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Television 2015: Hammering On The Door Of Diversity

Morris Chestnut and Jaina Lee Ortiz in Fox's <em>Rosewood</em>, coming this fall.
Jeff Daly
Morris Chestnut and Jaina Lee Ortiz in Fox's Rosewood, coming this fall.

This is one in a series of essays running this week and next about the state of television in 2015. The series is based on developments at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., where broadcast and cable networks, along with streaming services like Netflix, presented new and existing shows to TV critics and reporters.

I speak once or twice a year at the CBS Diversity Writer Program where they're trying to put people in positions to succeed, and hopefully those people are working their way up the system. And hopefully, if there's a panel three or four years from now, you'll see some more diversity, but it takes a while. I try to hire people not only as writers but writers' assistants, because that's how people get into the job, and give them opportunities. I don't even know how many female or minority writers I've given freelance episodes to. I try to go to that pool first. So there are attempts being made. But what I will say is that the TV business truly is a meritocracy in the sense that no one doesn't want a Shonda Rhimes show. She had a show that worked and God bless her. They put these shows in front of a bunch of plumbers and accountants in Canoga Park to test them, and they don't tell them who wrote the show and who ran the show. And in that sense, it's still one of the fairest businesses to try to break into because you just need a script that someone reads and likes and they don't know what you look like.

That was Shawn Ryan, best known as the creator of Terriers and The Shield on FX, currently working on a show called Mad Dogs for Amazon. He has a long history of speaking aggressively about the importance of diversity on television. He talked with NPR last year about diversifying casts, and he has spoken out about The Bachelor, even. When he expressed this particular hope, he was speaking on a panel of five FX showrunners, all of whom were white men, in the summer of 2009. Not three or four years ago, but six years ago. This year, FX paneled six shows at summer tour, both existing and new: The showrunners for The League are a white man and a white woman; the other five have showrunners who are white men, though The Strainwas co-created by Guillermo del Toro.

Here's Kevin Reilly, then Fox's president of entertainment, answering a question a year later in the summer of 2010 about the network having no new shows featuring actors of color in key roles.

We're always striving to be better. There's always a weird luck-of-the-draw process. We made a very balanced slate of pilots. We happen to have picked these. It could easily have gone the other way, but over the course of this season and certainly when Ride-Along [not related to the movie; a Shawn Ryan show, actually, which later aired with the altered title The Chicago Code] comes on the second half of the year, that's going to be a very, very diverse show. We take this very, very seriously –- and I will say that, as much as I hope every one of these shows is around as we change the complexion of the face of the network, we're looking to make it more diverse, not less. That's certainly no pattern, you know, the fact that we've got this many white shows.

Here's Bob Greenblatt, NBC entertainment chairman, talking about the NBC schedule in the summer of 2011.

And we're going to work hard to put as many diverse leads as we can. I'm a producer. As a producer, I produced four black sitcoms, a black drama, and a Latino drama. I'm really committed to this. You just have to find the right shows, and you have to put, you just really have to put the right shows on. So you can't just make the choice about, oh, it's a show with the diverse lead, and that's gonna get the slot. We have to make all those judgment calls. But we are embedded in diversity from our casting initiatives and our development initiatives and our director program, and I think hopefully you will see these statistics going in our favor as time goes on.

Here's HBO's Michael Lombardo in the summer of 2012:

Do I think we can do better? Absolutely. I mean, I think we are making fewer movies, but we are very aware in the movie arena that, as we've cut down on the number of movies, what's happened is we haven't made some films that are speaking to a diverse audience. So, look but, look, we can always do better, but I don't know that again, I'm not looking for a rave for us. It's something we are aware of. I think we have shows that have diversity, but the truth is we could be doing better, and we will do better.

CBS's Nina Tassler in the summer of 2014:

If we don't reach, if we don't have as diverse casts as we would like to going into the season, we see where we can add. And also, it is a goal of ours, it is a part of the conversation, not just in front of the camera but behind the camera, in the writers' room, in the director's program, employees bringing in new voices to work at the network. So, in front of the camera, behind the camera, adding to existing shows, continuing to reach deep into the development of community and recruit new voices. I mean, it's always a conversation and it's always a goal.

Here's a thing I actually found myself doing while working on an early draft of this post: Googling Angelique Cabral, one member of a maybe 10- or 11-person ensemble cast on CBS's Life In Pieces (a pilot I really enjoyed), to verify that she's part-Latina, because that would mean that wasn't an entirely white ensemble, and I obviously didn't want to say it was if it wasn't.

To repeat: We just looked at quotes from the last five years of press tour where various heads of various networks talk about how much they'd like to increase the diversity of the faces they're showing their audiences. Meanwhile, I'm still Googling one person in one sprawling ensemble to make sure I'm not failing to credit it for featuring one part-Latina actress in a supporting role. I'm arguing with myself about whether Marcia Gay Harden is the sole lead of the medical drama Code Black, because if she is, I'm pretty sure CBS paneled new shows that all have white leads — wait, can we say that? Is there any possibility Marcia Gay Harden is part-Latina?

