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Beyond Plain Vanilla

Tears were flowing from the eyes of actress Gina Rodriguez as she talked about the final season of The CW’s Jane the Virgin during the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour.

When it debuted in 2014, Jane the Virgin was one of a few scripted series featuring a Latina lead, but by the time it departs this spring, it’ll have a lot of company.

Today, more TV programs are featuring people of color in leading roles and behind the television camera than ever before in the history of the medium.

Chelsea Rendon in Starz's 'Vida'

Chelsea Rendon in Starz's 'Vida'

In the 2016-17 television season, people of color comprised 21.5% of the lead actors in broadcast scripted series, according to the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report 2019. That’s up sharply from just 11.4% of lead actors in 2014.

That growth has been seen across the Hollywood strata. The success of shows featuring actors of color in lead roles or strong multicultural casts such as Jane the Virgin, ABC’s Black-ish and Starz’s Power — along with an increase in outlets offering diverse images and stories — has led to a proliferation of multicultural-themed television shows across streaming services, as well as broadcast and cable networks.

A Screen Reflecting Everything

“Once upon a time there was a very vanilla look at our world through three broadcast networks,” Marc Berman, editor of TV industry website Programming Insider, said. “Now with broadcast, cable and digital streaming services, television is beginning to resemble how the world really looks like, and that’s changed the face of television.”

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Despite the explosion in multicultural content, though, actors and creators of color remain cautiously optimistic that this growth period is not just a trend that will eventually phase out in a few years, as has happened in the past.

“I don’t know if we’re having a moment or a trend,” Tanya Saracho, showrunner and executive producer of Starz’s Latina-themed drama series Vida, said. “We’ve always gone in cycles regarding [inclusive] content — every so often we’re excited and say it’s great to see this and that show on the air, and then it goes away.”

For now, multicultural-themed TV programming is thriving. Nearly half of the top scripted broadcast series of the 2017-18 season in the 18-49 demo featured a multicultural lead character or prominently featured multicultural actors in its cast, led by NBC’s This Is Us and including Fox’s Empire and ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, according to Nielsen.

On cable, Starz’s gritty crime drama Power — starring a predominantly multicultural cast and helmed by African-American director Courtney Kemp and hip-hop artist 50 Cent — is the second-most-watched series on premium television among adults 18-49 and the most watched among African-American viewers, according to Nielsen.

“Starz originals attract the most diverse audience of the premium networks with the highest composition of women and African-American audiences, and they also rank No. 1 in African-American households,” Starz president of programming Carmi Zlotnik said at the TCA tour.

Behind the camera, networks and streaming services are inking creators of color to lucrative, long-term production deals, from Netflix’s exclusive multiyear deal with Shonda Rhimes, to BET’s signing of prolific producer Tyler Perry to a long-term production deal, to Showtime’s first-look deal with Emmy award-winning producer Lena Waithe.

Showtime president of entertainment Gary Levine said shows such as Waithe’s inner-city drama The Chi — which launched its sophomore season this past Sunday (April 7) — have shown wide crossover appeal. The network has already greenlit a second Waithe series, How to Make Love to a Black Woman (Who May Be Working Through Some Sh*t).

The Chi has enormous appeal for us — it’s by no means just African-American, so what we try to do is have a mix of shows and a creative portfolio that really offers a wide range of tastes and tones, and our goal is to make at least one of those shows your favorite show on television,” he said.

The result has been a substantial increase of multicultural images and storylines across scripted series on both digital and traditional platforms.

More Shows, More Roles

During the 2016-17 TV season, people of color doubled their share of lead roles in scripted fare on digital platforms to 21.3% in 2016-17 from 12.9% in 2015-16, according to the UCLA 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report. On cable, the number jumped to 21.3% from 20.2% and on broadcast, the number increased to 21.5% from 18.7% year to year.

The numbers mark the first time actors in lead roles surpassed the 20% mark across all platforms since UCLA began monitoring in 2011-12, according to the report.

Off screen, creators of color are also experiencing a major boom. The number of shows created by diverse writers and producers on broadcast TV more than doubled in five years to 9.4% from 4.2% in 2011-12, according to the study. For cable and digital, the numbers jumped to 11.2% and 16.5% in 2016-17 from 7.4% and 6.2% five years prior respectively, the report said.

Yet with all the advances made in the multicultural programming genre, there’s still some hesitation and fear among TV veterans that today’s boom is a momentary blip and, much as in past years, the momentum for such content will fade along with the images and storylines.

The most recent example of this came in the late 1990s, when upstart broadcast networks Fox, UPN and The WB launched a bevvy of mostly African-American led shows such as Living Single, Martin, Sister Sister, Girlfriends and In Living Color, only to jettison those shows for programming viewed as more appealing to a broader audience.

Vida’s Saracho is not ready to let her guard down about a repeat of what transpired nearly 20 years ago. Vida, which will launch its second season this May, features a mostly Latina production crew along with a predominantly Latinx cast.

“We need to see more of these shows to come out for proof — right now, we’re the only Latinx-themed show on prime cable,” she said. “We do have [FX comedy series] Atlanta, [HBO comedy series] Insecure and other [diverse] shows and I’m hopeful, but I’m not optimistic that we’re there yet.”

While stopping short of defining this a Golden Age of multicultural television, Programming Insider’s Berman said we’re in an age where the American population is represented more accurately on the small screen than in prior years.

“We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet,” he said. “But it definitely is an improved era of multiculturalism.”

Streaming Offers an Outlet

Actress Kim Fields, who starred in Fox’s 1990s comedy series Living Single as part of her 45-year career in the television industry, said the influx of streaming distributors like Netflix, Hulu and BritBox will continue to provide increased opportunities to showcase all images and stories to be showcased.

(From l.): Alex R. Hibbert, Michael Epps and Shamon Brown in Showtime’s The Chi.

(From l.): Alex R. Hibbert, Michael Epps and Shamon Brown in Showtime’s The Chi.

“The onslaught of these wonderful platforms provides more opportunities for distribution for me as an actor and a content provider,” said Fields, who is currently starring in BritBox’s comedy series Living the Dream. “I’m ecstatic over all the different playgrounds that have opened up.”

Network executives are also optimistic that more multicultural-themed programming is no longer a trend but is fully ingrained into the television industry’s business psyche.

“I believe that this is the way it’s going to go going forward and not just a trend or a moment in time,” OWN president Tina Perry said. The network is aggressively rolling out scripted content targeting African-American viewers, from established shows such as Greenleaf and Queen Sugar, to new series such as the Tarell Alvin McCraney-created series David Makes Man.

“When you look at productions like ours that are having huge ratings success with the commitment of having diversity and inclusion in front of and behind the camera, it’s undeniable that others in the industry have to think about behaving in the same way,” Perry said. “I think we’re onto something that’s going to last.”

Added Showtime’s Levine: “I don’t think this is a fad. … I think this is a long overdue broadening and deepening of the range of the characters and actors that are on all of our screens.”

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.