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Primetime TV Is More Diverse Than It's Ever Been. Why Now?

ABC/Adam Taylor

“Black-ish,” a sweet, likable sitcom premiering on ABC next month, doesn’t take very long to declare a thesis statement: “Sometimes I worry that, in order to make it, black folks have dropped a little bit of their culture and the rest of the world has picked it up.” This is part of an opening voice-over by Anthony Anderson, playing a wealthy suburban dad. Produced by Comedy Central’s Larry Wilmore, “Black-ish” has been given a plum time slot after “Modern Family,” and it registers as a slightly more provocative version of that show. There’s a stubborn dad, an exasperated wife, a self-involved teenage girl. There are also jokes about O.J. Simpson, the L.A. riots, and a “negro inflation tax.” The elder son wants a bar mitzvah, and younger one doesn’t realize that Barack Obama is the first black president. If the “Modern Family” subtext is, When it comes to family, we’re all the same, then “Black-ish” is responding, Well, not exactly.

Despite some appealing performances by Tracee Ellis Ross and Laurence Fishburne, “Black-ish” is more interesting for what it represents: the first black family comedy on a major network in eight years. (The last was “The Bernie Mac Show.”) It’s premiere will be followed a week later by “Cristela,” a broad, laugh-track accompanied sitcom starring the popular Mexican-American stand-up comic Cristela Alonzo. Think of it as a Texan “King of Queens.” Alonzo, an energetic comedian who hasn’t yet figured out how to adjust her persona for a multi-camera sitcom set, plays a sixth-year law student living with her sister, brother-in-law, and immigrant mother. While “Black-ish” tackles the difficulties of embracing your heritage after getting rich and moving to the suburbs, Cristela’s character is still struggling to make that jump. Her family mocks her for giving up a steady gig at a call center to intern for free at a big-time law firm. At work, she’s surrounded by stereotypes of white privilege: an openly racist boss, a naive white boy who’s never held a job, a rich blonde who asks Cristela to empty the office trash, only to apologize and ask her to validate her parking.

ABC/Bob D'Amico
Cristela Alonzo

“Black-ish” and “Cristela,” which explicitly address race, ethnicity, and assimilation, stand out in a fall season that’s the most diverse in recent TV history. They’ll be joined later this year by “Fresh off the Boat,” a ’90s-set sitcom about a Taiwanese-American family moving to uber-white Orlando. In “Selfie,” Korean-American John Cho plays the romantic male lead in an ill-conceived Pygmalion update, while Viola Davis is a leather-clad law professor in “How to Get Away with Murder” (which also caps off a full night of Shonda Rhimes-produced dramas). And that’s just ABC. 

It may be strange to call “shows about non-white people” a trend, and, yes, the TV landscape is still far more monochromatic than the America it broadcasts to. It was only six years ago when  the networks announced a fall lineup without a single new series led by an actor of color—unless you count “The Cleveland Show,” a cartoon with an animated black dad voiced by a white guy. It hasn’t entirely been for lack of trying; the networks have had diversity divisions in place for years, since the NAACP first called them out in 1999. The result: stigmatized “diversity hires” in the writers’ rooms, and the addition of a “black best friend” to ensemble casts. What has changed now isn’t TV executives’ commitment to multicultural ideals. They’ve just finally realized that diversity is good business. 

In fact, shows with more diverse casts have larger audiences, according to recent research from UCLA’s Bunche Center for African American Studies. (Median ratings were highest for shows with casts that were 40 to 50 percent minority, and lowest for shows with casts that were less than 10 percent minority.) Though we don’t know the audience demographics for all the shows included in the study, these ratings aren’t only because of minority viewers; shows like “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy” are popular with lots of different people. Still, black viewers watch 37 percent more television than the U.S. average, according to Nielsen—a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by advertisers.

But TV fans excited about Anthony Anderson and Viola Davis on their screens this fall also have a struggling and fractured industry to thank. As networks hemorrhage viewers, they have found they can no longer ignore even a small slice of viewers. Between Netflix, Hulu, and hundreds of cable channels, there has never been more to watch on TV, and more ways to watch it. Back when a show like “Everybody Loves Raymond” could reliably get an audience in the tens of millions, the network strategy was to aim broad. Shows that targeted an under-served portion of the potential audience—teenagers, kids, black viewers—migrated first to upstart networks like UPN and the WB, and then finally to cable. But broadcast ratings are now under half of what they were a decade ago, and continue to drop from 10 to 15 percent a year, making the networks appreciate even niche audiences. It’s why NBC kept “Community” on for five seasons: Nothing they air will attract 30 million people, so there’s some value in drawing in three million Dan Harmon fans. With so many people tuning out entirely, the broadcast networks can’t risk taking any potential viewers for granted.

It’s not just that, on a whole, minorities watch more television. “Multicultural audiences are more likely to talk about TV through social media,” says Adriana Waterston, a marketing executive who consults for TV networks and cable companies. “So they’re not only viewers, but also promoters.” Twenty-two percent of black people online used Twitter in 2013, compared to 16 percent of white Internet users, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. All the networks want a repeat of “Scandal”—a show that became a ratings juggernaut only after it was already a live-tweeting phenomenon—and targeting black viewers, especially black women, is one way to do that.  

Darnell Hunt, who runs the UCLA study on Hollywood diversity, has begun working on next year’s report, which will examine 1,300 shows and crunch the numbers on the racial composition of each show's audience, with data provided by Nielsen. It will come out next spring—by which point, “Black-ish” and “Cristela” may be distant memories. The economic incentives that helped get them on the air, though, won’t be going anywhere.