clock menu more-arrow no yes

Many TV executives love talking about diversity. Doing something about it, not so much.

When talking about diversity becomes exhausting, boring, and unproductive, no one wins.

2016 Summer TCA Tour - Day 6
Theresa Vargas Wyatt, Carlos Coto, Victoria Mahoney, Tichina Arnold, D'Angela Proctor, Russ Parr, Anthony Hemingway and Jurnee Smollett-Bell at TCA for CMAT’s Diversity Panel
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Almost every network executive introducing their fall TV schedule at this summer's Television Critics Association press tour was quick to tout the diversity of their programming lineup, or to reassure the assembled critics that they take diversity seriously, they know they can do better with diversity, have you heard that they’re truly very concerned with diversity?

In short, just about everyone wanted us to know they love diversity. The exception? Many of the nonwhite people in the room were sick to death of talking about it.

It’s true that TV has made progress toward making the overall pop culture landscape a little less straight, white, and male. This is a fact most of the white executives at the press tour — nearly all of them, with the notable exception of ABC’s new president, Channing Dungey — emphasized, professing their commitment to making their shows "more diverse" over and over again.

But many nonwhite directors, writers, actors, and producers who appeared on various panels —in front of the TCA's predominantly white group of TV journalists, as The Undefeated's Soraya McDonald recently pointed out — were far more likely to wince, or even recoil, at the term "diversity."

"I would be so happy when 'diversity' is not a word," sighed Black-ish creator Kenya Barris. "I have the best job in the world, and I am constantly having to talk about diversity."

"It's exhausting, it's boring," said director Victoria Mahoney (there for Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse) of the never-ending conversation. "I’m starving for something else."

And when a reporter asked Issa Rae — creator of the Awkward Black Girl web series and creator/star of HBO’s upcoming Insecurewhich word she’d use instead of "diverse," she shrugged, plainly tired.

"Just ‘normal,’" Rae said, "would be great."

For many nonwhite creatives, having to constantly talk about What Diversity Means is a frustrating distraction from the work itself

Insecure director Melina Matsoukas, showrunner Prentice Penny, and creator, star, writer, and producer Issa Rae.
Insecure director Melina Matsoukas, showrunner Prentice Penny, and creator, star, writer, and producer Issa Rae.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Over the course of almost three weeks’ worth of back-to-back panels, interviews, and executive sessions at the press tour, this frankness and exhaustion emerged in full force after years of increasingly loud rumbling.

In the past couple years, both TV titan Shonda Rhimes and Selma director Ava DuVernay have publicly and specifically rolled their eyes at the word "diversity," especially as it pertains to the habit some people have developed of equating the onscreen presence of a single nonwhite person with being "diverse."

In January, during the height of the backlash against the whitest Oscar nominations in recent memory, DuVernay dismissed "diversity" as a "medicinal" term. Before that, Rhimes, while speaking at a Human Rights Campaign fundraiser in March 2015, said the way "reporters and tweeters" speak about diversity "suggests something … other," when really, she views her race-blind casting less as an attempt to diversify TV and more as an attempt to "normalize" it.

On the one hand, ongoing conversations about how to make TV shows and movies more representative and inclusive are still important and necessary, and there are always people in Hollywood who should be taking them into consideration. On the other hand, for the nonwhite creatives who are just trying to do good work and be recognized for it, constantly having to talk about what diversity and inclusion mean can be way more exhausting than illuminating.

During the Black-ish panel featuring the show’s cast and creative team, Barris’s frustrated answer to a (white) reporter asking about the racial demographics of Black-ish’s audience was a particularly illustrative moment, not to mention an emotional one. Barris was visibly exasperated by the question; the show’s previously jubilant cast immediately fell silent.

"It [doesn’t] matter who is watching our show," Barris finally said, with a deep, frustrated sigh. "The fact is that they’re watching it. I feel like every question, every panel … I’m so tired of talking about diversity. These are amazing, talented actors and amazing writers who give their all and don’t have to do this, and it’s clouding the conversation."

When Barris was finished speaking, Black-ish star and recent Emmy nominee Tracee Ellis Ross cocked her head at the reporter who had asked the inciting question and posed one of her own: "Is that a question that you’ve asked other shows that are not predominantly of a certain color?"

"Not necessarily," the reporter replied. Ross leaned back in her chair, her point made.

Many creators and actors of color are still waiting for claims of wanting "more diversity" to evolve beyond the empty buzzword stage

Survivor’s Remorse director Victoria Mahoney and actress Tichina Arnold.
Survivor’s Remorse director Victoria Mahoney and actress Tichina Arnold.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The week before the Black-ish panel, the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing hosted a lunchtime "special diversity panel" featuring several series creators, directors, and actors of color, including director Anthony Hemingway (The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Underground) and actresses Tichina Arnold (Survivor’s Remorse) and Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Underground).

The discussion was lively, overflowing with passion as the panelists made their cases for why diversity is important and why they’re tired of having to talk about it. The phrase "it’s a constant fight" was uttered more than once.

