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

By Guest Contributor Patrice Peck, cross-posted from Zora & Alice

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 (Lost, Alias) and co-creator Josh Reims (Felicity) made headlines with their unorthodox casting of Boris Kodjoe 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.

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, 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.”