TV Networks Make Unequal Progress Toward on-Screen Diversity

David Bauder et al., ABC News, January 20, 2015

Kenya Barris, creator of ABC’s “black-ish,” was motivated to write the comedy about an African-American family’s efforts to honor its heritage in part by the unreality of what he grew up watching on television.

“I saw ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld’ and thought, ‘What part of New York is this?'” recalled Barris, who is black. “It’s not about being diverse. It’s about being true to the world.”

His show comes 15 years after civil rights groups, galvanized by a lineup of new network series almost entirely devoid of minority characters, sought and ultimately won agreements from major broadcasters to put programs on the air that better reflect the nation’s population.

An AP analysis of regular cast members on prime-time comedies and dramas on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox found progress since then in hiring black actors, but slighted other minorities. Casts at three of the four networks are still whiter than the nation as a whole.

That’s in contrast to a fall 2014 season that seemed to signal broad change. Besides “black-ish” and a trio of shows from black megaproducer Shonda Rhimes, it offered Asian-American crime fighters and Latino families.

Among the key findings of the AP analysis:

— ABC, NBC and Fox now have a higher percentage of blacks in prime time than there is in the general population–a significant change over 1999. The difference is most dramatic at Fox: 6.5 percent of characters in lead or supporting roles were black in 1999 to 21 percent black this past fall, a number that notched up again with January’s premiere of “Empire,” a drama about an African-American family’s music dynasty.

— Other ethnic groups don’t do nearly as well. While Latinos are the nation’s largest minority group at more than 17 percent of the population, only Fox and ABC have Latino representation of as much as 10 percent.

— CBS, the nation’s most popular network, had the most diversity 15 years ago and now has the least. CBS programs are whiter now than they were then.


In 1965, after NBC cast Bill Cosby in “I Spy,” young Kweisi Mfume’s mother sent her son to knock on doors in their Baltimore neighborhood to spread the word: “There’s a colored man on TV!” Cosby had become the first black to star on a network drama. In 1999, as head of the NAACP, Mfume was among the leaders pressuring networks on diversity.

“One can make the argument it’s been progress over 15 years, but it’s still been 15 years and that’s a lot of time to go by to see some of these changes incrementally,” said Mfume. “We can get pleasantly and romantically drunk by looking at all (Rhimes) is doing. . . . But at the same time, she’s one person at one broadcast network.”


{snip} By the fall of 1999, ABC, NBC and Fox each had prime-time casts that were 86 percent white–at a time when the U.S. Census put the non-Latino white population at 71.9 percent.

In fall 2014, with the non-Latino white population estimated at 62.6 percent, CBS’ series cast and characters were 79.2 percent white; ABC’s were 72.7 percent; and NBC’s were 69.7 percent. In contrast, Fox’s slate stands at 60 percent white.

The Census Bureau counts blacks as 13.2 percent of the U.S. population. Blacks made up 15 percent of cast members in fall shows on ABC and NBC.

“We try to make sure the numbers we have reflect our society,” said Karen Horne, NBC’s vice president of programming talent development and inclusion. “We’re servicing people we’re broadcasting to.”


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