Glib, I know. It's the frustration talking. With all the deep and abiding respect for the crucial role played by numbers-crunchers who keep track of diversity data every year — which they must do, and which I appreciate — this nitpicking over each example begins to feel so beside the point. Because if you're there, when you're there, when you watch these sessions for more than two weeks, particularly year in and year out, you already know. And if you watch TV, you also already know.

It's true that in the wake of Scandaland some other shows (it's probably too early for much of a success-of-Empireeffect), all-white lineups in new shows don't seem as prevalent as they once were. There are a couple more shows with leads of color —Rosewoodon Fox with Morris Chestnut; ABC's goofy but fun Quantico, starring Bollywood super-duperstar Priyanka Chopra and Dr. Ken with Ken Jeong. There are several ensemble shows that display some diversity to varying degrees, and they seem more likely to feature their black or brown actors in partnerships rather than as quirky sidekicks. There's some of that happening. It's encouraging, if you care about who you see on TV, to have at least these shows to look to, not that we didn't have examples here and there in other years as well. And obviously, there are shows on the air now — from some of ABC's stuff to the effortlessly and un-self-consciously multiracial Brooklyn Nine-Nine to, of course, the triumph of Empire.

But diversity isn't one thing; it's a lot of things. It's in front of the camera and behind it, in writers' rooms and executive offices. It's not exclusively about race and gender and sexuality, but about other things as well. It's about the bland and unremarked-upon affluence of almost all television families, and the fact that TV doesn't incorporate very many people who go to church, and all the other ways that it historically looks at the population through a keyhole. And it's about what stories you tell: it's about the show where the woman is splatter-murdered in the first five minutes while giving a man oral sex in a car. It's about all the women who seem to play skeptical second bananas to men of extraordinary talents. It's a lot of things.

But to take just one example of how everything can seem daunting even when some corners see progress, look at producers and gender in prime-time scripted broadcast shows from this press tour. In other words: what we used to think of as "television."

Of Fox's five new shows they brought to press tour for the fall of 2015, none had on its panel even one woman serving as a producer, out of 19 producers total. I counted eight men and one woman among NBC's producers on stage. For the CBS panels, I counted 10 men and two women as producers — and one of the women is Sarah Schechter, doing double duty as NBC's only woman (for Blindspot) and here as a producer of Supergirl. At ABC's panels, I counted one woman out of 12 producers. The CW only paneled one new show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which brought two women producers. That makes a total, across the new-show panels from five networks, of 48 men and six women. (Counting Sarah Schechter twice — and Greg Berlanti, too, who works with her on both Blindspot and Supergirl.)

So: 48 to six. I know — not all producers are on stage! Actor-producers are a sticky wicket! Every year is different! Maybe you missed someone! What about Shonda Rhimes!? There shouldn't be quotas! Why mechanically count up numbers to make yourself notice things? Women take time off and raise babies! Maybe they don't want to make television! What about cable? You'd have to look across 20 years! Maybe 20 years ago it would be zero, meaning women have made infinite progress! It might be a fluke!

Look, I like cable (and it's spotty on this stuff anyway). But broadcast is generally bigger and richer, and it's free. I don't need a quota to count to six. I don't notice because I count. I count because I notice. Shonda Rhimes is only one person, and both asking her to be the one shining star of diverse television and hiding behind her are unfair for a million reasons. Men also raise babies. I believe women want to make television. Progress is great; it also seems slow.

This is not my first rodeo. Not with network executives in press tour panels, not on Twitter, not in the comments. And don't think I don't know what those will look like. I could seal them in envelopes and play Carnac later; this is not new territory.

It was 48 to six, my dear and wise friends, so let's stop Googling one person named "Chris" to see if it's a man or a woman and debating whether this is a thing. This is a thing. Men had their behinds in 89 percent of those producer seats, in front of a room full of reporters. Pretend I missed two women who were hiding behind really big plants and not identified in the transcripts; now it's 86 percent. Pretend I also counted two men who aren't really producers, exactly, they were just accidentally introduced as producers — now it's 82 percent.

You can build in a lot of margin for error, and you still wind up with a situation that's less like a lack of balance and more half the population barely getting to the table.

Here's what Gary Newman, one of Fox's CEOs, said when he was asked about the lack of women on stage as producers in Fox's panels:

I think the press tour is always challenging for our shows. They are in the midst of production. They are just getting up and running. And as it turns out, today, you will not see as many women on our panel as there are our shows. And that's unfortunate, just because of scheduling and the challenge of getting these shows up and running.

