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Unformatted text preview: GREAT BLACK H.PE* Meet Cleveland Brown, the only minority character to anchor a new broadcast series in the 2008—09 TV season. As the networks prepare to launch a predominantlfir White fall schedule, EW examines Where all t e color has gone. BY JENNIFER ARMSTRONG 81 MARGEAUX WATSON * Unfortunately, he’s a cartoon. Plus, he’s voiced by a White guy. [ WWW “GANE’S FAILURE WASN’T BECAUSE IT WASALATIN SHOW IT WAS Just BECAUSE THE NARRA- 11VE FOUND rrs FOOTING TOO LATE.” -—CBS Entertainment president Nina Taster Cleveland Brown favors gentle words, and few words at that He likes yellow T—shirts and baths He - fhisAfrican— Americanheritage, -' II ecades of Dignity” ’ board .- had with a racist c0p about 'ght feel when surrounded ing,too, because Cleveland . _. etwork television’s great black -' - . ' season—he’s the onlyminority " . ing a new series on the Big Five . anted, his Family Guy spin- -off, The 'I ' eve and Show, didn’t even make it onto the fall schedule (it’s slated for midseason). Yes, Cleveland himself is merely a figment of animation. And true, the person who provides his voice, Mike Henry, is actually white. But hey, it’s a start, right? These days, the networks need to ensure that even their cartoons of color count.After aperiod of making a public effort to focus on diversity in their casting— kickstarted by an NAACP outcry over the white TV lands cape in 1999-the networks have clearly started tolosethatfocus, andnotjustwhenitcomestoAfrican— Americans. Today the current prime-time lineup, including fall’s 14 new scripted shows, is looking alarmingly pale. According to an ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY study of scripted—programming casts for the upcoming fall 2008 season, each of the five major broadcast networks is whiter than the Caucasian percentage (66.2 percent) oftheUnitedStatespopula- tion, as per the 2007 census estimate. And all of the networks are representingconsiderably lower than the Latino population percentage of 15.2 percent, with The CW—whose onlylead Latina star,JoAnna Garcia, willbe playing awhite character named Megan Smith onSwvr'vingtheFflthyRich—registeringjustSBpercent. (See full study figures on opposite page.) After the quiet and unceremonious departure this winter of eight-season hit Girlfriends (the No. 15 show in all prime time arnongAfrican—American audiences), The CW’sblackcomedyblock(inheritedfrompredecessor UPN) has shrunk to just two sitcoms: critical darling E‘verybodyHutes Chris (No. 29 amongAfrican— Americans) and The Game (No. 7 among African- Americans), which have both been relegated to the dead zone known as Friday nights this fall. And with very few exceptions (like black actress Niecy Nash, who costars with Jerry O’Connellin Fox’s hotel sitcom Do Not Disturb), spring’s annual presentation of the newlineups looked largely like a parade of Caucasian stars. When CBS, for example, introduced the main actors from their new series to the advertising com- munity in May, it went something like this: Kyle Bornheimer—white. Simon Baker—white. J ayMohr— white. Rufus Sewell—white. Elizabeth Reaser—white. The NAACP has taken notice: it will release a new study later this month titled “Out of Focus, Out of Sync—Take 4,” which calls for diversity not only on screen but also behind the scenes, where decisions are made and story lines are hatched. “1 out of every 3 persons in the United States is a minority,” reads the report, an advance excerpt of which was provided to EN. “One could argue that athird of all those working in Hollywood should be a minority. However...their presence is not accurately represented on—air and for the most part, their stories are secondary or non- existent. Behind the camera, the challenges facing minorities have been even greater and traditionally more difficultto overcome... ltisunconscionable and unacceptable that there is no newAfrican American sitcom, or family drama for that matter, currently in the fallline up on anyofthe majorbroadcast networ _ .” Vicangelo Bulluck, executive director of the NAACP’s Hollywood bureau, says plainly, “The trend definitely seems to be going in the wrong direction.” The few minority showrunners agree that more work needs to be done, not just in hiring actors of color but in hiring them for the right roles. “There’s a saying that when America gets a cold, African-Amer- icans and other minorities get the flu,” says Girh‘ir'ends creator Mara BrockAkil. “Television is certainly hav~ ing aoold right now, and everybody is losing out.” Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes sees progress in her diverse cast andthoee of other established hits—namely Lost and Heroes. But she still cites room for improve- ment: “Do Iwant to see any more shows where some- one has asassyblackfriend? No,because I’m nobody’s sassy black friend. I just want to see shows in which people getto be people and that look like the world we live in. The world is changing, and televisionwillhave to follow.” True enough: It feels downright regressive to have to point outthat minorities can be stars too, at a time when Will Smith continues to dominate box offices, Oprah is the most powerful woman on televi- sion, and Barack Oharna is running for the ultimate 'le ading role (you know, of the free world). “‘We should put them on a show and watch the wackiness ensue,” jokes Chris exec producer AliLeRoi. “He’s amovie star! She’s stalk—show host! And he’s the president! It could be like the new Three’s Company.” here was atime when diversity seemed to come naturally to prime time. The social consciousness of the ’70s spawned successful sitcoms like The Jefiersons, Good Times, andSanford andSon; the ’8 Os brought living—in—harmony comedy DWnt Strokes and the ultimate breakthrough TV family on The Cosby Show. But a long fallow period (dominated by Cheers, Seinféld, andFrt‘ena's) followed until 1999, when the networks announced another particularly white fall lineup (The West Wing, Freaks undGeelcs, Once and Aguin)—and minority groups revolted. Prompted by then—NAACP president Kweisi Mfume’s remark that ’I‘Vwas afidrtualwhitewashinprogranuning,”groups representing African—Americans, Latinos, Asian— Americans, andNativeAmericans bandedtogetherto push for diversity—calling for sweeping boycotts if immediate progress wasn’t made. in the end, it was: Minority actors were hastily added to shows (con- gratulations, Dulé Hill, you now work for President Bartleti), andthe networks agreedto measures meant to foster diverse talentbehind the scenes aswell—most notably by hiring designated senior executives to monitor the situation. “They’ve got VPs of diversity becauseweforcedthernontothem,” saysAlexNogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “We said, rWe need someone to be the point person foryou, Mr. President of Entertainment. And We need that person to report directly to you.” The result, nearly a decade later: Every major network now has a high-level VP whose entire job description boils down to lobbying fellow executives and producers to keep minorities in the game. “Itwill really make our shows more relevant,” says Mitsy Wilson,who oversees diversitydevelopment forFox andparentcompanyNews Corp. SittinginherFox—iot office, flanked by 3. Waiting to Exhale poster and a Polr’cr’o de Nuevcr York (NYPD Blue) poster, a head shot of anAsian—American actor on her coffee table, Wilson (herseliAfrican~American) explains that she and her second—in—command, Ron Taylor (also African— American), monitor the entire network. They work to promote diversity from the assistant level to the executive ranks, and among those who work either behind the camera or in front of it (the network requires atleast one minoritywriter per show and one minoritydirector per quarter).Wilson and Taylor help match diverse candidates with Open positions and casting calls, scour the company’s lower ranks for minorities with potential to be promoted, and meet with producers regularly to monitor progress. It’s a job that wins them varying receptions, given that they’re asking many producers to hire from out side their regular circles. “You have showrunners who understand that it actually makes business sense,” Wilson says. “A lot of it has to do with their frame of reference, which at some times is limited. If it is firm ited, they’re more likely to-say, ‘I don’t want to take that leap of faith.” ’Tr’lDeath executive producer Tim Hobert, for one, says he uses the diversity office’s re- sources to find newwriters for his struggling sitcom— and,infact,didn’tmindthatduringthewriters’ strike, the network decidedto add comic J .B. Smooveasablack foil toBrad Garrett’s bumbling lead character. “For me, the goal would be to tell interesting stories,” says Hebert. “I don’t think it’s good if you’re like, ‘Oh, let’s just put onablack character so people will be quiet.’ ” Fox and other networks have also been sponsoring writingworkshops, talent showcases, and other out- reach programs since the 1999 dustup. And the last decade has yielded some high-profile gains: Rhimes’ Grey’sAnatomy andPrr'vateProcfice; Dennis Haysbert, CHARTING TV DIVERSITY A breakdown ofrace on network TVand how the numbers match up to the DES. ,pupelation‘i U.S. POPULATION I 56.2% White I12.9% Black 15.2% Latino/Hispanic I4.5% Asian 31.0% American Indian/Alaska Native e 0.2% Hawaiian/Pacific Islander ABC NBC I 73.2% White I 71.0% White I 9.4% Black I 11.8% Black 3.3% Latino/Hispanic 7.5% Latino/Hispanic I 3.1% Asian I 9.7% Asian “1.0% American Indian I 0% American Indian FOX LOST ‘5 YUNJIN KIM I 77.7% White I 12.5% Black 4.2% Latino/Hispanic I 4.2% Asian I 1.4% American Indian who played the president on 24 and now anchors network Ws sole African-Americansled drama, CBS’ The Unit; and Ugly Betty (exec—produced by Salma Hayek), currently network TV’s only series centered on aLatino character. Network execs swear such suc— cess stories really are their goal: “When people tune in to Grey’s Anatomy, they see a cast that is what you would see if you walked into a hospital in any major city,” says ABC president of entertainment Stephen McPherson “It adds realism to the show.” There have also been some noble failures, such as CBS’ Latino CS}: MIAMI’S DAVID CARUSO CB5 I79.3% White I 9.0% Black 8.1% Laiino/ Hispanic I3.5% Asian ' I 0% American lndian THE CW I 57.4% White I 26.9% Black 3.8% Latinor’Hispanic I 1.9%.Asian I 0% American Indian ’US. population Is based on EW's analysis of Jul 200? US. Census data. Network breakdowns include only cast regulars [as of June . 