Can Blacks Bum Rush The Show?: Bringing Diversity to TV

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by Patrice Peck on November 16, 2010

How can you notice that something is missing if you never even acknowledged that thing to begin with? The lack of racial diversity on the major television networks—ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and The CW—clearly illustrates how an omission can actually be rather glaring. Yet, whenever critics draw attention to the lopsided numbers of lead minorities in television, writers, producers, and casting directors are quick to cry color-blind in hopes of white washing the issue with a fresh coat of guiltless naivete. When addressing this issue, television executives always point to profitability and markets as the main reasoning behind their casting while uncomfortably skirting around their propensity for narrow thinking, country club-style hiring, and disregarding racial diversity.

Then, this September, NBC inadvertently shed light on television’s homogeneity by picking up J.J. Abrams’ newest project, Undercovers, a show surrounding a married couple who leave retirement to rejoin the CIA. Abrams (LostAlias) and co-creator Josh Reims (Felicity) made headlines with their unorthodox casting of Boris Kudjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, both black actors, making Undercovers the second NBC show to feature a black lead couple (The Cosby Show being the first.)

Nonetheless, at a panel for Undercovers, Reims still insisted that when it came to casting the leads, both he and Abrams considered novelty as opposed to color as if the two weren’t synonymous in Hollywood. “[We said] Let’s just see every possible incarnation of person [so we won’t end up with] the same people we’ve seen on TV a million times…Boris and Gugu came in, and we sort of knew immediately, these are them. We didn’t go out of our way to say we are hiring two black people to be the leads of our show, but we didn’t ignore it either.”

All of this trailblazing, intentional or not, came to a screeching halt on Thursday,  November 4th, when NBC canceled Undercovers due to a drastic decline in ratings. While there is little debate across the board about sub-par quality of the freshman series, a consensus on sustaining the diversification that Undercovers exemplified has yet to be seen or heard. Can television executives still justifiably profess ignorance and oversight once the elephant has been revealed for all to see? Will Undercovers serve as cautionary tale for networks that consider crossing the color line? In Hollywood, money talks and green takes precedence over every color, so perhaps it is actually black viewers who should be blamed for the television industry’s propensity for exclusionary content.

To be fair, Undercovers was certainly no hit series in the making. Although the script ambitiously tried on many hats simultaneously–romance, comedy, action, and suspense, none of the styles fit comfortably. In spite of the physically perfect pairing of the gorgeous Kudjoe and Mbatha-Raw, Undercovers lacked any defining edge, instead falling victim to the Jack of all trades, master of none category.

In her review of an Undercovers episode, Cocoa Popps, an Urban Culturalist Writer for The Huffington Post wrote,

I guess I’m just mad because this is a big deal people! Having black lead actors on television in programming that isn’t comedy is a major step in networks finally believing that yes, black folks watch TV, and yes we do more than laugh — we like to think too! But we need and appreciate good content.

Nevertheless, one could argue that if black viewers had stormed their television sets every Wednesday night at eight and tuned in to the series, the number of viewers would have exponentially increased, ultimately resulting in a rating impressive enough to demand not only an order of more episodes but a new season all together. Because high ratings clearly indicate a profitable market, television executives, naive or not, would be hard pressed not to jump on the black lead bandwagon. Then, as the amount of shows targeted to black viewers would increase, so would the chance of those shows actually being good, not to mention successful. If that were the case, should black viewers take one for the team at the cost of being subjected to sub-par content? Surely not. Then again, television executives cannot feasibly create shows without a clear market. Bringing diversity to television is, without a doubt, a two-way street.

