It's easy to knock on network TV for being formulaic and unadventurous, and with good reason. Network television often is formulaic and unadventurous, but there is one area where it's become cutting edge — diversity.
Over the past week, Fox, ABC, NBC and CBS all hosted their annual upfronts (the presentation during which they present their fall lineups to advertisers) and, based on the new series alone, this fall is already looking like one of the most diverse seasons of television, well, ever.
As Time's TV columnist James Poniewozik writes:
At their upfronts fall-schedule presentations in Manhattan this week, the major broadcast networks announced what was the most racially diverse broadcast schedule in a long time–maybe ever, depending how you measure it. It wasn't just about "black best friends" this year; there are several new and returning shows with minority lead characters, several of them minority women. The trend was spread across networks–though ABC had an especially diverse lineup–and across groups: not only African American but Hispanic and Asian American actors will lead casts next season.
Fresh Off the Boat (ABC), Black-ish (ABC), How to Get Away with Murder (ABC), Empire (Fox) and Mr. Robinson (NBC) are all upcoming shows that feature non-white leads. Compare this (as Poniewozik points out) to the nearly all-white line up from less than a decade ago and the number becomes even more pleasing.
It's strange to think that network sitcoms and dramas would be so much more diverse than their cable counterparts, but it's true. For all the excellent cable comedies out there, few mirror the effortless diversity of shows like Brooklyn 9-9 (Fox), Parks and Recreation (NBC) and Community (NBC, RIP). And it's the same for the serious stuff — for all of their critical acclaim, Breaking Bad (AMC), Mad Men (AMC) and Game of Thrones (HBO) have never come close to having to providing the same kind of equal representation as Sleepy Hallow (Fox) or Scandal (ABC).
Poniewozik notes that the networks' push for diversity has more to do with advertising than it does with progress, but in this case — for once — progress and network execs making a buck actually go hand in hand:
...It's about dollars and cents, and that's not a bad thing. Making advertising diverse may not be without controversy, but there's a clear, simple message that being seen as inclusive is better for your brand image than exclusion. It makes you seem more desirable, more aspirational–and, this is advertising here, after all–it makes you seem younger, in tune with a society that is growing more varied and socially tolerant with the generations.
Networks are now able to sell diverse shows to advertisers and so — easy as that — they're making diverse shows. Sure, this change was a long time coming, but the fact that it's coming at all merits a (small) sigh of relief.
When a series gets criticized for its lack of diversity, the counter argument always states that a mixed race cast would some how feel unnatural or forced, but shows like Parks and Rec prove that entirely untrue. No one questions whether or not Leslie (Amy Poehler), Donna (Retta), Tom (Aziz Ansari) and April (Aubrey Plaza) would interact or be friends — even in small town Indiana! — because there's nothing strained or flashy about it.
We live in a diverse world where chances are that you deal with people from various backgrounds everyday. It's a relief that television and advertising is finally starting to reflect that.