2003) fur scripted series airing In fall 2008. family soap Cane, which floundered last year despite the star power of Jimmy Smits (who recently joined Showtime’s Dexter)~a particular disappointment when Hispanic diameters are so scarce in proportion to theirArnerican presence. Says CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler, a Latina who trumpeted the series last season with pride: “[Its failure] wasn’t because it was a Latin show, it was just beCause the narrative found its footing too late.” Meanwhile, networkexecs insist this coming season isn‘ta lost cause just yet. “The thought and energy that goesintothesekinds ofthingswasalittletopsy-nirvy” Tasslerexplains ofthispilotseason,whichwas stunted due to the writers’strike. “As we go into adding new cast members, there’s a huge emphasis on diversity.” Casts on fall shows are still being filled outs—some have room left for minority casting, while others, such as CBS’ The Mentalist and NBC’s Knight Rider, already include secondary characters of color. But there’s that word againwecondmy. After nearly 10 years of working with diversity reps and outreach programs, the net— works stil} primarily solve the problem by sprinkling nonwhite actors into white—led shows—often as a comedic sidekickor inguy—who—helps—the—mainguy— solve-a—crime roles. Brock Akil calls the solution ‘firery transparent. Ithinktheaudience canseerightthrough that. If it’s not organic,people are goingtobe like, ‘Oh, you’rejust pandering to me.” Instead of pumping up theirpercentageswith supporting characters, shouldn’t the networks be presenting more minority“face ofthe show” leads? It certainly worked out well with Ugly Betty Emmy winner America Ferrera. “That never really came up: Would less people watch because we weren’t telling the story of a'white heroine?” says Betty exec producer Silvio Horta. “It doesn’t really make adifference. It just has to be a really great story and a really great actress.” Nogales worries that the networks have all but forgotten about their pledge of 1999. “They haven’t abandoned it,” says Nogales. “But they‘re not moving as fast as we would like.” Why not? Well, for one thing, there have been no smash-hit series starring a predominantly minority cast since The Cosby Show—which pulled 63 million viewers at its peak—left the air in 1992. “The networks would love nothing better than to have a wildly suc— cessful minority show,” says Bernie Mac Show creator and Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore (who also famously played Mr. Brown in The Office’s “Diversity Day” episode). “It only makes them look good. The key, of course, is wildly successful.” Butwhile NBC provided a widely accessible platform for Cosby to reach amainstream audienceminority shows have been increasingly consigned to fledgling networks since the early 19905 as TV spread beyond the Big Three. “That’s usually how upstart networks become viable,” says LeRoi. “They target an underserved audience—whichisusuallyAfrican—American, Latino, and [other} nfinoriu'es—so they can get some numbers. Then once they become a little bit more financially viable, they move into mainstream programming. That’s what Fox did That’s what UPN did. That’s what the WB did. So that audience tends to get handed off to the next upstart network. It’s like a relay race and were the baton.” But while that strategy maybe good for business, it’s hindered the crossover potential of shows like Gfrbcriends and Chris. “A lot of it is about access,” says Wihnore. “Ifyou have a choice between Friends and Gin’fi'iends, and you’re used to watching Frayed; on NBC, why are you going to switch over to Girlfriends? But if Girlfriends comes on after Hiends, you may stick around for it.” By shrinking its African-American comedy block, The CW seems to be preparing to hand off the baton—though CW president of entertainment Dawn Ostroff says the startup network is simplyfollowing its audience’s cues. “ltwas shocking to me that those shows did not get a broader audience,” she says of Girlfriends and last year’s Pakistani—white buddy comedy, Aliens in America. “You have to always keep evolving.” MyNetworkTV looks to be taking the lead in niche programming: It just ordered a sketch— comedy show