatomy," "The Middle," "Modern Family," "Nashville," "Revenge," "Scandal" and "How to Get Away With Murder."
And when "Murder" debuts on Sept. 25 after "Scandal," an American network will air back-to-back dramas headlined by black women for what may be the first time in TV history.
"Look, it is a mission statement to reflect America," said ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee. "We think that's our job. And, in a way, that's not so much diversity as authenticity if you're reflecting America."
Shows with all-white casts "feel dated because America doesn't look like that anymore. And people want to see what they live and they want to see voices that reflect the America that they know."
The key, in Lee's opinion, is finding "powerful" and "passionate" voices. In the pilot of "black-ish," Anthony Anderson's fictional son tells him he doesn't feel black and that he wants a bar mitzvah. Which is what Anderson's son did in real life. And he used that story to pitch the show to CBS.
"I was like, 'This is the life that we're living, and that's why we want to tell these stories,' " Anderson said.
Lee sees them as distinctive stories that will relate to a wider audience.
"We think these shows are deeply relatable," he said. "When I watch 'Fresh Off the Boat' or when I watch 'black-ish' or when I watch 'Cristela,' I am one of those families."
But in the 21st century, diversity can be tricky. "Fresh Off the Boat" is already being criticized for its Chinese immigrant stereotypes, even though the show is based on the autobiography of celebrity chef Eddie Huang, who's also an executive producer.
"Cristela" is also autobiographical. Alonzo grew up in a big Mexican-American family, aspiring to be a comedian. The fictional Cristela grew up in a big Mexican-American family, aspiring to be a lawyer.
And characters in her show have already been called stereotypes by some.
"Everybody in this show is based on someone I know," Alonzo said, "and my goal was always to honor them. So for me, it's never about doing any kind of stereotyping."
It often seems you can't win in any discussion about diversity. "The Goldbergs" isn't Jewish enough for some, for example. It was pointed out that the subject of bar mitzvahs comes up in the pilot of "black-ish"; it has yet to come up in 23 episodes of "The Goldbergs."
Lee defended creator/executive producer Adam Goldberg for his "fantastic comedic attack on the family that â¦ is a pretty reformed Jewish family. So when he's ready to tell that story, he'll tell that story."
ABC has raised the diversity bar, but the criticism leveled at its competitors has been less than fair at times. CBS, too, has a show ("Extant") with a black female lead, and CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler was quick to point to Lucy Liu in "Elementary," Maggie Q in "Stalker" and the network's ethnically diverse dramas.
CBS' new sitcom "The McCarthys" is about a white family, but centers on the gay son. Diversity "is a goal of ours," Tassler said. " It is a part of the conversation, not just in front of the camera but behind the camera â¦ bringing in new voices to work at the network."
NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt pointed to what is "probably the most diverse executive group of any network. â¦ I'm really proud of our record so far, and yet it's never enough."
None of NBC's six new series have non-white leads; five have minority characters in supporting roles including Alfre Woodard as the black, female president of the United States in "State of Affairs."
Fox's five new scripted series do not have nonwhite leads, although "Red Band Society" is a multi-ethnic ensemble and the other four have minority supporting characters. The network has the animated "Bordertown" about two families, one white and one Latino, living on the U.S.-Mexico border on the midseason slate.
Only two of 13 shows on Fox's fall schedule ("The Mindy Project" and "Sleepy Hollow") have a minority lead, but 11 of 13 have minority characters.
The CW's ensemble casts have been diverse for so long it's taken for granted. That network is getting notice for its new series "Jane the Virgin," which features a predominantly Latino cast headlined by Gina Rodriguez.
CW president Mark Pedowitz echoes the words of other network chiefs: "I believe our shows need to reflect what America looks like. It's important not just in front of the camera, it's also important in back of the camera. â¦ It is something I believe in. We can always do better, but we've made great strides."
Lee was quick to shoot down the idea that, in terms of diversity, ABC has reached some sort of "tipping point."
"Let's not pretend we're there yet," he said. "I think we're taking a very good step along that journey."
It's more than just putting Latino, black and Asian actors on the air.
"You need the people who are telling the stories, as well as the people who are playing those stories out, to truly reflect America as it is," Lee said. "And it's a sort of wonderful thing."