Are This Season’s Diverse Shows Ushering in a New Era of Multicultural Television?

Image credit: Brendan Smyth
Image credit: Brendan Smyth

“Instead of people coming in and seeing a Chinese face and going, ‘Huh?’… They see a white face and say, ‘Oh, hello white friend! I am comfortable!’” — Fresh Off the Boat, “Pilot”

In the first episode of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, a new fish-out-of-water sitcom about a Taiwanese-American family that moves from DC to suburban Orlando, patriarch Louis Huang (Randall Park) floats the idea of hiring a white greeter for the steakhouse he owns so white people will feel comfortable when they walk in and spot a familiar face. It’s a clueless, optimistic line that is played for laughs, and Park’s delivery is laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also a line that works on multiple levels, because it speaks volumes about the current television landscape and its irritating approach to diversity: Networks cater to white audiences by always promoting white faces — or trying to universalize the nonwhite narratives that they do have in an attempt at mass appeal — rather than taking chances on stories whose characters don’t superficially resemble the majority of their viewers. 

Fresh Off the Boat is the first Asian-American sitcom in 20 years, since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, which ran for just one season (also on ABC) in 1994. The show is doing great in terms of both ratings (Episode 5, which aired February 17, had more viewers than Parks and Recreation and New Girl combined) and critical response — as are the other diverse freshman programs airing on major networks this season: ABC’s clever sitcoms Black-ish and Cristela, Fox’s infectious musical drama Empire, and The CW’s telenovela-inspired Jane the Virgin, which earned lead actress Gina Rodriguez a Golden Globe award.

With the overwhelming success of these new programs centered on nonwhite characters, it’s easy to wonder: Why didn’t this happen sooner? The answer is as simple to state as it is complicated to explain: Minority narratives have a hard time making it to network television and an even harder time staying there.

What makes this even more frustrating is that once these programs manage to get on the air, they tend to do very well in ratings and among critics but face extra challenges in achieving longevity. The networks’ loyalty to these programs is always in question, because history has shown executives aren’t fully committed to diverse shows for their own sake, instead relying on them for quick monetary gain or a temporary influx of viewers. And this is especially disappointing in light of fans’ love for these shows — just take a quick glance at your Twitter timeline during Shonda Rhimes’ Thursday takeover (Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder are inescapable) or when Empire airs on Wednesday, blowing up the trending topics before the episode even begins. There is even an ongoing joke, largely on Black Twitter, about how Black-ish and Empire are on at the same time, forcing us to choose.

Outside of audience enthusiasm, these shows are flourishing in terms of sheer popularity. Fresh Off the Boat‘s ratings increased 12 percent between Episodes 4 and 5 (and did especially well with teenagers). Empire’s ratings have increased with every episode since its premiere, for eight straight weeks, breaking Nielsen (and DVR) records. Cristela has been praised by critics and performs solidly in the Friday-night death slot (where it’s paired with conservative Tim Allen comedy Last Man Standing; the shows will even air a crossover episode this season). Black-ish not only debuted to great ratings but has also managed to hold its own in the coveted post-Modern Family time slot — a feat that is even more impressive when you note the vast number of shows that haven’t survived there: Mixology, How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life), Super Fun Night, and Mr. Sunshine were all canceled within one season; Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 got axed after the two, finishing its second season on Hulu; and Cougar Town eventually switched to TBS. These shows were, like most network series, largely white.

Empire
Empire

Some critics, culture writers, and network executives seem baffled by these new, diverse shows’ – and particularly ratings juggernaut Empire’s — success: Who knew that they would perform so well? Who knew that white viewers would occasionally watch and enjoy programs with diverse casts? Who knew that minority audiences seek out minority narratives?

This season it became painfully clear that there is a severe disconnect between — largely white — TV executives and us minority audiences. The fact that there is surprise about Empire or Black-ish’s success is almost offensive; of course these are shows that we wanted and shows that we will watch — we just never had them before. The thirst for representation is so strong that often we will latch on to any program that promotes diversity, even if it’s not that great; Shonda Rhimes’ first show, Grey’s Anatomy, has lost its shine, but fans continue to tune in to the current, 11th season to see black, Latino, and Asian medical professionals portrayed on screen. We just happened to luck out in that the shows being touted this season are actually good.

Naturally, there’s been a lot of praise for the diversity of this season’s TV narratives — even if that praise fails to take into account what a small percentage of programming these shows actually comprise. But this isn’t the first time a “boom” in diversity has occurred on television. Robin R. Means Coleman, an associate professor and the author of African American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy, is quick to dismiss the notion that this is a groundbreaking year for minority-focused narratives, explaining that representation on TV is follows a cyclical pattern. “About every 20 years, there is a surge in representations of blacks on television,” Coleman says. “In the ‘70s, there was a particular surge of blacks and black situation comedies: everything from Good Times and The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son — those kind of representations were being offered up.”