from Chris Rock’s brother called The Tony Rock Project, and this season premiered the Flavor Flav sitcom Under One Roof? Going the DIY routeis anotheralternatWe,onethathas psidoffhand— somely for filmmaker Tyler Perry, who landed a $200 million syndication deal with TBS and watched his sitcom, House ofPoyne, debut last year to a record 5.2 million viewers. “If everybody could do it, it would be great,” says the NAACP’s Bulluck. “Everybody doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to be able to play the game at the level that Tyler’s playing it. I think he demonstrates that there is a market for it.” Even so, minority writers aren’t exactlyfinding their phones ringing off the hook, resulting in a thinning talent pool of showrunners of color. “Itwasalways easy forwhitesto runblackshows orgetjobsonblackshows, but it was always tough for the reverse,” Wilmore explains. “Very fewblacks get jobs on nonblack shows. So with a lotof black shows going away, fewer and fewer blackwriters get opportunities, let alone get the chance to be mentored and learn how to run and create-shows. So there’s fewer Opp ortunities to get to that level where you get the trust of a network to be able to run a show.” Of course, perhaps it would be easier for minoritywriters and producers to gain the trust of a network if more netv'vork executives were minoritiesthemselvesfigainand again,thoseworking ' within the system saythe absence of diversity behind the scenesisthe keyreason television continues to lack diversity on screen. “When we started, I said my goal was to be out of a jo ,” says Wilson, who j oined Fox as adiversityrep in 2000. “We were ambitious.What did we say [our deadline date was]? 2010.” She laughs at the idea of achieving that goal (though, she adds opti- mistically, “we’re clos e”) —but LeRoi has a suggestion for speeding up the process. “The first thing the diver- sity rep should do is fire the guy who hired him!” he says. "You see that white guy sitting nexttoyou? Fire him andhire ablack guy! YOu see thatwhite lady down at the end of the hall? Fire her and hire a Latina lady! That’s how you do it. And since everything is failing anyway, you mean to tell me that a Latina lady,-a Chi- nese guy, or ablack guy can’t fail too? If the networks are going down the tubes, why don’t they go down the tubes with everybody? Spread the wealth!” hatever their ethnicity, executives need to change the way theythink, sayminority leaders. And it’s up to the big bosses like CBS’ Leslie Moonves and NBC’s Jeff Zuckerto make sure that happens. “The top guy has to say, rYou’re not gettinga goddamn bonus unless you start repopulatingyourshowswiththe wayAmericareally is,’ ” says Nogales. Of course, it’s about more than simply sprinkling additional minorities throughout shows—it’s about giving those characters meaningful story lines that blend in seamlessly with their sur— roundings. “I don’t just want to see a black face or a Latino face or whatever,” says Wilmore. “People need tohave roles on these shows thatare dynamic and not just place marks.”Adds Brock Akil, “I think that’s why Grey’s Anatomy has been so successful. It’s a very organic atmosphere, and the interaction between the characters of different races is very relatable.” That kind of color—blind casting is something teen— focused networks seem to have down pat: Naryashow has passed through ABC Family or The N without an interracial coupling or a naturally integrated cast. (ABC Family’s Greek even has an interracial gay cou— ple.) Those networks’ execs say it’s a simple matter of economics, that their Gen—Y viewers accept—nay, expect and demand—such a reflection of their multi— cultural lives. “They’re completely color—blind,” ABC Family president Paul Lee says of younger viewers. “We’ve done a lot ofthings wrong as a nation, but we’ve clearly done something right here. They embrace other cultures.” Perhaps it’s no surprise,then,that the most high-profile minority casting for the fall is on another teen show—The CW’s 90210 remake, where African-American actor Tristan Wilde (The Wire) will playthe central white family’s adopted son “When we talked about how to make it more contemporary, diversity was a big part of that,” Ostroff says. “It feels as if it’s avery modern family scenario.” That said, 8 of the 10 regulars on 90210 are white (in addition to Wilds, Ecuadorian actor Michael Steger will play a student at We st Beverly High). But at least we still have Cleveland Brown. “Let’s hope that he busts that door wide open,” jokes Wilmore. “If he can’t do it, then I don’t know who can.” I mdditionol reporting by TannerSrronsky) [ TYLER PERRY ] "EVERYBODY DOESN'T HAVE THE FINANCIAL WHERE- WITHALTO BE ABLE TO PLAY THE GAME AT THE LEVEL THAT TYLER PERRY'S PLAYING IT." ~Vicangelo Bulluck, executive director ofthe NAACP’S Hollywood bureau ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY 33 ...
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