It was inevitable that the merger of the WB and UPN networks into the CW would narrow the playing field for thousands of TV actors. At the close of last month's upfront media presentations in New York, the five networks had orders for 93 series for the 2006–07 season, compared with 111 last year (the new figures include double-counted shows because of co-productions). The CW, which will debut in September with 14 scripted shows, picked up only two new series. Last season the WB featured 17 original scripted shows; UPN featured nine. For everyone who makes TV tick—from actors, writers, and directors to camera operators, lighting techs, and production assistants—fewer shows means fewer jobs.
A recent report from the Writers Guild of America West said the situation is already getting worse, particularly for female and minority writers looking for TV staff jobs. Preliminary findings in the union's 2006 Hollywood Writers Report, released May 18, found that male staff writers outnumber their female colleagues 2-to-1. The results were even bleaker for minority writers, who were outnumbered by white staff writers 3-to-1.
Melissa Rosenberg, chairperson of the WGAW's Diversity Strategy Committee, said the loss of UPN—the only network built around "urban" entertainment—will certainly affect minority writers' futures. "The situation will look worse a year from now with the loss of UPN," she said in a press release, noting that nearly 45% of African-American writers working in television were employed by UPN this season. "That outcome can be prevented, and instead, progress can be made if intentional steps are taken to reach beyond familiarity, tapping diverse writers at all levels, promoting those already working, and seeking out new writers in these underrepresented groups."
If African-American and other writers of color could be affected by UPN's closure, the playing field may also narrow for female and minority actors. According to the Screen Actors Guild's 2004 report on race and ethnicity trends on TV, net roles for African-American, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American actors decreased that season, particularly on episodic series. By contrast, UPN had become the haven for actors seeking shows with diverse casting. All nine original scripted shows on UPN in the 2005–06 season featured female or minority actors in starring roles. Of those, four made the cut to transfer to the CW: Veronica Mars, Girlfriends, Everybody Hates Chris, and All of Us. And one of the two new shows ordered by the network, The Game, is an urban comedy spinoff of Girlfriends. All four shows starring African-American actors will be shown back to back on Sunday nights.
By contrast, seven of the WB's 17 original scripted shows in its 2005–06 season featured female actors in starring roles, and none starred actors of color. Yet only two of the woman-centric shows—Gilmore Girls and Reba—were among the six picked up by the new network, despite its primary demographic of 18- to 34-year-old women.
A Gradual Process
Lori Openden, who was named CW's senior vp of talent and casting after holding the same position at UPN, admitted that the number of minority actors on WB shows left much to be desired. "UPN was the best of all six networks at minority casting," she said. "The WB was not the best or even second best, and so we're inheriting and combining a lot of shows that are not committed to minority casting the way we were. We're going to be adding that kind of casting to the WB shows, but obviously we have to do it slowly. We can't just fire everyone on One Tree Hill and put in minority actors."
Openden pointed out that while she and CW's president of entertainment, Dawn Ostroff, are committed to diverse casting, integrating minority actors will be more of a challenge on some existing WB shows than others. "One problem with some of these shows is that they're [about] families," said Openden. "If mom and dad are Caucasian, they can't have black children, so some of the shows are more difficult than others." She expects that series such as Supernatural and Smallville, for example, will be more open to creating minority characters than 7th Heaven, which was unexpectedly added to the CW's schedule after WB announced the series would end. The network's other new show, Runaway, also centers on a white family.
In the meantime, Openden said, programming the block of urban comedies on Sunday nights will garner the shows more attention and retain the UPN audience. "I think it's great counterprogramming to the other networks, and that's what you do as a network scheduler. We don't live in a vacuum," she said. Indeed, the CW's Sunday night lineup will compete with news and reality shows such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition on ABC and 60 Minutes on CBS, as well as football on NBC and Fox's block of animated comedies including The Simpsons and Family Guy.
Openden posited that having one less network will help produce higher-caliber shows and hence attract better actors. "Yes, there are only five networks, but there are not that many less shows," she said. "We're going to be able to attract a much higher level of actors than [at] UPN, because it was tough for us. Not that we didn't have quality projects, but six networks was a lot."
Actors Say: 'Same Old Story'
Some of the actors who were regulars on canceled UPN shows agreed that the advent of the CW does not necessarily mean fewer roles for actors of color. "I think that in the short term the merger of the UPN and WB is going to hurt actors in general just because there are fewer things being picked up," said Jason Winston George, who played J.T. Hunter on the UPN comedy Eve. "At the same time I don't know if the industry can support six broadcast networks. There are still people questioning whether it can support five. I think the CW's going to be just fine."
Sicily, who played Spirit Jones on One on One, agreed with Openden that UPN shows such as Girlfriends will find a broader audience and get more exposure on the CW. "I think it's going to be harder, but I definitely think it's going to be a good thing in the long run," the one-named actor said. "The bigger picture is: We really need to be more honest with ourselves and know that there aren't a lot of great roles for women, especially women of color.... In order to make it, we really have to be 10 times better than everyone else in order to get in the door."
Sicily, who is starting her own production company, added that female and minority actors should create their own vehicles rather than complain. "At the end of the day, a great show is a great show and a great writer is a great writer," she said. "We just have to make sure that our product is above-average."
Love, Inc.'s Ion Overman said competition for jobs is always fierce, not only due to the lack of shows but also because film actors such as Geena Davis (of the recently canceled Commander in Chief) and James Woods (whose series Shark was picked up by CBS) are filling roles that in the past may have gone to lesser-known TV actors.
Overman pointed out that the few roles for female actors of color also tend to be one-note: as the best friends of white main characters or as the token minority character with minimal scenes among an ensemble cast. "I'm perfectly happy to do those scenes. There's always room for growth," she said. "Regardless of race and gender, eventually good [actors] are going to get noticed."
Reagan Gomez-Preston, also of Love, Inc., said she had mixed emotions about the loss of UPN: "I kind of see how it might hurt us as African Americans or people of color, because there hasn't been a whole lot [of programming] for us." She noted that this year's pilot season was particularly difficult for young female actors of all ethnicities. "There have been no auditions," she pointed out. "People have been saying maybe down the road when it gets closer to September that they'll start releasing more, but it doesn't seem like it."
All the actors who spoke with Back Stage said they're more heartened by diverse casting on popular shows such as ABC's Grey's Anatomy than they are disappointed by the shuttering of UPN. They said it's particularly positive that network characters' ethnicities are becoming less of an issue. "There is a significant amount of minority representation on [Grey's Anatomy], and it's not the point. There's no fanfare made about it.... And the fact that it's not a big deal is the reason it's a big deal," said George. "Hopefully, the goal will soon be that when you write a role and you describe the person, but never describe their ethnicity, [the character] will not be assumed to be Caucasian." He saw evidence of that becoming a reality at a recent audition for Prison Break: Roughly half of the actors up for the part were African-American, but others were Caucasian, Asian-American, and Latino.
As for whether the CW will live up to its commitment to diverse casting, we'll just have to wait. Overman noted that it comes down to what shows and characters the viewing audience responds to. "I hope all networks realize America would like to see other things," she said.