Thembisa S. Mshaka, Entertainment Industry Veteran and Author of Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [Entertainment] Business, has the unique opportunity of seeing this issue from both sides of the fence. In terms of pinpointing the actual cause of this diversity dearth, Mshaka takes everyone into account:

As a media professional, do you think that it’s the responsibility of the network execs to get more people of color as leads on major television networks or the responsibility of the viewers to support the shows? BOTH. Part of the issue is that viewers of color are not well represented by the ratings system, so there is a disconnect in how accountable networks think they need to be. The other part of it is that people of color are so starved to see their images on TV, they’ll settle and watch something even if they have issues with it…No audience is going to like everything…Black viewers are not a monolith and deserve diverse programming that reflects a range of their experiences.

One possible solution to television’s diversity dilemma might be found if we take a page from colleges and universities across the nation: Affirmative Action.

Though supporters of affirmative action differ in terms of their proposed methods, for the most part they share the belief that because of the centuries of oppression that minorities, particularly blacks, have been subjected to in the United States—the country which has profited greatly from that same oppression—owes it to those minorities to level the playing field both socially and economically. Seeing as how the United States, the self-acclaimed land of opportunity, heralds a strong academic education as being the foundation of any successful professional, the government established affirmative action primarily within colleges and universities, providing minorities with access to higher education, one of the most lucrative forms of social capital (aside from skin color.)

While many may argue that television and the education system are two totally different spheres with television being less significant, keep in mind that education and television have been used interchangeably as supplementary mediums ever since the invention of television. In the NAACP’s 2008 Report on the Television Industry (Out of Focus—Out of Sync Take 4,) Vicangelo Bullock, the Executive Director of the NAACP Hollywood Bureau expressed the significant role that major television networks play in society: “these media giants beam powerful images throughout the world, shaping our beliefs, opinions and decisions.” Consider the large influence that education also has in shaping the minds of our society from an early age and the similarities between television and education become even more apparent.

Until people of color, both in front of and behind the camera, can gain full access to the predominantly white boys club that is the television industry, demonstrating the potential profit and success of shows with lead people of color will be impossible; just as proving that students of color coming from disadvantaged backgrounds would not be able to demonstrate their academic qualifications without gaining full access to predominantly white institutions. So why not apply affirmative action to the television industry and allot a certain number of television shows to non-white racial groups so that the chance of the show, such as Undercovers, becoming a hit is greater than fifty-fifty?

If there were a required quota to fill for television lead actors, writers, and directors each season, then television executives would have to come to terms with the lack of diversity in television networks, and, in turn, be held accountable for the subsequent television line up. Of course, similar to the guidelines held in the education field, the quality of these shows would all be at the very least on par with the other shows vying for a prime time spot.

Yes, some shows might flop, but at least they’ll have the chance to flop just like every other show that manages to make it on to a major network. Also having the guaranteed spots would prompt writers and producers to take chances and create series that go beyond the stereotypical or appropriating content sometimes found in lasting series led by people of color. In order to ensure diversity in terms of content, behind the scenes roles such as producing, writing, and directing must also be included in this action and enforced at film schools and television companies across the nation through the admission, recruiting, and professional training process.

To be clear, we are not asking for handouts. In addition to bum rushing main stream television, the Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American communities should also establish distribution companies and studios, such as Tyler Perry, so that we retain full control of our resources, harness our consumer power, and make the most of the dynamic star power at our disposal. And while some may be swift to cry “reverse racism” or “prejudicial treatment,” affirmative action does not only benefit those at the lower end of the playing field. Adding an element of diversity to any situation, whether it be television casts or college campuses, does not only benefit the claimants of affirmative action, but every person in that environment as well. For how could a more tolerant, sensitive, and open environment possibly truly harm economic, and more importantly, social progress?

As black viewers, we already recognize the awesome potential that black actors, writers, and directors have and believe that they are as entitled to represent and define their own experiences and exercise their creativity just as much as any other person.  When it comes down to it, as Undercovers’ Kudjoe stated during an interview, “It should be the norm, because that’s what the world looks like.”

How do you feel about the lack of diversity for leads on major network TV series? What about the lack of diversity in general? Is Affirmative Action a feasible solution? Maybe you don’t see a lack of diversity at all. Share your thoughts and comment below!

