Multicultural TV’s Success Isn’t About Whites Getting Less, It’s About Everyone Getting More

Advertisers applaud the increase in diverse casting

After the success of multicultural shows like Fox's Empire, CW's Jane the Virgin and ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, Deadline reported this week that some white actors and their agents are feeling victimized by the TV industry's growing interest in diverse casting.

But you know who doesn't mind this trend? Advertisers. 

Like most things in this world, TV exists to sell itself. And, with network shows featuring diverse casts among today's biggest hits, it makes sense that brands are seeking to put their dollars behind multicultural shows. 

"What we're seeing is the audience is responding to the content being put forth that is inspired by a different lens, different stories and different perspectives," said Esther "E.T." Franklin, evp and head of Americas Experience Strategy for SMG Multicultural, part of the Starcom MediaVest Group. "It's providing more nuanced stories, and the market is hungry."

Deadline's story, titled Pilots 2015: The Year Of Ethnic Castings, suggested that white actors were being discriminated against because of the upcoming 2015-16 slate, much of which will feature multicultural casts. The article sparked considerable backlash, thanks in part to the original headline asking if "ethnic casting" was "about time or too much of a good thing?" The site later cut the question from its headline and reorganized some pieces of the article. (UPDATE: On Sunday, co-editor-in-chief Mike Fleming Jr. apologized for the article in his weekly column, admitting overuse of the word "ethnic" and saying the original headline "came off cold and insensitive.")

Central to the debate raised by the article is the allegation that the TV industry is creating racial quotas for shows:

"But, as is the case with any sea change, the pendulum might have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction. Instead of opening the field for actors of any race to compete for any role in a color-blind manner, there has been a significant number of parts designated as ethnic this year, making them off-limits for Caucasian actors, some agents signal. Many pilot characters this year were listed as open to all ethnicities, but when reps would call to inquire about an actor submission, they frequently have been told that only non-Caucasian actors would be considered. 'Basically 50% of the roles in a pilot have to be ethnic, and the mandate goes all the way down to guest parts,' one talent representative said."

For brands looking to advertise on TV, the racial makeup of a show is often less important than its overall success, and right now, many of the most successful shows on networks (Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, for example) and even cable (The Walking Dead) are diverse.

What we should be focusing on, Franklin says, is that the mainstream audience for TV is changing—and that's a good thing. The fact that a primetime network show featuring African-American leads or an Asian-American family can resonate with audiences regardless of race shows that America wants to see more than the typical white protagonist.

Tim Hill, svp and group partner of integrated investment at Universal McCann, said advertisers simply gravitate to successful programming. Historically, networks base their upcoming slates on what worked the season before, so it makes sense we'll see more multicultural casts this year.

"Everything doesn't need to be bucketed in the way it was before," Hill said. "I think that's a good thing. It's not, 'Hey, this is only for a multicultural kind of audience or segment.' It can be a mainstream show."

In addition, Franklin said casting more diverse actors on television allows SMG's clients like Walmart, Honda and Kraft to reach new audiences that haven't traditionally been watching network TV. For example, Fox's Empire grew from 9.9 million to 17.62 million viewers in just 12 episodes. More interestingly, Franklin points out that the audience has remained 60 percent African American throughout that period, meaning more black viewers are tuning in.

"The full potential of American-American viewers hasn't been realized," she said. "There is an even bigger upside."

As for the idea, much mocked since Deadline's article debuted, that there's not enough programming for white people, Hill couldn't help but laugh.

"I don't think there's any problem in our world of finding media for that audience," he said, "and, quite frankly, I don't think we necessarily need to isolate a white Caucasian audience."