Diversity Rewrites Prime-time Script

NEW YORK Music snobs may be miffed that 17-year-old Sanjaya Malakar has stayed afloat on Fox’s American Idol. But his continued presence underscores a profound truth about that show and other non-scripted programs this season.

From Idol to CBS’ Survivor to The CW’s America’s Next Top Model, reality offers viewers a level of onscreen diversity that remains unmatched on the scripted side.

Of course, casting scripted and nonscripted shows is vastly different.

Scripted series demand talent from actors, whereas nonscripted programs often hinge more on personality from cast members. And when acting talent is removed from the casting mix, “you have the entire U.S. population to choose from,” said Peter Golden, evp of talent and casting at CBS. White, black or otherwise, Golden said finding the right actor for the right role is a much more challenging process. “You’re looking for people with the skill to deliver certain characters, and very often with the strength to carry an entire series on their backs,” he said.

If a scripted show doesn’t call for diversity, it can be challenging to change the creator’s vision. Nonscripted shows, on the other hand, purposely throw strangers together. They virtually require variety. In the happiest of results, it’s effortless. That is the case of America’s Next Top Model, where The CW doesn’t even have to recruit ethnic contestants.

“Because our audience is so diverse, when we put out a casting call, the people who show up reflect that diversity,” said Jennifer Bresnan, svp of alternative programming at The CW. “And when you have a diverse group of people show up to a casting session, there’s no way you can’t cast a diverse group of girls.”

Not all shows are so lucky. CBS took enormous heat earlier this season for splitting the cast of Survivor: Cook Islands into four ethnic groups: African Americans, Asians, Caucasians and Latinos. But finding contestants to fill each of those teams forced the network’s casting department to aggressively recruit within those ethnic communities.

Whether “grabbing people off the street,” as Golden said, or advertising on ethnic Web sites, CBS helped establish recruitment policies that likely will be used to funnel diverse casts into other reality programs.

And advertisers are looking for those casts. “If you’re marketing to everybody, you want to reach everybody,” said Shari Anne Brill, vp, director of programming at Carat. “The more the cast of a TV show reflects what America looks like, the better the opportunity to draw all types of diverse audiences.