“In the ‘80s, you see a bit of an ebb in representations,” she continues. But “then they come back with significant quantity — not always quality — in the ‘90s and that’s what really sparked UPN and WB. You’ve got just dozens of black situation comedies that are being offered up in the ‘90s. The upstart networks are offering up these shows that are really inexpensive and hailing to specific audiences.”

Coleman is referring to all of the television shows of my childhood — I spent so much of the ‘90s glued to UPN that I feel a pang when she first mentions the network. There was In the House (1996-1999), rescued from NBC after the ’95 season, a sitcom starring LL Cool J (LL Cool J!) as a former football player who rents out his house to a divorced mother and her children; Malcolm and Eddie (1996-2000), an Odd Couple-like sitcom starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner from The Cosby Show and Eddie Griffin; Homeboys in Outer Space (1996-1997), which was a black parody of Star Trek; Goode Behavior (1996-1997), a comedy where the main draw was star Sherman Hemsley from The Jeffersons; and, of course, Moesha (1996-2001), which starred R&B singer Brandy and became the network’s biggest success, effectively launching a string of black sitcoms. The show’s impact is chronicled in Susanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton’s exhaustive 2007 book Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise & Fall of the WB and UPN:

Once Moesha hit in early 1996, UPN went headlong into the urban-ethnic comedy business. The network that bulled itself as “dramatically different” in its first full season, in 1995-96, with no half-hours on its three-night schedule, wound up stacking its 1996-97 season lineup with six urban-skewing comedy series, four on Monday and two on Tuesday. They were in the Moesha vein, meaning that they were built around personalities who rated highly with African American viewers.

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Moesha

Despite Moesha’s popularity with viewers, UPN was met with controversy at the Television Critics Association in 1996, with critics wondering if the network was actively trying to appeal to an urban audience (implying that it shouldn’t) and using terms like “ghettoizing” in reference to its new schedule. What these detractors failed to realize was how important those shows were to minority viewers. (They attracted white audiences as well; Coleman tells me that one of the specific audiences these shows were created to reach was “particularly [white] young men” who are interested in “comedies that had some connection to hip-hop culture — Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, for example.”) In fact, because I mostly watched UPN, WB (The Jamie Foxx Show, The Parent ‘Hood, Smart Guy, and Sister Sister, which had moved over from ABC), and Nickelodeon (My Brother and Me, Kenan & Kel) as a child, I was spoiled in the sense that I wasn’t fully aware that minorities were, well, also a minority on television.

Then, in the late ’90s, the tide of diverse television began to ebb again. Coleman explains that the shortage in minority narratives became “dire to the point that the NAACP, in ’99, launched a boycott against the big four networks [ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox] saying there’s a significantly poor representation [of minorities] both in front of and behind the camera.” By the early ‘00s, I was becoming more and more aware of how little I was seeing myself represented on television.

When the 2014-15 television season began, it was easy to characterize this as some groundbreaking year in which networks were finally coming to their senses about diverse programming. (This, despite the fact that the results of this so-called boom still seem slight when compared to the dozens of diverse shows that existed in the ‘90s, even though there were so many fewer original programs 20 years ago. The Wrap’s recent article, “Black Is the New Black,” oddly cites two shows about white families — The Goldbergs and The McCarthys — as examples of TV’s new diversity, perhaps because the author ran out of ideas.) In reality, these shows more likely represent the beginning of a new cycle to correct the lack of diversity that has plagued networks in recent years: It’s been 19 years since UPN launched Moesha, after all.

The existence of this cycle is what makes it difficult to muster unreserved enthusiasm for TV’s new gestures towards diversity. The abundance of African-American comedies in the ‘90s had less to do with networks actively pursuing representation out of good faith than with networks in a slump desperately seeking shows that were cheap and guaranteed an audience. But, as Coleman explains, “Once [networks] get back on sure grounds, they abandon that kind of programming. That’s exactly what Fox, UPN, and WB did… Once they got their audience, they moved into, and funneled that money into, other programs — 90210, Dawson’s Creek, and those sort of things — and they built their network up for that.”

“There’s interesting analogies in all sorts of labor structures in the history of America about how things are built on the backs of blacks,” Coleman tells me, “and the television industry isn’t very different.” Networks are always concerned with money above all, and will use these minority narratives to get there. They aren’t actively concerned with gaining or maintaining any specific minority audience, as long as they’re able to draw a sizable audience of any variety. What will happen in, say, 2020, when networks have decided that they no longer need Black-ish or Empire? Will those shows even last that long?