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Why advertisers can be a big speed bump on TV’s path to diversity

Ideas about which demographics are desirable have driven TV decision-making for years.

Netflix's Narcos will air reruns on Univision.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every May, the TV networks announce their fall schedules to advertisers at an event called the upfronts. They aim to sell their new shows to ad buyers at the highest possible price, while the ad buyers try to stay skeptical. It's an antiquated ritual that, nonetheless, is enormously important to the business of TV, and we'll be there all week.

Outside New York's Lyric Theatre, where Univision held its upfront presentation on Tuesday, May 17, the company was bragging about an audience it labeled "cord keepers," proclaiming on each poster that 92 percent of the network's viewers watch its programming live.

Considering that Univision's ratings (especially in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic) are often high enough to land it in first place among all networks, and considering how much advertisers love live viewership, that was a big boast to make. Its message was implicit: If advertisers want the attention of a large, young, live viewership, their best bet isn't NBC or CBS — it's Univision.

And, yes, that's self-serving Univision spin, but there's also an element of desperate truth to it. As I wrote last year, Univision has struggled to establish the kind of advertising reach with popular brands that you'd expect such a successful (and growing) network to have.

Still, Univision spent most of its upfront presentation talking about its increasingly large portfolio of brands. (The company recently made major investments in websites like the Onion and the Root, and it owns other brands you've probably never heard of, like the online comedy site Flama.) If it's proud of its TV viewership — and it is — it doesn't want you to forget it also owns websites and (curiously) radio outlets.

All of this might seem odd, but it was part of Univision's overall 2016 pitch: We're more than you think we are, which is to say we're not just Spanish-language programming. Even Netflix knows our audience is worth courting (more on that in a minute). Please buy advertising with us.

Will it work? I'm skeptical, and here's why.

How CBS's "too female" controversy illuminates Univision's struggles

MAXIM Magazine's 'Big Game Weekend' Sponsored By AQUAhydrate - Day 2
Did CBS reject a new Sarah Shahi pilot for being "too female"? That's what one report says.
Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for AQUAhydrate

Late last week, Deadline reported that CBS had passed on Drew, its modern adaptation of the Nancy Drew book series (in which Nancy was an adult played by Person of Interest star Sarah Shahi), because the project was "too female."

That assessment was curious, thanks to the fact that Drew's showrunners were also tied to Doubt, another pilot with a woman (played by Katherine Heigl) at its center. Most industry analysts believed the showrunner conflict would lead CBS to move forward with only one of the two woman-led series — and, ultimately, Doubt did get picked up for midseason.

When I asked CBS president Glenn Geller to expand on the decision at CBS's scheduling press conference, he said it wasn't true that the network had passed on Drew because it was too female, explaining the pilot wasn't as successful as others CBS had picked up. But the network also picked up a MacGyver pilot that it's going to completely reconceive. (That said, it's possible Drew was just that bad — it happens.)

Still, as you might expect, the "too female" comment, regardless of its veracity, prompted outrage — but the outrage largely missed what was truly awful about the report (which, it's important to note, came from an anonymous source, though you can usually trust Deadline's reporting). Network decisions are guided by demographics, yes, but not in the way you might think.

"Too female" doesn't mean CBS doesn't want shows with female protagonists — after all, its biggest critical success of the past decade was The Good Wife, and it seems likely that Allison Janney will win Emmys for Mom until the end of time.

No, my best guess as to what "too female" means is that when CBS tested the Drew pilot, it appealed to female viewers more than male viewers, to some unacceptable degree. And that could have upset the network's advertisers.

Because women watch more TV than men on average, advertisers place a premium on being able to reach men. So programs that are "too female" are either quietly scuttled or scheduled to air opposite programs that might draw more men (as CBS has used Madam Secretary and The Good Wife against NBC's Sunday Night Football).

What does this have to do with Univision? A big reason TV has struggled with diversity for so long — and why only ABC seems to be committed to it as a long-term business strategy instead of a passing phase — is rooted in the sorts of demographics advertisers find desirable.

Those demographics are usually young and white and upper-class. And if they're men, all the better. CBS's "too female" comment isn't the same thing as Univision's struggle to get big brands to advertise with it, but they exist on the same continuum.

Don't forget the role advertisers play in how TV networks make decisions

Club de Cuervos
Netflix's Club de Cuervos will also air reruns on Univision.

While there's a host of reasons for TV's struggle to diversify, advertising is one that's often poorly understood.

Programmers believe that tastemakers in desirable demographics want to watch shows about people who are just like them — which is why there have always been so many shows about young, single, white people who don't seem to worry much about money. The networks will take a ding from the press about diversity if they can attract viewers who look just like the characters onscreen (and will hopefully buy the products advertised).

This is changing. Television is slowly moving away from a world where demographics matter in the same way they did in, say, the 1990s, when a show like Friends was legitimately a massive hit but also attracted tons of the 18- to 49-year-old white people with disposable income that advertisers targeted, and advertisers are following suit. But the key word in all of that is "slowly."

This is what makes Univision's other major announcement — a deal with Netflix to rebroadcast the streaming service's Spanish-language series Narcos and Club de Cuervos on Univision proper, and to produce a new series, El Chapo, together — so interesting, because it offers a glimpse of where TV might be headed.

Netflix doesn't care whether its subscribers are part of any particular demographic, as long as they can afford the monthly subscription fee. And it's betting that it has room to grow among Spanish-language or bilingual households, which is probably correct.

It's easy, when you're frustrated with TV's lack of diversity, to blame individual shows or actors or even networks. And there's nothing wrong with that. All bear some amount of blame for the industry's issues.

But something like the idea of a show being "too female" or Univision's attempts to brand itself as a place where advertisers can reach a wider audience than they think they can points to something TV viewers often miss as a pernicious influence all its own: the advertisers who keep the lights on.