The class-action lawsuit filed in US District Court yesterday – alleging that ABC and producing companies have intentionally excluded people of color from lead roles on “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” – has reopened the issue of diversity in broadcast television.
Events such as the shooting death of Trayvon Martin have served as a backdrop for broader questions about whether America has come as far on racial equality as many would have hoped. Wednesday's lawsuit puts that spotlight on Hollywood.
To be sure, strides toward racial equality on TV have been made, experts say. But these advances are not as big – or as long-lasting – as many hoped.
- The 2011 fall network prime time television lineup included 27 new shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and the CW. Not one of the new scripted shows featured a predominantly minority cast, according to a 2011 survey by Angela Johnson Meadows, editor-in-chief of Diversity Best Practices.
- Network prime time television was in some ways more diverse 35 years ago than it is today. The 1976 fall series lineup included five shows – “Good Times,” “Chico and The Man,” “Sanford & Son,” “The Jeffersons,” and the quickly cancelled “Mr. T and Tina” – that were centered on minority characters.
- The only black lead in the current fall lineup is on “The Cleveland Show,” which is animated and the voice cast is primarily non-black, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for the Study of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
“We are still not where we need to be despite some of the great strides the networks have made in trying to be multicultural,” says Los Angeles-based activist Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic HOPE.
The problem is twofold, experts say.
One is a matter of clout within Hollywood.
"The few African Americans in higher positions in that industry lack power to green light new series or make final creative decisions, which has translated into a critical lack of primetime programming by, for, or about people of color," said NAACP Hollywood Bureau Executive Director Vicangelo Bulluck in a 2008 report on television diversity, the latest released by the group.
The other is networks' bottom line, and "The Bachelor" is a prime example.
The major networks have largely come to the conclusion, over many years of observation, ratings, and Q-tests, “that mostly white candidates on these types of shows will typically drive the highest number of viewers to them, since whites are still the largest single demographic group that they will reach, and these viewers, more often than not, wish to see individuals that are like themselves,” says Gordon Goedkoop, professor of communication at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, via e-mail.
Even with the proliferation of media sources online, the same principle has held firm.
“The finding from my experience is that even as the number of potential sources has proliferated online, there is no significant difference in the amount of diversity of talent and on-air performers,” says Len Shyles, communication professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia. “Why is this? In my view, it is because garnering profits is still at the heart of program production, and that is not tied to diversity concerns.”
The proliferation of African-American programming on cable outlets such as BET (Black Entertainment Television) might suggest there is less pressure for the broadcast networks to diversify. Yet the major networks have the greatest sway in influencing society because they "still put together the largest viewing audiences,” says Professor Thompson.
ABC has declined to comment on the "Bachelor" lawsuit, but diversity advocates say networks must go deeper than counting minority characters. They need to implement practices that change the culture of the business.
"The measure of progress can’t just be in terms of casting and programming,” says Andrea Hoffman, founder and CEO of Diversity Affluence. “The industry can grow ... by measuring diversity and inclusion across all areas of its business.”
She sees signs of progress in the diverse casting of hit reality shows including CBS's "Amazing Race" and "Survivor." She lauds NBC's "30 Rock" for casting notable African-Americans, and she highlights a TBS distribution deal with celebrated African-American writer/actor Tyler Perry to produce shows for the network.
Audiences, too, always have the power of the pocketbook at their disposal, says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of seven books on the black experience in America. He says: “If they can’t have a single lead contestant be black after all these years, and can’t or won’t find one, I say blacks should say they can’t and won’t watch or buy from their sponsors,”