November 17, 2012

Revolution and TV diversity

A Facebook discussion with Brad based on Thursday's visit to NBC Universal:

My brief conversation with NBC's executives about Revolution was revealing.

If you think about it for 10 or 20 seconds, you realize Revolution is a great opportunity to show a variety of distinct cultures based on different qualities. Race, ethnicity, religion, philosophy, etc. You could have a black group, a Latino group, a conservative Christian group, a tree-hugger group, a techno-nerd group, and so forth and so on.

My idea to throw an Indian tribe into the mix is just one of many possibilities. But they were all, "Wow, good idea, let's bring it to the attention of the show's staff." It's like they never conceived of such a thing. "You mean use science fiction to look at real-world social and cultural issues? Amazing!"

This idea isn't anything new, but it would move the show more firmly into the sci-fi category, at least.Yeah, I assume these were executives and not writers. Their understanding of t.v. probably doesn't go much beyond, "Hey you can put a show on the air and make money off of it!"

So what was revealed was that the producers have no better idea what they're doing than we do, apparently?
They're smart people, but they're really not thinking outside the box. Their idea of diversity is, "We hired six white lead actors and two minority supporting actors, so the show is diverse." Much like Romney Republicans, they aren't challenging their 1950s view of an America where white men rule.

Yes, these were executives, not producers or writers. They don't decide a show's approach, but I bet they sign off on it. They create an environment where narrow thinking is rewarded.

If they truly want diversity, they can make it happen. Establish guidelines, hire consultants, reward people who do things differently. If you need me to tell you how to implement diversity, you really aren't trying.

Gene Roddenberry brought in established SF writers to make sure Star Trek wasn't just a 1950s space opera with better effects. I imagine they played a role in deciding what Trek could and couldn't do.

If a show's staff isn't that creative internally, they need to reach out externally. Someone needs to challenge them to shake things up.

Who's responsible?

I'm not sure whether the limitations come from the producers, the executives, or the advertisers. But someone is clearly limiting the creativity of network TV. That's why you see two dozen shows that are the same for every one that's different.I'm going to blame the executives. The producers do their best to make what the executives will buy, so if they don't think the executives are looking for diversity then they won't make it. The advertisers aren't involved in the process of weeding out the "abnormal" stuff. All they have to pick from is the finalists that the network presents to them.

There is the rare case where a network will actually contract a producer to develop a particular show or type of show, so maybe Natives will get lucky and get something like that. I'm not going to hold my breath though. These are the same people who only last year said, "You mean we have Mexican people in America and they spend money?"
You may be right.

The 2012 presidential campaign provides a good metaphor for the dichotomy between the old approach and a new approach:

1) The present network approach = the Republican approach. Incremental changes at the margins. Hire a black here, a Latino there, a woman somewhere else. Don't change the white-dominated power structure overall. Hope that the handful of women and minorities will attract more women and minorities, leading to eventual change.

IOW, minorities bubble up from the bottom. If you don't do anything to impede them--a big if--the party will sloooowly transform itself. In a hundred years or so, it may actually reflect America.

2) The ideal network approach = the Democratic approach. Fundamental change from the top down. Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House. Hillary Clinton, Eric Holder, Sonia Sotomayor, Ken Salazar, Elena Kagan, and other women and minorities throughout the power structure. Party membership and voting patterns that reflect the way America is now, or will be in 30 years.

The network equivalent of this would be, "Give me black shows, Latino shows, Asian shows, and so forth now. Our country is 36% minority, so 36% of our shows should be about, or star, minorities. I want a lineup that includes the next Roots, Cosby Show, Chico and the Man, Jeffersons, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Ugly Betty, In Living Color, and so forth. Replace the white shows with minority shows until our lineup reflects reality."

Incidentally, the NBC executives themselves were diverse--as they pointed out. If you added up the women and minorities, they probably formed the majority. Just like Obama's supporters.

In the room, not on the air

These people may get what I'm talking about. They may secretly long to do it. But if the corporate culture says, "Do it the conventional way. Don't rock the boat," no one's gonna take a risk. They'll all wait for someone else to stick his or her neck out.

That's why NBC may need an order from the top. As I said, the NBC chairman was there. If he orders NBC to become more diverse, it will. If he's just paying lip service to diversity, it won't. Few are willing to risk their careers with bold ideas if they know the higher-ups will quash them.

And recall that NBC is the best of the bunch, from what I gather. This is what a progressive network looks like today. The other networks are barely addressing the diversity issue.

In addition to the shows I named, shows such as ER, Lost, Grey's Anatomy, and Hawaii Five-0 have all been hits. The common denominator is emphasizing diversity with more than just token minorities. If they say they're looking at the bottom line, I'll say that too. My bottom line is that diversity sells.

I guess I should interview NBC's head of diversity and write my article first. Then maybe I can hit him with some of these ideas. If he wants to talk, fine. If he doesn't, well, at least I tried.I think the best approach is somewhere in between the Republican and Democrat ones. Unlike with politics, shows don't just have to win one election. They have to win one every week, and another with the advertisers.

The trick is to get them to feature diversity more prominently without pandering. I think that's been a problem generally. And I totally agree that "risk aversion" completely stifles the creative process. No network, network executive (even the chairman), or producer wants to put something different out there and fall flat. That's the biggest hurdle to overcome.
I described the two approaches I was talking about. What does an approach somewhere between the Republican and Democrat ones mean, exactly?

The ideal approach I described isn't pandering. All the shows I listed were successful. They stayed on the air for several seasons because they were good, not because they starred minorities.

Relatively few shows are built around particular actors. In a show such as Lost, 24, Modern Family, Glee, or "Revolution," the concept is the star. So take these shows in the development stage, recast them with (more) minorities, and run them. They'll be just as successful as they were with white actors.

No pandering allowedIn between would be doing better representation than they do now, but not jumping straight to mirroring population demographics.

Yes, the shows you listed are good examples, however I'll take some exception to The Cosby Show. Some examples of the pandering I'm referring to might be Outsourced, or The George Lopez Show, i.e. putting a show on that isn't necessarily good just because it might appeal to minorities or making a show that's essentially FOR white people while using minorities in the roles just to be able to say that they did it.
I agree with no pandering a la Outsourced. But given the networks' failure to come up with good shows and the large number of ideas out there, I don't think pandering should be necessary. I think they could convert shows like Revolution and find minority-specific shows without straining themselves.

For more on the subject, see TV Directors Are 88% White and TV Grows Whiter in 2011-2012.

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