In Shonda They Trust? Black Women Take Over TV

More diversity on TV? It's handled

Black women are standing strong—and standing out—in what may be one of the most diverse seasons of network and cable television ever. And writer-director-producer Shonda Rhimes might be the reason. Following the sustained juggernaut success of Scandal, an unprecedented eight women of color have recently been given starring roles in primetime next season.

Viola Davis, Halle Berry, Taraji P. Henson, Alfre Woodard, Octavia Spencer, Tracee Ellis Ross, Jada Pinkett Smith and Condola Rashad are all coming to the small screen this summer and fall. The influx was hard to miss at the TV upfront presentations a few weeks ago. Each and every May, major networks unveil their fall programming line-ups for advertisers, and inevitably, consumers are introduced to disappointingly uniform formats: waspy shows created largely by heterosexual, upper-middle class White men.

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The numbers don’t lie. According to the Women’s Media Center, women constituted just 28 percent of primetime TV’s creators, writers, producers, and directors during the 2012-2013 season. And the statistics (unsurprisingly) droop lower for minority women. Last year’s Director’s Guild of America’s diversity report found that women of color directed just two percent of all shows in primetime, and accounted for just 12 percent of speaking roles.

“Its appalling to me, because America is so diverse,” says Maureen Ryan, chief TV critic for The Huffington Post. Ryan is one of few critics who have consistently criticized television’s monochromatism. “I actually think you’re a bad businessperson if you’re ignoring these issues,” she says. “How well are you planning for the future and positioning yourself in a world that in a few decades will be majorly people of color?”

Ryan’s right: diversity is dollars. A recent UCLA think tank on diversity found that shows in which people of color comprised 31 to 40 percent of the cast garnered Nielsen’s highest household ratings, while shows that cast 10 percent or less minorities had the lowest ratings.

When looking at the number of Black women specifically about to star in programs this coming season, Ryan agrees that “Scandal is driving a fair amount of this. Scandal’s audience is so passionate because so many Americans see themselves reflected in that show and its racial diversity,” she says.  

It’s a trademark of Shonda Rhimes, currently the most powerful woman in scripted television. The diversity of Rhimes’s casts is as striking as the rapid-fire lines they spew. Her characters are White, Black, Asian, and Latino, gay and straight, glamorous and pedestrian. It’s as close to an accurate reflection of America’s melting pot of diversity as anything else on television.

Viola Davis, Halle Berry, Taraji P. Henson, Alfre Woodard, Octavia Spencer, Tracee Ellis Ross, Jada Pinkett Smith and Condola Rashad are all coming to the small screen this summer and fall.

That multiculturalism is also part of the reason why, now, in a watershed act of devotion and trust, ABC has turned its Thursday night into The Shonda Show. Rhimes’s three dramas—Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and the upcoming legal drama How to Get Away With Murder—will anchor the channel’s primetime slots back-to-back from 8 p.m. through 10 p.m. Viola Davis headlines Murder as a brilliant criminal defense professor who becomes entangled in a murder plot with four of her top students.

Davis won’t be the only sista running things, though.

Fox cast Octavia Butler as a head nurse in Red Band Society; Jada Pinkett-Smith is a mob boss in the Batman-themed Gotham; Condola Rashad plays the sister of a Pharaoh on Hieroglyphics; and Taraji P. Henson portrays the matriarch of a hip-hop dynasty on Empire.

Further, Alfre Woodard is the President in NBC’s State of Affairs. Halle Berry’s an astronaut on the Steven Spielberg-produced Extant for CBS. And Tracee Ellis Ross is a mom intent on maintaining her upper middle class family’s cultural identity on ABC’s Black-ish.

It’s a gamut of offerings, from legal dramas and comedies to sci-fi and historical fantasy. To be realistic, all won’t make it past their first seasons. Television is ruthless, and it’s normal for as many as 70 percent of shows to get the boot. But the network’s commitment to branch out is nonetheless noteworthy.

The real key, according to NPR television critic Eric Deggans, is continuing to add diversity moving forward regardless of how this year’s shows perform. “The failure rate is pretty steep; shows will fail,” he says. “The key is that the industry takes away the right lesson. It won’t be because diversity ