Update 4/7/09: Well, there goes another one. Goodbye to Kal Penn’s Dr. Kutner. He’s moving on to another House, one of far greater prominence.
Update 2/18/09: Yesterday’s article in the LA Times reports on the diversity phenomenon in television… While the Times may have a different definition of “lead character” than I do, the message is still the same: Diverse characters just aren’t found in scripted programming these days.
On my way to work on Monday, I told a co-worker that I had seen He’s Just Not That Into You over the weekend. “It looks cute,” my co-worker said, “But I don’t want to see it on principle… it’s too white. Where are all the minorities?”
Let’s see: in the movie, all the primary characters were… white. All the couplings… white. All the love connections… white. There were a few gay men who were minorities, and Justin Long did make out with a black girl, but other than that, the movie was one long, bad, whitewashed chick flick.
Strangely, even as a minority myself, I didn’t notice that the cast was all white before I went to the theater. However, my co-worker’s stand resounded with me (she, by the way, is white). Our country is supposed to be a “melting pot” — our minority populations are growing — and oh, our President is black. So why is Hollywood so white?
Entertainment Weekly ran a story a few months ago about diversity in entetainment: “Why is TV so white?”
There was a time when diversity seemed to come naturally to prime time. The social consciousness of the ’70s spawned successful sitcoms like The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Sanford and Son; the ’80s brought living-in-harmony comedy Diff’rent Strokes and the ultimate breakthrough TV family on The Cosby Show…
After nearly 10 years of working with diversity reps and outreach programs, the networks still primarily solve the problem by sprinkling nonwhite actors into white-led shows — often as a comedic sidekick or in guy-who-helps-the-main-guy-solve-a-crime roles.
So I decided to take a look at the current TV lineup to see just how white it actually is. I went through all the network shows in primetime, excluding all reality/news programming. For the shows that I didn’t personally watch, the litmus test was whether the show’s website included pictures of diverse characters on their main page.
From there, I color-coded all the shows that featured the following:(1)
Based on thorough scouring of show websites, and operating under the assumption that some cartoon characters were meant to be white, what I found confirmed the EW report and my co-worker’s concerns.(2) (Of course, I don’t have 90 hours a week to carefully watch each show for its contribution to diversity, so feel free to email me with anything I’ve missed or gotten wrong.)
Out of 90 hours of primetime programming per week, there are 32.5 hours dedicated to reality TV, news, or Sunday night movies. Of the remaining 57.5 hours of scripted series:
Shows with ANY minority primary characters: 13.5 hours (Heroes, Scrubs, 90210, Law & Order, Lost, 30 Rock, ER, Ugly Betty, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, My Name is Earl, Friday Night Lights, Everybody Hates Chris, The Game, Desperate Housewives, The Unit, The Simpsons)
Shows with MULTIPLE minority primary characters or leads: 6.5 hours (Heroes, Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, ER, Private Practice… and this is counting ABC’s double-airing of Lost on Wednesdays)
Shows with a LEAD minority character: 3 hours (Ugly Betty, The Unit, Everybody Hates Chris, The Game)
So, out of the 57.5 hours of scripted programming, 76% of this programming features all-white leading casts. Only 4 shows have minority lead characters, and two of them air on Friday nights on the CW.
Finally, just some parting thoughts on diversity in entertainment:
Derek and Meredith, Jim and Pam, Kate and Jack/Sawyer… We’ve seen interracial couples flow seamlessly through the Grey’s Anatomy plotlines, but how many other shows have done it? Even in the diverse ensemble casts, why does the main love story/central relationship in the show always feature only one race? I’m not talking about flings, I’m talking about the Ross and Rachels… makes me wonder.
- The lack of diversity isn’t limited to network TV either… some of the hottest shows on cable (Burn Notice, Damages, The Closer) and pay TV (Entourage, Californication, Big Love) are lily white.
A show featuring a minority family has not earned broad mass appeal in more than a decade. Has something systemically changed in our audience today? Are we more or less racially polarized? How would the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or The Cosby Show do today? How would The George Lopez Show or The Bernie Mac Show have done then?
Will we ever see a show with an Asian lead on network TV?
(1) Lead character(s): The main storylines are centered around this/these character(s). They serve as the face of the show, and are featured in every episode. With a show like House, the lead character would obviously be Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House. In Grey’s Anatomy, the lead would be Meredith Grey. Even though it is an ensemble cast, she provides the voice-over and has the sickeningly cute doctor-boyfriend. Similarly, in The Office, it would be Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott… in 30 Rock, Tina Fey… etc.
Primary character(s): Not every show has primary characters who are not leads. Primary characters are mostly part of an ensemble cast where their characters also have a backstory that is shared with the viewer. Examples: Jenny in Gossip Girl, Hurley in Lost, Jim and Pam on The Office… etc.
(2) In this exercise, I did not look for minority secondary characters because I figured that most shows did have diversity in this sense, per the EW quote above.