Multicultural Talent Is Surging on TV and Winning Mainstream Audiences

A long-awaited shift

Hardly anyone was more surprised than Dana Walden at the ratings surge Fox midseason entrant Empire enjoyed following its Jan. 7 debut. She expected a lift but not to the degree it did shoot up. But Walden, co-chairman and co-CEO of the Fox Television Group, wasn't alone—each week, the entire TV industry let out a gasp of surprise as Empire's young adult demos kept climbing to north of a 5, territory so few shows ever see.

Flash-forward, and something else quite striking was going on at the Twentieth Century Fox Television studio. Two out of three freshman series it produced for this past season that featured multicultural talent were renewed.

It may not seem like a large number of shows, but "that's a pretty high ratio of success, given the normal track records," explains Walden. Besides Empire, the trio includes two ABC shows: Fresh Off the Boat, featuring a Taiwanese family experiencing culture shock, and Latina-centric Cristela (which didn't make it).

Shonda Rhimes will add an FX limited series on the
Great Migration to her string of ABC hits including
Scandal and Grey's Anatomy.

There's a veritable tidal wave of non-Caucasian talent washing over the general-interest TV landscape—both in front of and behind the camera. In fact, 2015 may be remembered as the year when multicultural talent was showcased in quantities that suggest this isn't a passing trend but, rather, represents the dawn of a whole new era. "It's different, for sure, than in the past. I don't think it's a cyclical thing that will go away," says Dave Campanelli, Horizon Media's svp, director of national broadcast.

(It's ironic, really, that momentum for minorities in TV is finally being reached as real-life protests in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and other cities demand equal value for black lives.)

Last year certainly set the stage for this positive trend. ABC introduced the African-American-focused comedy Black-ish to decent ratings, throwing into midseason Fresh Off the Boat, and handed its entire Thursday night lineup to Shonda Rhimes (to which she added How to Get Away With Murder alongside her existing hits, Grey's Anatomy and Scandal).

"What’s been demonstrated by Shonda Rhimes and Empire is that you can have something that’s grounded in a multicultural sensibility that delivers a tremendous ROI," says Esther (ET) Franklin, EVP, head of Americas experience strategy for Starcom MediaVest Group’s multicultural division.

One could argue that Rhimes' success had the biggest hand in getting the industry out of its white-bread rut. Because ABC's not only returned all those shows to its schedule, it's adding more diversity to its lineup this coming season. Friday nights will feature Dr. Ken starring the Korean-American comedian Ken Jeong, while midseason will usher in another Rhimes series called The Catch, as well as a remake of Uncle Buck, featuring a largely black cast.

It's not that ABC has a diversity "mandate," explains Channing Dungey, evp of network drama at ABC Entertainment Group. "For us, it's about diversity, yes, but also about authenticity," she explains. "We've been very focused on reflecting the world we're living in. It's something we've been placing more and more of a priority on."

ABC isn't alone by any stretch. Many such programs are flooding into the TV ecosystem out of the upfront presentations. "I always thought it would take one big fat hit, and we have that in Empire," says Fox's Walden. She and fellow co-chairman and co-CEO Gary Newman are doubling down on that hit by having Empire co-creator Lee Daniels develop a new series, about which neither Walden nor Daniels would reveal details.

Across its fall schedule, Fox will debut a medical drama titled Rosewood, positioned just before Empire on Wednesdays and centering around a brilliant African-American doctor (Morris Chestnut). It's also ordered a pilot remake of the successful British series Luther, about the exploits of an extremely gifted homicide detective who is black.

Though its fall lineup is largely devoid of color, NBC has stocked midseason with a variety of projects reflecting diversity, like Jennifer Lopez's cop drama Shades of Blue, the Eva Longoria comedy Hot & Bothered and America Ferrera's Superstore. Meanwhile, the Peacock has given a series order to a semi-autobiographical comedy featuring Jerrod Carmichael, Go Jerrod Go, though it is not slated for the 2015-16 season.

CBS is arguably the least aggressive of the broadcast networks in cultivating shows led by diverse talent, though coming out of the upfront it has slated a midseason adaptation of the Rush Hour film franchise starring Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan. The network is casting relative unknowns in lead roles but sticking with the same pairing of black and Asian actors.

