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New Frontiers in TV Diversity

The 2014-15 television season is almost in the books, and it will arguably go down as one of the most groundbreaking as it pertains to diversity.

The success of a group of new shows on both traditional and digital TV platforms has helped to eradicate some long-held preconceived notions about shows created by and starring people of diverse backgrounds.

First, this TV season has proven that content with diverse themes and lead characters can appeal beyond specific niche groups. The explosion this year of shows such as Empire, Jane the Virgin, How to Get Away With Murder, Black-ish and Power on traditional cable and broadcast TV, as well as Orange Is the New Black and Transparent on over-the-top subscription video services, is remarkable, given the unprecedented competition and fragmented viewership of the current TV environment.

The fact that all of these shows performed well — especially Fox’s Empire, which, incredibly, saw its viewership climb virtually every week of its 12-week run — is a testament to each show’s ability to appeal not just to multicultural viewers who are watching lead characters that reflect their images and cultures like never before, but to mainstream viewers as well.

Second, services including Amazon and Netflix have proven you can build successful series around transgender characters who are complicated, compelling and three-dimensional, rather than cartoonish caricatures that viewers could easily dismiss as weird or somehow not real. Jeffrey Tambor’s Golden Globe-winning portrayal of a middle-aged woman inside a man’s body in Amazon’s Transparent, as well as Netflix’s depiction of multiethnic and LGBT characters in Orange Is the New Black, have shown that realistic portrayals of LGBT people will get viewers to tune in, not tune out.

Third, it’s good to have diversity behind the camera as well as in front of it. From Empire’s Lee Daniels to The Haves and the Have Nots’s Tyler Perry, to How to Get Away With Murder’s Shonda Rhimes to Power’s Courtney Kemp Agboh and Fresh Off the Boat’s Eddie Huan, this new wave of multicultural producers, directors, writers and showrunners is providing viewers with narratives that reflect unique experiences and cultural nuances — no better or worse than anyone else’s; just different than what viewers have seen in the past — that have put a fresh and colorful coat of paint on traditional TV genres that viewers love to watch.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.