Hollywood Finally Got the Memo: On-Screen Diversity Is Good for Business
This year might just go down in history as the moment network executives finally realized that people of color watch TV too. While shows such as The Mindy Project and Scandal have proved that programming centered on characters of color can be successful, in 2014 networks took an even bigger chance, offering entire shows with casts of color. From ABC’s new hit comedy Black-ish and the network’s top-rated drama How to Get Away With Murder to the CW’s Jane the Virgin and NBC’s Marry Me, people of color seem to have been promoted from quirky sidekicks who get to deliver a few sassy zingers to the stars of the show.
“Diversity makes good business sense,” says ReBecca Theodore-Vachon, a television critic and a contributor to RogerEbert.com. Theodore-Vachon cites a recent UCLA study that found shows with diverse casts, such as AMC’s runaway hit The Walking Dead, attract bigger audiences. “The Walking Dead is one of the most diverse shows on TV and is pulling in about 13 to 14 million viewers per week,” she says.
Almost two decades ago, the NAACP took the industry to task for a “virtual whiteout” in broadcast television. In 2008 the group again called networks out for their “critical lack of programming by, for or about people of color.” Although the civil rights organization has lobbed criticism at the entire industry, it reserved its harshest attacks for newer companies such as the CW and Fox, two networks who rose to prominence by offering content—such as Girlfriends, Martin, and Living Single—aimed at hooking black viewers. Those shows, which featured predominantly black casts, were ditched once the channels became established.
Traditional broadcast networks are catching on to the idea that attracting diverse audiences is a winning strategy. Leading up to the fall season, ABC made headlines over its “ambitious” new lineup that included a slate of shows with Asian American, Hispanic, and black casts. Although some have balked at Black-ish’s name, the show has attracted millions of viewers each week. Even when it was forced to go head-to-head with Game 7 of the World Series, its audience still grew by 13 percent, proving folks are hungry for a lovable, family-friendly comedy featuring a black cast.
“People want to see themselves represented on the small screen,” says Theodore-Vachon. “The idea that whiteness equals universal just isn’t acceptable to TV viewers anymore.”
It isn’t acceptable to up-and-coming content creators either. When networks shunned scripted shows with diverse casts in favor of cheap-to-produce reality shows, writers, directors, and producers took to new mediums to produce content. Lena Waithe, a writer on the Fox drama Bones, got in on the revolution, creating viral content such as the comedic Web series Shit Black Girls Say and the Web series HelloCupid and producing the award-winning film Dear White People. According to Waithe, networks have learned a valuable lesson.
“A starving audience is a loyal one,” she says. “And people of color have been going without for a very long time.”
Her efforts to cater to an underserved audience are paying off. Earlier this year, Waite inked a deal to shoot a pilot for her show Twenties for BET, and this week HBO announced it was developing Bros, a comedy Waithe is producing about a black gay man’s relationship with his non-gay brothers.
Networks may view audiences of color with dollar signs in their eyes, but for Waithe, who’d dreamed of writing for TV since she was a little girl, her work goes much deeper than just getting paid.
“It’s important for me to tell my story—because no one else can tell it with the same enthusiasm or authenticity that I can,” she says. “It's my responsibility to never edit myself or worry that a white audience might feel alienated. As a writer, my only job is to tell the truth. That’s when my work will really resonate with someone on a much deeper level.”
So how will we know if on-screen diversity is more than just a buzz phrase or a passing trend? Waithe breaks it down: “I want to see a show with a predominantly black cast win an Emmy,” she says. “That’s when things will really start to change.”