Survivor’s Remorse director Mahoney quickly established herself as a particularly urgent, clear voice. She spoke about her long career of trying to get people to take her seriously, despite having more credits to her name than the white men she was competing against when looking for new projects.

She said the only reason she was considered to direct Survivor’s Remorse was that series creator Mike O’Malley specifically sought out black women directors via Twitter. Otherwise, Mahoney said, she might never have entered the running.

Mahoney continued:

I went out and shadowed on jobs where the show creator, producer, and directors didn’t know my last name and never knew I directed a feature film. That’s how disinterested they were in hiring me. They were never going to hire me. They just wanted to tick a [diversity] box.

We have to move past the "ticking a box" stage into proper hires. And my interest isn’t to go out and meet people who are curious to meet the unicorn. My interest is to go out and meet people who say, "I am going to hire a woman of color for this film or this TV show, full stop."

It wasn’t long before we got to see exactly the difference she was talking about in action.

Case study No. 1: When FX realized its creative teams were largely white and male, the network actively tried to find a better balance

FX president John Landgraf
FX president John Landgraf has made a concerted effort to hire more women and people of color.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The two most revealing — and most extreme — executive sessions to focus on "diversity" didn’t come until the final days of the tour, when many reporters were burnt out after three weeks of hearing the same talking points.

On August 9, FX’s John Landgraf opened his remarks by referencing an article by Variety’s Maureen Ryan, published in November 2015, that detailed how overwhelmingly white and male TV tends to be behind the scenes. Ryan had named FX a top offender due to its director slate, which was 88 percent white men during the 2014-’15 TV season.

"In my view," Landgraf said, "the state of affairs described by [Ryan] represented a failure of leadership on my part." Initially, his remarks fell mostly in line with the typical mea culpas we’ve heard over and over again regarding the Diversity Issue, which tend to be more about taking blame than presenting any kind of solution.

But then Landgraf said something much more surprising — and more promising: "I immediately set out to correct that error."

And lo, Landgraf sent Ryan’s numbers to every one of FX’s showrunners and insisted that they course-correct. Of the 149 episodic directors those showrunners have booked since June, 51 percent are "female and/or diverse," while 49 percent are white men.

"It is well past time for change to happen," Landgraf said, matter-of-factly. "It is only a matter of rethinking our priorities and of putting in the collective effort for us to make it so."

While he admitted that FX still has work to do before the network reaches true parity, the fact that he mandated change is significant in and of itself — which is a sad thing to type, but hey, that’s also what makes it especially true. Reporters, fans, and creatives alike are so used to hearing variations on "we can always do better" that it was borderline stunning to realize Landgraf had actually gone out and done better.

And then there was CBS.

Case study No. 2: CBS admits it "needs to do better" but doesn’t appear to be trying

On August 10 — the day after FX’s panels, which didn’t help — CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller bragged that the network had recently cast 16 supporting actors across all of its shows, and 11 of them were nonwhite. But if he thought such a stat would stave off questions about CBS’s overwhelmingly white and male programming lineup, he was very much mistaken.

All six of the new shows CBS currently has slated for the fall star and were created by straight white men, and the first question Geller fielded during his executive session (which, as it happens, came from Maureen Ryan) asked why it’s "so difficult to get more inclusion for people of color in the top level of casting at CBS."

Later, someone else asked whether it concerns Geller that all 10 of the new showrunners CBS has hired for fall are white. Another person pointed out that this same issue has consistently come up for CBS, including repeated instances at this very press tour.

Geller gave just about the same answer to all of them: "We need to do better, and we know it."

That’s pretty difficult to believe, though, because it doesn’t appear that CBS is actively trying to fix the problem.

Acknowledging a problem without actually making changes isn’t enough

Black-ish stars Laurence Fishburne and Tracee Ellis Ross.
Black-ish stars Laurence Fishburne and Tracee Ellis Ross.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

At this point, the very basic act of acknowledging your shortcomings doesn’t mean much if you don’t plan to actually improve.

Whereas it might have once been notable for a TV network to admit that highlighting the same demographic over and over again is problematic, today more and more networks are finally embracing viewpoints and voices that exist outside Hollywood’s traditional default of straight, white, and male.

Consequently, television isn’t only more representative, inclusive, and, yeah, diverse, but these inclusion initiatives are actually resulting in tangible success stories — something that even those execs who are mostly concerned with profits should be able to appreciate.

There are ratings giants like Rhimes’s Thursday night programming block — which includes Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal — or Fox’s Empire. There are award-winning critical hits like Black-ish and Amazon’s Transparent. There are sharp and unique shows like ABC’s The Real O’Neals (whose writers’ room includes six gay writers) and Netflix’s Master of None (created by second-generation immigrants Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang), whose stories rely on the firsthand experiences of people outside TV comedy’s go-to bubble of straight white guys.

Basically: White male executives and creatives alike are realizing there’s a ton of talent to mine outside their usual social circles, and it’s making TV better.

By comparison, those who don’t — or won’t — make inclusion a priority will look stubbornly retrograde and unoriginal by comparison, no matter how much they talk about valuing "diversity."

Updated to include McDonald's piece, "As television becomes more diverse, its corps of mainstream critics remains starkly white."