Broadcast networks are in the midst of casting the pilots from which they'll be picking their show lineups for the upcoming fall season, and Nellie Andreeva, Deadline's veteran TV writer, is worried. Why? Because, on the heels of minority-lead series seeing sky-high Nielsen ratings, television is in danger of becoming...too diverse.
A handful of network series starring people of color—namely, How to Get Away With Murder, Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, and network TV's current great success story, Empire—took off in the ratings in the past nine months, and thusly, Andreeva reports, "ethnic castings" for new potential shows "exploded this season." ("Ethnic actors," for the uninitiated and interested in clinical appellations for human beings, is "a casting term used for non-Caucasian thesps.")
Why won't anyone think of the Whites? Andreeva will. She wrings her hands for the white actors she imagines will face difficulty landing parts in this new, slightly less white landscape. She worries that after one (one!) season of networks making a conscious, explicit effort to make their shows more diverse that "the pendulum might have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction." Listen to this horror story:
Instead of opening the field for actors of any race to compete for any role in a color-blind manner, there has been a significant number of parts designated as ethnic this year, making them off-limits for Caucasian actors, some agents signal. Many pilot characters this year were listed as open to all ethnicities, but when reps would call to inquire about an actor submission, they frequently have been told that only non-Caucasian actors would be considered. "Basically 50% of the roles in a pilot have to be ethnic, and the mandate goes all the way down to guest parts," one talent representative said.
Elsewhere, the ethnics are taking white jobs:
Uncle Buck and Love Is A Four Letter Word are among several projects where the original white protagonists have been changed to black this season. ABC's medical drama pilot The Advocate was based on the story of former CAA agent Byrdie Lifson-Pompan and Dr. Valerie Ulene, who launched a healthcare consulting company. While the real-life inspiration for the two central characters are both Caucasian, the show cast them one white actress, Kim Raver, and one black, Joy Bryant.
So there might be fewer white faces on television this fall. Isn't this fine? Given the recent success of shows featuring actors of color, isn't this what viewers want? No, Andreeva explains — we've maxed out the appetite for black actors:
While they are among the most voracious and loyal TV viewers, African-Americans still represent only 13% of the U.S. population. They were grossly underserved, but now, with shows as Empire, Black-ish, Scandal and HTGAWM on broadcast, Tyler Perry's fare on OWN and Mara Brock Akil's series on BET, they have scripted choices, so the growth in that fraction of the TV audience might have reached its peak.
Interesting quota to impose. This is bizarrely oblivious and harmful even in the glib and idiotic world of Hollywood trades—black people have enough shows to watch. No more. (What about other minorities? As Flavorwire's Pilot Viruet points out in a great takeaway on the past year of multicultural television, Fresh Off the Boat was the first Asian-American sitcom in 20 years. 20 years! The notion that any one race should be satisfied with any nominal amount of popular culture that represents them is absurd.)
There should be more people of color on TV. More should star, co-star, and appear in guest roles. More should be behind the camera, writing the scripts, and producing. One season of a handful of TV shows that have done that is not "sufficient." And we should cast some skepticism at these pilot castings: they're pilots, and by the archaic design of network television, most of them will never be seen by anyone who is not a (white) network executive—and few will become a series that actually airs on television. Will some of these shows starring people of color go to series? Undoubtably. But will they live on? That's unclear, because it's worth worrying, as Viruet does in her piece, that we are all catching a new, cynical wave of minority-lead series that have limited, cash-in-now financial incentives for networks. (See: the rise, whitening, and demise of UPN and the WB.):
Naturally, there's been a lot of praise for the diversity of this season's TV narratives — even if that praise fails to take into account what a small percentage of programming these shows actually comprise. But this isn't the first time a "boom" in diversity has occurred on television. Robin R. Means Coleman, an associate professor and the author of African American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy, is quick to dismiss the notion that this is a groundbreaking year for minority-focused narratives, explaining that representation on TV follows a cyclical pattern. "About every 20 years, there is a surge in representations of blacks on television," Coleman says. "In the '70s, there was a particular surge of blacks and black situation comedies: everything from Good Times and The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son — those kind of representations were being offered up."
Andreeva even admits as much.
"Since broadcast TV is a historically reactive business," she writes, "that will determine whether the trend of ethnic casting will come back with a vengeance next season." This whole system is fucked.