TIME Television

Network TV, Now In Living Color

Fresh off the Boat TV Show
ABC Fresh off the Boat

Television’s newfound racial diversity is about profit as much as inclusion

In 2008, as the U.S. was about to elect its first black President, the major broadcast networks announced a fall schedule that featured only one show starring a person of color. And that depended on your definitions of person and of color: the series, Fox’s The Cleveland Show, was animated, and its African-American lead was voiced by a white guy.

The ensuing years have proved, from Trayvon Martin to Donald Sterling, that the Obama age did not usher in a postracial paradise. But here’s one sign of hope and change: those same broadcasters just announced what is likely their most racially diverse new schedule ever. There will be sitcoms about African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American families; dramas starring black women; a music-business drama about a black family; and an ambitious legal drama about race in America from the screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave. (All this after Comedy Central named Larry Wilmore, The Daily Show’s “senior black correspondent,” to host The Minority Report after Stephen Colbert leaves next year.)

TV has been through this cycle before: the networks announce a vanilla schedule, protests arise, things get better for a while, until they don’t. But there’s a reason to think the change will be more lasting this time–the only reason to believe anything in Hollywood: money.

The main audience for the networks’ schedule announcements is advertisers. Once, networks would pitch the few shows with minority leads by scheduling them in “urban” blocks or assuring Madison Avenue that white viewers wouldn’t flee shows with stars of color. Inclusiveness was nice, but would it pay?

Today, though, advertisers know it does. When Coca-Cola aired a striking Super Bowl ad with “America the Beautiful” sung in languages other than English, it bet that in today’s America the multicultural halo was worth any xenophobic pushback. Interracial or gay couples have been in ads for Cheerios, Chevrolet, Banana Republic and Honey Maid graham crackers.

Meanwhile, the networks have proof that minority stars are not commercial suicide. Indian American Mindy Kaling is going into her third year on The Mindy Project, while two of the biggest hit dramas, Scandal and Sleepy Hollow, star black women, as does CBS’s summer sci-fi tentpole Extant, with Halle Berry. This isn’t some condescending “tolerance”–it’s viewers of all colors wanting authenticity, a world that looks like their world, where white is no longer the default.

And it’s truer the younger the audience gets. More than 40% of millennial adults are nonwhite. Youth-oriented ABC Family has for years cast shows like The Fosters and Switched at Birth with attention to race, disability and sexual orientation. Now its former chief, Paul Lee, runs ABC, the network with the most diverse fall schedule. “You’re going to see shows reflecting the already changed face of America,” he told advertisers.

Young people want diversity. Advertisers want young people. Networks want advertisers. That may not be stirring idealism, but it works. Diversity achieved through shame can fade when the headlines do. Diversity demanded through the market is sturdier, because media companies’ desire for money never fades.

Of course the shows, like any shows, need to be good. Creatively, I’m most excited about how this new crop is aware of the complexities of ethnic cross-pollination today. In ABC’s Fresh off the Boat, based on chef Eddie Huang’s memoir of growing up Taiwanese-American in the ’90s, young Eddie (Hudson Yang) is obsessed with hip-hop culture and African-American rappers like Notorious B.I.G. In Black-ish (produced by Wilmore), Anthony Anderson plays a family man grappling with what it means to be black in an affluent, largely white community.

These shows are engaging with a culture whose boundaries are more porous– a world that’s not black and white but black-ish, white-ish, yellow-ish, brown-ish. There’s still work to do. Stereotypes haven’t disappeared. TV has hardly become perfect. But it’s getting better … ish.

This appears in the June 09, 2014 issue of TIME.
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