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Movie Mom

Why is TV So White? (Entertainment Weekly)

posted by Nell Minow

Entertainment Weekly has a very important article that asks a very important question. Why is it that the only minority character to anchor a new series is Cleveland Brown — an animated character voiced by a white guy?
The show is a Family Guy spin-off called “The Cleveland Show.”
After a period of making a public effort to focus on diversity in their casting — kickstarted by an NAACP outcry over the white TV landscape in 1999 — the networks have clearly started to lose that focus, and not just when it comes to African-Americans. Today the current prime-time lineup, including fall’s 14 new scripted shows, is looking alarmingly pale. According to an Entertainment Weekly study of scripted-programming casts for the upcoming fall 2008 season, each of the five major broadcast networks is whiter than the Caucasian percentage (66.2 percent) of the United States population, as per the 2007 census estimate. And all of the networks are representing considerably lower than the Latino population percentage of 15.2 percent, with The CW — whose only lead Latina star, JoAnna Garcia, will be playing a white character named Megan Smith on Surviving the Filthy Rich — registering just 3.8 percent. After the quiet and unceremonious departure this winter of eight-season hit Girlfriends (the No. 15 show in all prime time among African-American audiences), The CW’s black comedy block (inherited from predecessor UPN) has shrunk to just two sitcoms: critical darling Everybody Hates Chris (No. 29 among African-Americans) and The Game (No. 7 among African-Americans), which have both been relegated to the dead zone known as Friday nights this fall.
***
“Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes sees progress in her diverse cast and those of other established hits — namely Lost and Heroes. But she still cites room for improvement: ”Do I want to see any more shows where someone has a sassy black friend? No, because I’m nobody’s sassy black friend. I just want to see shows in which people get to be people and that look like the world we live in. The world is changing, and television will have to follow.” True enough: It feels downright regressive to have to point out that minorities can be stars too, at a time when Will Smith continues to dominate box offices, Oprah is the most powerful woman on television, and Barack Obama is running for the ultimate leading role (you know, of the free world).
The article ends on a note of hope:
[C]olor-blind casting is something teen-focused networks seem to have down pat: Nary a show has passed through ABC Family or The N without an interracial coupling or a naturally integrated cast. (ABC Family’s Greek even has an interracial gay couple.) Those networks’ execs say it’s a simple matter of economics, that their Gen-Y viewers accept — nay, expect and demand — such a reflection of their multi-cultural lives. ”They’re completely color-blind,” ABC Family president Paul Lee says of younger viewers. ”We’ve done a lot of things wrong as a nation, but we’ve clearly done something right here. They embrace other cultures.”

  • jestrfyl

    Like so many industries, show biz is a closed system. Until someone already in the biz opens the door, it is almost impossible to get in. So the challenge is for those who are making the shows & movies to begin to think outside their comfort zone. This is likely to be a good thing. So far there have been far more re-workings of old game shows or derrivative knock-offs of each others shows. Creativity is lost to commercial appeal. What is sad is that creativity usually IS commercial appeal.

  • Charm

    I’m sorry, and speaking as a visible minority, I found all those “black” shows about as interesting as wet noodles, and the comedies were as funny as a crutch. They just weren’t any good, and they helped perpetuate the stereotypes.
    Give me a good script, and I don’t care what colour the cast is. One of my favourite shows is the Simpsons, and you know, they’re yellow.
    And hey, with Reality TV taking over the world, we’re getting tons of diversity, bad singers and dancers of every colour and shape. Except on those Bachelor shows.

  • jestrfyl

    CHarm,
    Some of my best “friends” are yellow (I am also an Adult Friend of LEGO – home of the yellow people).
    Once in a while the lesser channels like CW will put on a show like “Aliens in America” – a show with great potential. I look around, especially in summer for the replacements that are good, but not viably commercial.

  • Nell Minow

    I agree, Charm. The question is why those shows are so bad. Yes, shows about white characters are often bad, too, but there have been good, smart shows about non-white characters in the past that respected and challenged the intelligence of the audience in the past and I hope there will be again. I’m not sure I agree with you about the reality shows, which too often seem to cater to stereotypes and which, to use your own standard, are often just dumb and not funny or insightful and are just an embarassment to humanity in general. I have enjoyed seeing some variety not just of color but of culture and lifestyle on shows like Wife Swap, though. And I still hold out hope that scripted shows will present us with more varied characters — and better scripts — in the future.

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