Television Drags Its Feet on Diversity

David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle, June 19, 2012

Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash star in a new, nicely assembled and almost old-fashioned sitcom about a former R&B singer who becomes a preacher in middle age.

But what might occur to you as “The Soul Man” premieres on TV Land on Wednesday is that this is 2012, the president is African American, the society is becoming more post-racial with every passing year, yet here’s a show that doesn’t look like many others on TV. Why? Because there is an anachronistic scarcity of series with either African American lead characters or mostly African American casts on television today. Feel free to substitute “Latino” or “Asian American” in that sentence as well.

The television industry has been sticking its toe in the diversity water for decades, and some progress has been made. Is there, for example, some rule in the industry that every time you create an ensemble program, one member of the cast should be black, Latino or Asian? Double points for one of each.

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Other mostly white-cast shows, including “Hot in Cleveland,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Two and a Half Men,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “Justified,” “Girls,” “Raising Hope” and “Veep,” may have people of color as guest stars (Kal Penn played Robin’s love interest for a while on “Mother”) or in supporting roles, but there’s always room for more if the goal is, as it should be, for casts to better reflect the ethnic variety of the potential TV audience.

So, bit by bit, television has inched toward a concept of diversity in casting that reflects the country’s population.

Good for us.

Except that against a dearth of shows actually starring actors of color, the presence of so many others in guest or supporting roles, or as members of ensemble casts, amounts to 21st century tokenism: Put an African American in the ensemble, and call it progress. Hire an Asian to guest-star as a shrink, and call it diversity.

No one has to push “How I Met Your Mother” under the bus to make room for minority actors or casts: You just have to see the talent, the audience appeal and put them on the payroll. What matters is whether the show clicks with the viewers, and we should be long past the point where the ethnicity of the cast is a factor in that.

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And it’s not even about TV being all that courageous about diversity because, in truth, that opportunity is long past. Now it’s a matter of playing catch-up, and television networks have a lot to lose by not getting aggressively in the game.

 

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