We certainly believe in diversity, and if you look at our shows, we have many, many women behind the camera and in important roles on our shows. When we look at development, we do care very much about the auspices. We are looking for talented writers, people with big ideas. It really isn't something where we have to have so many men, so many women. Over the years, we've had many, many women doing great things for us, Ilene Chaiken, who is showrunning Empire, certainly is doing a fantastic job. And she'll be here today. So, in terms of our development this year, I think if you were to look to our development year-in and year-out, we have shows developed both by men and women.

That answer combines several common responses to this kind of question: (1) there are women who couldn't be there because of scheduling, though he didn't say who any of them were or whether they're actually producers, (2) women work in other jobs besides producer "behind the camera and in important roles," (3) they're looking for women, (4) but they're not specifically looking for women, (5) they've had women over the years running other shows and doing other good things. It's not a great sign that he threw in the fact that Ilene Chaiken is the showrunner of Empire, which had, as it happens, been specifically acknowledged in the question.

Fox did, in fact, do better last year. Last year, by my count, they had two women out of nine producers presenting fall shows at summer press tour. One worked on Gracepoint and one on Red Band Society — both shows are now gone. But we didn't make up the panels for the new shows; they did. And if it didn't occur to anyone that 19 men and zero women would send a message they might not have wanted to send, maybe having it occur to someone would be a place to start.

Just a reminder: this was not a question about an imbalance; it was a question about zero.

The beat goes on, no matter how high up the ladder of prestige you go: HBO has no dramas on its current schedule that were created by women or creators of color. As far as I can determine, and consistent with Maureen Ryan's data published in the Huffington Post last year, it hasn't aired a continuing drama series primarily created by a woman or a person of color since Cynthia Mort's Tell Me You Love Me in 2007.

Things are still not good if you care about this stuff. We know, they know, you know. We ask, they answer the same way every year, and sincerity of effort is an impossible thing to disprove. Diversifying the voices you listen to and amplify is hard to do; public media, including NPR, is working on it, too, and has miles to go. Believe it or not, as to the underlying problem, I'm pretty sympathetic to every response except abject denial. When they say they want, in good faith, more variety — particularly knowing they are looking at the same demographic and economic data everybody else is — I tend to believe them.

But here's what it's fair to ask for, I think: an admission that if they are sincere in the efforts they claim to be making over and over again, they've been largely unsuccessful. That 48 to six (with those 48 men certainly looking very, very white on the whole, despite the uncertainties of guessing about background) may not mean everything, but it also does not mean nothing.

Broadly speaking, either the people giving most of these answers are being disingenuous or they are being unsuccessful at what it is they're trying to do. And what isn't present in any of these answers that recur again and again, year upon year, is the recognition that lies at the heart of most actual progress, which is: we acknowledge that this didn't work or wasn't enough; now we're going to try something else. Sometimes, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result doesn't constitute insanity but lack of commitment to the expectation.

It's not weird. It's not luck of the draw. It's not because it's an awkward time in the production cycle. Significant gaps in the diversity of voices on broadcast and cable television are pervasive and consistent, not flukey and inexplicable. You can accept them or fight them, but they're not just there, like weather. Honestly, if an executive got up there, took a deep breath, and said of the demographics of on-camera and off-camera talent, "We don't care," that would at least provide clarity. And if they said, "Here's what we think the issues are that we haven't done enough about; here's what we're going to do next," that would probably be the best anybody could expect, other than, of course, better results. But guys, as long as you get up there and say you care, we're going to keep having this conversation. I'm not saying this is important; you're saying it's important.

A better mix of voices will probably have to be more than always a conversation and always a goal if anything is to happen; and that's becauseit's hard. That's because, contrary to the most combative way we could frame this debate, it unfortunately doesn't take a willful commitment to sameness to perpetuate sameness. People who run shows tend to hire people they've worked with on other shows. And then eventually those people get their own shows, and they hire the people who were at the bottom of the ladder when they were in the middle. You often see people on the same panels and in the same credits from year to year. It becomes a paper-clip chain of people who know each other, and when that happens, it's easy to understand. It's hard to interrupt. That doesn't take malevolence. It just takes inertia and preference and instinct without intervention, which is the way most of us would rather live our lives, after all. Creative people in particular are suspicious of policy and trusting of gut. It's hard. Accepting that people may be trying in good faith and failing is more daunting than assuming it would suddenly become easy if you wiped out these guys and replaced them with other guys.

It's just ... this is not going very well in some respects, and as long as the people in charge stand up and explain that it's important, it will remain fair to ask how their approach will be different going forward.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 5, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
While Rachel Bloom, the star of the CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, wasn't introduced at the panel (according to the transcript) as a producer, the CW later sent word that she is in fact a producer on the show. That means the CW had two female producers, not one as originally stated, and that there were a total of 48 men and six women, rather than five.
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.