Is the TV Screen Fading to White?

When Los Angeles–based actor Colton Dunn showed up to audition during pilot season for the role of a nerdy African-American guy, one of his good friends was there auditioning for the same part. Dunn later found out that three other friends had already auditioned for it.

"That's just the nature of it out here, as far as what's going to be on television," said Dunn, a self-identified multiracial actor, who will have a recurring role on the Fox series Brothers this fall. Though Dunn said his experience in Hollywood has been positive, he feels he's at a slight disadvantage when it comes to getting work. "It gets a little tough when you're looking at things like commercials [and] pilot season," he said. "There are not that many parts for minorities."

For most people in the entertainment industry, this won't be news, but it was underscored recently when the CW canceled two series with predominantly black casts: The Game and Everybody Hates Chris. The shows were holdovers from one of the network's forebears, UPN, which merged with the WB in 2006. The cancellations follow several recent studies that indicate the same thing: Scripted series on broadcast television have not kept up with the growing diversity of the nation, even as it now has its first African-American president.

The Numbers

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People released a report in December 2008 on the state of diversity in television, focusing on the 2003-04 through 2006-07 seasons. In those years, the study found, only ABC saw an increase in the number of minorities in regular and recurring roles on scripted prime-time series, from 74 in 2002-03 to 116 in 2006-07. In contrast, Fox's total dropped from 98 to 51 in the same period.

The Screen Actors Guild's 2006 Casting Data Report indicates that nonwhites had 27.7 percent of the roles on television, though they made up about 34 percent of the American population. The number of roles played by African-Americans decreased by 0.3 percent from the previous year, according to SAG, and roles played by Latinos fell by 0.4 percent. That same year, a study by UCLA law professor Russell Robinson found that over a three-month period, nearly 69 percent of the roles in casting breakdowns favored white actors over nonwhite actors.

While many prime-time shows hire minority actors for regular roles, Brothers will be the only minority-themed prime-time series on the four major networks this fall. Meanwhile, the CW picked up three new scripted series—Melrose Place, The Vampire Diaries, and The Beautiful Life—and of their 40 or so regular or recurring roles listed on the Internet Movie Database, fewer than 10 have been assigned to multiracial or non-Caucasian actors.

"Unfortunately, when an African-American show is canceled, there aren't others waiting in the wings like when predominantly white shows are canceled," said Anne-Marie Johnson, SAG's 1st vice president and a longtime member of its national board.

"I think we're going backwards," said Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, executive producer of ABC Family's Lincoln Heights, a series featuring an African-American family, now entering its fourth season. "I think that programming should reflect more diversity as opposed to less diversity. Just demographics are showing now that even in Los Angeles the minority population is almost half of this major city, and we are not showing a true reflection of our culture. I don't understand why that's such a difficult translation to the screen."

The Theories

There are several theories to explain this decrease in diversity. Ray Bradford, national director for equal employment opportunities for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, said it's not just minority actors who are losing jobs. Due to the rise of reality and competition shows, he said, "the amount of employment, period, for anybody is just drastically down."

According to Rebecca Yee, SAG's national director of affirmative action and diversity, the guild's 2006 Casting Data Report shows a 1.2 percent increase in minorities classified as "unknown/other," which could help explain the decrease in other minority categories.

Reality television, meanwhile, has maintained its diversity, said Bradford: "If you look at programming such as America's Best Dance Crew, American Idol, Survivor, Comics Unleashed, there's tremendous diversity there. That's not employment, but it's still diversity on the airwaves."

He suggested that one reason the broadcast networks haven't embraced diversity in scripted shows is the possible risk involved. "I happen to believe that the stakes are just higher on the four major networks when it comes to prime-time dramatic programming," he said. "The irony is that it's been shown that if you create a quality product and you reflect the American scene and all of its diversity, it can make money. It has made money in the past."

Odetta Watkins, director of current programs for Warner Bros. Television, has a related theory about the growing popularity of some cable channels. "The cable numbers continue to go up," she said, "and I think part of the reason is because you've got people of color who are looking to be represented turning to cable when they can't be serviced on broadcast." TNT's HawthoRNe and The Closer, Showtime's Weeds, and HBO's True Blood are among the cable shows featuring minority actors as leads or series regulars.

The Solutions

"The studios and the networks need to catch up with American society," said Johnson. "America is so much more diverse than you'd ever see on television." But how that change can be brought about is another question, she added. "We used to have a standard pat answer years ago when we were dealing with this: 'Well, we need more people of color in decision-making positions.' Well, we did get more people of color in decision-making positions, and it was the same crap. So I don't know."

But Watkins feels the solution simply involves thinking outside the box. "I think one [way] is definitely opening up the casting so that we're not looking for the same prototype every year for lead roles," she said.

Elizabeth Boykewich, vice president of casting for ABC Family, said her network does have an open-casting policy and that all breakdowns state "Open to all ethnicities," except for roles that require a specific ethnicity, such as the brother of a character played by a Latina actor on Make It or Break It.

Paul Lee, president of ABC Family, attributed much of the channel's overall success to the diversity portrayed on its shows. "What's so critical for ABC Family is that we're relatable and we're real," he said. "It's good for our image, but it's also good for our ratings." As examples of diverse casting on the channel's parent network, ABC, he and Watkins cited shows like Lost, Grey's Anatomy, and Private Practice.

While emphasizing her company's commitment to bringing diversity to the screen, Watkins also noted the old adage "The wheels of change turn slowly." The wheels may be turning too slowly for some, however, and those whom Back Stage spoke with agreed that the best way to combat the problem is for minority actors to create their own content.

"If you decide you want to branch out, which I think is very important right now, then you really need to be good at writing scripts," said Aisha Coley, a Los Angeles–based casting director. "It doesn't mean you have to be the next best writer in the world, but study your craft—whatever you're attempting to do. Learn it and learn it well."

Johnson also encouraged actors to cast a wide net in terms of the roles for which they submit themselves. "I think we as African-American actors just need to keep honing our craft," she said, "keep being persistent and nagging our agents and our managers to demand that we be sent out on all auditions that are appropriate, not just the auditions that say 'African American' or 'person of color.' "

While this may occasionally annoy some casting directors, Coley said it doesn't bother her. What does frustrate her is seeing a lot of incredibly talented actors she has no work to offer.

Anderson added one final point: "Actors are also audience members, and audience members have a voice, and a voice can be heard if it…makes itself heard. Nothing's going to happen unless, of course, the established way of thinking is challenged."