Among the splashiest TV productions in the works is A+E Networks' remake of Roots, which will be programmed across three channels: A&E, Lifetime and History. Meanwhile, director John Singleton (Shaft, Poetic Justice) is working on a series for FX called Snowfall, about the '80s drug scene in Los Angeles.

Also for FX, Rhimes has yet another project in the pipeline: a limited series on the Great Migration called The Warmth of Other Suns, which she is working on with African-American director Dee Rees. (This past weekend, HBO premiered Bessie, a Bessie Smith biopic starring Queen Latifah that was directed by Rees, who became a film-festival darling with the indie Pariah.)

And on the topic of historical adaptations, two projects about the Underground Railroad are underway: WGN America's Underground is in production and an NBC miniseries, Freedom Run, executive produced by Stevie Wonder, is in development. Also on deck is the HBO comedy series Brothers in Atlanta, whose cast includes Maya Rudolph and Jaden Smith.

A Long Time Coming

To many, tipping mainstream TV into a more diverse direction has taken far longer than reason suggested. "Multiculture has always been thought of as 'the other.' Blacks, Hispanics, Asians have all been in separate silos that are completely separate from the general market. And we've argued for a long time that that is a very skewed way of looking at the world," says Adriana Waterston, svp of insights and strategy at Horowitz Research.

Several major developments over the last year have contributed to television's multicultural moment.

The CW's tongue-in-cheek Hispanic comedy Jane the Virgin helped lift the network's Monday night ratings. Premium cable also diversified, as two Starz series featured African-American actors: the comedy Survivor's Remorse and Power, about a nightclub owner and drug lord. (Starz ran promotional spots for Power during Empire.)

In the talk-show arena, Comedy Central replaced The Colbert Report (as Stephen Colbert prepares to take over David Letterman's late-night slot on CBS) with The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. It also picked the black stand-up comedian Trevor Noah to fill the void in the wake of Jon Stewart's retirement from The Daily Show (to some controversy when Noah's prior tweets were criticized by some as culturally insensitive).

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, points out that we have been "slouching" toward this new era on the tube for a long time, despite huge successes in the distant past like Roots and The Cosby Show. "There hasn't been any logical sense to the argument that programs with primarily people of color in the cast or behind the scenes are the kiss of death," he says.

Empire Building

As for Empire, Fox is planning to roll out 18 new episodes, up from 12 in the first season. They will air in two parts, spanning the 2015-16 season.

There's a reason for that. The dark-edged marriage of soap operas and hip-hop musicals handily outdelivered Rhimes' shows among key demographic groups when comparing season-to-date performances

In the 18-34 demo, original episodes of Murder—which attracts the largest ratings of the Rhimes series—attracted a 3.16 average C3 rating from the start of the season last September to April 12. Empire averaged a 5.17 from its debut up to April 12. According to Nielsen data supplied by industry sources, the 18-49 numbers were slightly higher for both: 3.68 vs. 5.87, respectively, in the same time periods.

Another factor is advertising sales—including the question as to whether or not Fox should continue to limit the number of availabilities. That move reportedly drove 30-second unit prices to as high as $600,000 in the concluding episode of Season 1.

"I have to wonder if the limited commercials didn't help viewership and ratings to some extent. I think viewers are tired of seven minutes of commercial breaks," says Horizon's Campanelli.

"We're still considering how we want to innovate with different commercial formats for Empire and for other programs as well. It's crucial for our business," explains Toby Byrne, president of ad sales at Fox Networks Group.

Empire will no doubt continue to have an impact in music, too, thanks to executive music producer Timbaland and guest stars next season like Lenny Kravitz and Alicia Keys. Empire's Season 1 soundtrack debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top 200 chart when it was released March 18, while there were 1.5 million downloads of songs from Empire.

Bill Carroll, vp, director of content strategy at Katz Television Group, believes it will take a few more seasons to determine whether a multicultural era is now in the making. "The real question will be—and the real challenge will be—how creative and how good the shows really are," Carroll says.

Others maintain the moment has arrived. "I think this is what we're going to see out of TV going forward," says Campanelli. "What's been great about all this diversity on TV is it hasn't been 'We're putting on an African-American show.' It's been about putting on a good quality show that people enjoy watching."