Diversifying TV

Recent ABC series bring a multiethnic cast and plot


Graphic by Chloe Krammel

Since the ‘90s, sitcoms have displayed similar characteristics; four to six stereotypical Caucasians in their 20-somethings visit the same spot daily (e.g. a coffee shop, a deli, or a bar) during regular work hours to chat about their lives. But in 2014, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) came up with a plan to heighten cable television’s lessening selection of shows with minority casts. Wednesdays now feature a comedy with an African-American cast, Fridays present a comedy with a Latino cast, and Tuesdays televise a comedy with an Asian cast; all becoming what the New York Times calls a “a festival of nonwhite faces.”

Two years ago, ABC sent out a message to show creators of every skin tone and ethnicity: “Bring us a personal story about people like you.” What they received has now become ABC’s current assortment of comedies including “Black-ish,” a show about a successful African-American father keeping his heritage alive within his family; “Cristela,” which is about a woman who tries to balance her unpaid internship and the concerns of her Latino family; and “Fresh Off the Boat,” a series about a Taiwanese family living in Orlando, Fla. All three shows spark diversity to ABC’s prior lineup of primetime television, for they bring a comedic approach to race and racial issues, which are topics hardly touched in many of today’s other sitcoms.

“It feels weird to say ABC is being so edgy by trying to show an accurate representation of our country,” Cristela Alonzo, creator of “Cristela,” said in an interview for the New York Times. “They’ve been edgy by not being edgy, by being realistic.”

The question is why ABC was alone in trying to find unique material like this. According to Kenya Barris, creator of “Black-ish,” African Americans are among the heaviest media consumers in the country, which makes it all the more wonder why multi-racial shows have taken so long to become accepted. Twenty-four years ago, one of the last hit shows with an all African-American cast, “The Cosby Show,” was taken off the air. Reporters referred to it as “unrealistic,” claiming that that a show about an upscale black family didn’t reflect the African-American population.

However in 2006, 14 years after the end of the “The Cosby Show,” the cable network Fox canceled a program titled “The Bernie Mac Show,” an insightful black comedy about a man and his wife becoming parents. The executive who ended the show’s run has since left the network and asked to stay incognito as he still works in TV. Rumor has it that the show’s run was curtailed because advertisers would not pay high rates for the lower-income viewers who were a part of its audience. The New York Times states that the key to avoiding this kind of problem in the future is being funny, and “Black-ish,” along with ABC’s other current sitcoms, reflects that.

ABC is is combining things that used to be considered unusual and trying to make it the norm, unlike most other television network. It is taking raw, unapologetically real stories and “seeking their true colors.” And it is succeeding. “Fresh off the Boat” is watched by 4.4 million viewers, “Black-ish” is watched by 6 million, and “Cristela” is not far behind. Thanks to ABC’s 2014 revelation, the company’s future is secure.

“We’re trying to be a comedy that is funny, but if while doing that, we can actually make people think about some things, that’s not something bad,” Mr. Barris said. “It’s a time when we really need to start looking at our country and saying as a country, ‘We are a lot of different parts, but it’s the sum that makes us strong.’ That’s why diversity is such a perfect thing.”