Strategic observation

Spotlight: Hollywood television network upfronts push for diversity

2018-05-31 02:46:14 (Beijing Time)


by Julia Pierrepont III

LOS ANGELES, May 30 (Xinhua) -- The Upfronts 2018, the television industry's annual self-congratulatory dog and pony show presented their 2018-2019 line-up of shows to their top advertisers in NYC this month. The biggest "take-away" from the U.S. television industry's most important annual event was: bet on diversity.

With the growing influence of the Women's rights #TimesUp and #MeToo movements and people-of-color organizations, plus the trends in TV audience demographics that show increased viewing by women and people of color, the pressure is on to make shows that are more relevant to those populations.

Responding to the pressure, of the 35 new shows picked up by the big five network broadcasters, 18 feature people-of-color in lead roles. Of those 18, one has an Asian lead, six star Latinos, and the remaining 11 feature African American actors.

"We're feeling good about our diversity," enthused Kelly Kahl, president of CBS Entertainment at their upfront presentation this past week.

CBS, long criticized for its non-diversified lineup of shows that star middle-aged white men, pulled off a coup by grabbing the top slot for the highest number of minority actors.

Six of CBS's nine new shows feature people-of-color in lead roles, including the "Magnum P.I." reboot, starring Jay Hernandez, three shows with African American leads, plus shows with six female leads, including "Murphy Brown."

Jimmy Kimmel gave CBS a gentle ribbing, saying, "I have to admit, I'm kind of excited about 'Murphy Brown.' I think it's refreshing to see anything brown on CBS."

Recovering from its Matt Lauer "Today Show" scandal, NBC, the network Seth Meyers jokingly refers to as "Nothing But Chicago" ("Chicago Fire," "Chicago Med," "Chicago P.D.") showed a mixed bag with their eight shows. Four shows feature seven people of color in lead roles, a slight gain from six last year, but their shows with female leads were down from ten in 2017 to eight this year.

ABC network chief, Paul Lee, is betting on diversity and its broader ethnic audience, with shows he calls "extraordinary entertainment" with "new voices." ABC has "Fresh Off the Boat," "Black-ish," "American Crime," and "Cristela." Fielding 8 shows, including Shonda Rhime's "The People" and "How to Get Away with Murder," and "Grey's Anatomy," five had people of color in leading roles, while seven featured female stars, compared with 11 in 2017.

The CW, which boasts female starrers, "Supergirl," "Charmed," and "Jane the Virgin," showed some real gains, with six female leads up from four the year before. There are also six non-white leads, up from three last year.

"I'm an artist, and I see the world through that lens. Art tears down misconceptions and opens eyes to the beauty of our differences," said Gina Rodriquez, star of CW's "Jane the Virgin."

Fox stayed constant with its four minority leads over five shows, but claimed a big increase in female starrers, up to six leads from only two the year before in shows such as "Proven Innocent" and the "Cool Kids."

But, the most important determinant in the success of Hollywood's on-going diversity effort in television content and star talent is determined by who runs the show behind the camera. And in 2018's network TV's line-up, female and minority show-runners remain grossly under-represented.

Of the 18 shows that star people-of-color in front of the camera, only four have people-of-color show-runners or key creative behind the camera.

ABC has five female creators and show-runners, but scored the worst for POC executives, with zero minorities in those key positions. CW also had zero minority executives, but compensated with a whopping six female ones.

CBS and NBC both have one person-of-color creator/showrunner, but CBS has four female executives to NBC's one, while Fox had just one female showrunner and two people-of-color executives.

Since TV networks are dependent on advertising and the networks are always chasing ad dollars, advertisers have a powerful impact on what shows get made and who make them.

Procter and Gamble, the multinational conglomerate that makes Crest, Pampers, Tide, and many other leading consumer products, has 127 billion U.S. dollars in assets and is the largest advertiser in the world. They spend 7.1 billion dollars annually to advertise their products worldwide, most of that on U.S. network TV.

Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer of P&G, spoke with Variety at the Upfronts, "We feel very strongly that we really need to be able to use our brands' voices in advertising as a force for growth. Transparency shined a spotlight on reality and we learned valuable lessons which are driving profound change."

He explained that P&G takes its proactive role spearheading diversity seriously and is leading the charge to ensure that women and girls are depicted accurately in ways that promote gender equality. He also stressed that P&G insists that the shows on which they advertise their brands promote racial equality and actively include the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities as well.

"We are really looking at ensuring that our ads reflect the diversity of the people that we serve," explained Pritchard.

"Because when the world's largest advertiser does that on an everyday brand, it has a positive effect on attitudes. It helps equality become the norm," he concluded.