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    Great article!! I think A.A. should be used on television….nowadays if you want to see a black show you have to go to BET. We need more shows like the old days..remember those days when Girlfriend,the Game,Sister Sister, and Smart Guy, etc. were always on? Well, i want that back.

  • Dee Mandiyan

    There’s a lot to go with here, and I think you’ve done a fantastic job of covering… well, everything.

    in the past few months, i’ve been looking at the shows that i love and thinking about the histories of each of the characters, and slowly realized that in each show there is no defining characteristic that prohibits characters from being of color. which should have been obvious much earlier… *shrug*

    anyway, i think undercovers may not have had the spark/oomph to gather a viewership, but something deeper bothers me about the show, and i don’t know how to say it delicately. but i think you’ll know what i mean… undercovers did not even begin to provide a vehicle for black leads. their characters had no pasts or flaws to allow them to be full characters. even lizzie, sam’s sister, has only vague details of a past, although she at least had a “flaw.” what allows people to connect to characters are their pasts and their flaws. people only dig superman because he’s clark kent. part of me feels as though that lack of characterization is insidiously detrimental to the image of blacks in the media: all of a sudden there’s this huge opportunity, but the characters aren’t even people, they’re cut-outs.

    I guess that kind of answers my/your question about whether we suck it up to show the numbers people that these shows matter, or say “don’t throw us crumbs, we want a real show.” at least in this case.

    also, what do we do with the fact that this huge opportunity for black thespians in America went to non-Americans? not that i’m advocating for americans on american shows–1. it’s me 2. you know how much i love mr. kodjoe 3. uhhh hugh laurie as house?–but this particular instance… puzzles me.

  • Mwita

    This is a much needed article! Alot of my most recent conversations have been centered around this same topic….where and when did all the people of color disappear from mainstream media especially television, since there really ever hasnt been much representation in movies, and furthermore were they ever really there to begin with. Still though for me there is always a sense of nostalgia for some representation that I can relate to. I realize, upon talking with my friends, that its not that they want random POC smeered in the casts of Tv’s and movies, what they really want is something that they can relate to–”I just for one want to see A young black working professional woman who doesn’t who is normal (no men issues)”–one friend said.

    So we definitely need to address this issue of equal and fair representation in the Media.

  • carteraunido

    The problem is that neither of the lead actors are A.A. = African-American in origin. They don’t have African-American ancestry, so I find it odd that they and their show is the point of focus in an article proposing the idea of Affirmative-Action in Hollywood. Also, Affirmative-Action would not guarantee that those with true talent get roles, or the best roles. In this case, these two aren’t even the best actors, whereas there are many actual African-American actors with raw talent.

  • carteraunido

    Affirmative Action also wouldn’t solve the issue of phenotype bias in the casting of African-Americans or those of African descent, where those who look mixed race, biracial ancestry, or who appear racially ambiguous are preferred over those with a prominent black phenotype.

  • carteraunido

    You make a great point here. I agree!

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  • Anonymous

    Then, this Sept, NBC unknowingly remove lightheaded on television’s uniformness by output up J.J. Abrams’ newest contrive, Undercovers, a take surrounding a wed couplet who reach withdrawal to rejoin the CIA. Abrams (Forfeit, A.k.a.) and co-creator Josh Rams (Appropriateness) made headlines with their nonconforming sport fishing of Boris Kudos and Gunk Tabatha-Raw, both mortal actors, making Undercover the position NBC demonstration to lineament a fatal wind attach (The Cosby Show.

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  • Anonymous

    All of this trailblazing, intentional or not, came to a noise halting on Weekday,  Nov 4th, when NBC canceled Undercovers due to a drastic turn in ratings. Spell there is small discuss crossways the live some sub-par dimension of the freshman programme, a consensus on sustaining the diversification that Undercovers exemplified has yet to be seen or heard. 

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