Diversity Drought: Why Is TV So White?

Malcom-Jamal Warner (Getty), Angus T. Jones and Jon Cryer of 'Two and a Half Men' (Getty), and Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen of 'Modern Family' (Getty)more pics »
'The Cleveland Show' (Fox) The Cosby Show. Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Family Matters. All were popular television comedies and all featured African-American families.

But despite the critical and ratings successes that shows like those garnered in the 80s and 90s, today's television landscape is almost entirely devoid of scripted shows that center on families of color. In fact, the only black family unit currently headlining a network television show is the Brown family on Fox's The Cleveland Show. There you have it black American families: your television counterparts are animated and they live next door to a family of BEARS. Don't you identify with them so much? Isn't The Cleveland Show a perfect representation of your family life?

If you look beyond network television the outlook is rosier, but only by the very slightest of margins. TBS' Are We There Yet? and House of Payne, along with BET's Reed Between the Lines and The Game are the only scripted shows that currently feature primarily African-American casts.

And if African-American families have it bad on TV, Latino families have it even worse. Whereas shows like Ugly Betty and George Lopez used to offer Latino families a small modicum of representation on the small screen, current shows have made the "otherness" of Latino culture the butt of the joke. Rob Schneider's new show Rob! has the comedian marrying into a Hispanic family and lamenting how culturally different they are from him with lines like, "I feel like I'm at a Julio Iglesias concert."

On Modern Family, ABC's wildly popular comedy about a multigenerational family, jokes about Gloria's thick Columbian accent seem to happen at least every other episode. She's part of our family, but she can't pronounce the words like the rest of us — get it?!

And if you're Asian, yeah, you can pretty much forget about getting any semblance of a representation of your family life on TV. Lost's Sun and Jin gave TV viewers the story of a South Korean family for six seasons, but now all we've got are brief glimpses of Mike Chang's parents, who showed up for an episode or two of Glee to perpetuate a few Tiger Dad stereotypes before disappearing into the ether.

This isn't to say that there aren't lots of actors of color working in television today. But as TV critic Eric Deggans pointed out in a recent NPR piece, these minority actors tend to play the best friend/partner role rather than the main role. And the absence of non-white family units on television is staggering. Modern Family, Raising Hope, Suburgatory, The Middle, and Parenthood could all feasibly have casts of color. But none of them do.

"I've seen this movie before," Bill Cosby said in a recent interview with the LA Times. "How is it that there are people of color who are CEOs of companies, that are presidents of universities, but there is no reflection of that on the networks? It is arrogance and it is narcissism. Even the commercials have more black people than the programs."

'Undercovers' (NBC) This is not to say that TV networks haven't tried to address this lack of racial diversity in recent years. J.J. Abrams' high-profile NBC show, Undercovers, starred black actors Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a pair of married spies (interestingly, neither Kodjoe nor Mbatha-Raw are actually African-American — he's from Austria and she's British), but the show was canceled in the fall of 2010 after just seven episodes. Lincoln Heights, which centered on an African-American family that moved to a rough neighborhood in Los Angeles, ran for four seasons on ABC Family despite the fact that many television executives did not think TV audiences would respond to a show like it.

"I've been trying to sell a version of this show for 20 years," Lincoln Heights executive producer Kathleen McGhee Anderson told The Futon Critic in 2009. "…but I was told that a family drama and particularly a family drama with an African-American family at the center was going to be impossible to sell, that it wouldn't be a success."

So what does it matter if the current TV landscape is predominantly white? Why do we need families and characters of color on the small screen? Well, because that's what America looks like these days. According to the 2010 Census data, minorities now make up more than one-third of the total population of the United States (36 percent), and nearly half of all children under age 18 are now racial/ethnic minorities. In 10 states and Washington D.C., the proportion of children who are minorities has already passed 50 percent. The United States has always been a racially diverse country and the proportion of diversity is continuing to rise, particularly among young people.

And all of these young people are watching lots and lots of TV. According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children ages 8-18 watch about 29 hours of TV per week. For the rapidly growing minority youth population, that's 29 hours of limited (and often negative) representation of their families, their friends, and their cultures. That's 29 hours of implying, "You are irrelevant. You don't matter."

For Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who got his start on the iconic Cosby Show and now plays the father on Reed Between the Lines, appearing on a series that showcases an everyday African-American family is meaningful, both personally and professionally.

"It's about being able to present a show that shows life in a positive light," Warner told the Huffington Post. "To be a part of a show to combat the negative stereotypes that we see. It's something we are bombarded with."

There may be some small glimmers of hope on the horizon for minority family representation on television, though. ABC recently bought an interracial family comedy from Lisa Ling that centers on a Chinese family and an Irish/Italian family that are thrown together after their oldest children marry. And in a move that should perhaps be called interesting rather than promising, NBC is developing a family comedy starring rapper Snoop Dogg as the father.

The cause of increasing diversity on television isn't a hopeless case. TV is a cyclical medium — we've had shows like The Jeffersons, Moesha, and The Bernie Mac Show on major networks before and we're bound to have them again in the future. But since this is the time when networks start acquiring and casting pilots for next season, it's a topic worth bringing up again. We know you're going to give us a whole bunch of shows that feature white families. Why not give us a few that don't this time around?

Uncredited photos starting from the top: Ugly Betty (NBC), Reed Between the Lines (BET)

See more Malcolm Jamal Warner photos:
  • Malcolm-Jamal Warner in MTV Europe Music Awards 2011 - Show
  • Malcolm-Jamal Warner in MTV Europe Music Awards 2011 - Arrivals
  • Malcolm-Jamal Warner in BET Hip Hop Awards 2011 - Show
  • Malcolm-Jamal Warner in BET Awards '11 - Arrivals
  • Malcolm-Jamal Warner in 5th Annual Pre BET Exclusive Dinner
  • Malcolm-Jamal Warner in 2011 BET Networks Upfront
  • Malcolm-Jamal Warner in 9th Annual TV Land Awards - Arrivals
  • Malcolm-Jamal Warner in Notional Celebrates Season Premiere of Food Network&squot;s Hit Show "Chopped"
I'm the Chief Content Officer of Livingly Media (Livingly, Lonny, StyleBistro, Zimbio, Mabel + Moxie, and It's Rosy). My TV boyfriend is Pacey Witter. You can reach me at jill@livingly.com.