What do we mean when we talk about diversity in media? Is it a matter of changing the composition of the workforce, either at the executive level or throughout the ranks? Should our goal be to change the mix of people about whom we tell stories? Is it a matter of not just featuring different people but also telling stories that are specifically about the experience of difference?
The Television Critics Association press tour, the twice-annual event at which networks present new shows and give journalists a chance to talk to their executives, is an excellent microcosm of these conversations about diversity. Questions about race, gender and sexual orientation are common in panels both with business executives and the people making creative decisions for individual shows. Their answers vary in ways that are revealing.
Earlier this week, Linda Holmes, who runs the pop culture blog Monkey See for NPR, asked NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt what the network’s diversity goals were. Holmes made the excellent point that people in Greenblatt’s position often try to distract us from systemic questions.
“There are always individual examples and great actors and sometimes creators, those numbers overall really do not seem to budge,” she asked. “The needle doesn’t seem to move on the whole.”
Greenblatt has been slower to make commitments to diversity as a creative imperative than his colleagues at Fox and ABC. Fox at one point had a mandate for diversity casting, while ABC sought out a diverse group of creators to fill its 2012 schedule. Perhaps as a result of that, Greenblatt’s answer to Holmes focused elsewhere.
“Well, we are committed to this, and we talk about it all the time, and aside from the fact that you see three white people up here, when you go to the next level of our executives, it is a varied mix of diversities,” Greenblatt said. “I’m really proud of that, and I venture to say it’s probably the most diverse executive group of any network.”
It is absolutely wonderful that network executives are looking for a range of life experiences in their colleagues. Those executive ranks are the place where network heads have the most direct control over hiring.
Most television series are produced by outside studios, not by the networks. That means network executives can put distance between themselves and decisions about who gets cast or who gets hired to write and direct episodes.
But executives can set targets that studios have to meet or pick the series creators they work with. The shows on Greenblatt’s network are a reminder that a diverse slate of executives will not automatically produce a highly diverse slate of shows or shows that take race and culture as their subjects.
Paul Lee, who runs ABC Network, made a similar point in his meeting with critics in presenting a slate of shows he described as “passion projects” for their creators.
“You need the storytellers and you need the executives,” he argued. “I’m very proud of the fact that if you look at the back of the room to look at the executives who do development and do programming and marketing, across ABC, it’s a very diverse group of people. So 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’s biggest hit is “Scandal,” the show from creator Shonda Rhimes about a black crisis fixer who begins an affair with a white (and married) candidate for president that carries on once he reaches the Oval Office. Over three seasons, “Scandal” has become more explicit in its discussions of race, and it has grown in ratings and buzz.
It is clear that Lee took a cue from “Scandal” in designing his fall lineup. The shows Lee is putting on the air have very racially diverse casts. But in their pilot episodes, these series also represent a range of approaches about how to deploy those casts.
“How to Get Away With Murder,” a series from one of Rhimes’s proteges, writer Pete Nowalk, has a cast, anchored by Viola Davis, with a huge array of skin tones, and as of the pilot episode, at least one gay character. At least in the beginning, though, race seems to be less important as a subject than the drama of a killing that involves a group of young law students. These are characters who, in a common formulation, happen to be black and Latino.
By contrast, Kenya Barris, the creator of “black-ish,” which stars Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, told journalists that his show had a very different project: to explore the interactions between class, race and culture.
“It wasn’t about a show that happened to be black,” he said. “It was actually about a black family.”
In “black-ish,” Anderson and Ross play an affluent couple, Andre and Rainbow — he is an advertising executive, she is a doctor — who begin to worry that in giving their children a more privileged life, they have failed to teach them a sense of black culture and racial identity. Their characters also have different experiences: Andre is black, while Rainbow, like Ellis Ross, is mixed-race.
It is a rare show that acknowledges that there is space to tell stories in between tales of virulent racism and characters to whom race is utterly incidental.
ABC also has “Cristela,” a sitcom from stand-up comedian and writer Cristela Alonzo that is deeply shaped by her experiences growing up in Texas. “Cristela” is a multi-camera show because Alonzo thought the format was similar to theater.
“I loved theater as a kid, and Broadway shows didn’t come to my border town,” she said during her panel. “So I always think about those towns and girls like me, kids like me that don’t have the exposure to that. And that’s why multi cam seemed like the only option.”
While Cristela mixes in discussions of race with broader family humor, her sensibility is an overall guide to the show and a check against stereotypes.
“She’s in the room, and when we pitch ideas that aren’t right, she has no problem saying, ‘No, a Latino family would never do that,'” said writer and executive producer Kevin Hench.
It is always difficult to judge shows by their pilot episodes. And it is risky to take a yearly rise or fall in the number of non-white or female showrunners as evidence that Hollywood is regressing or marching into a future that looks more like the United States. But as television networks take different approaches to diversity and different approaches within their shows, this season will be a fascinating experiment.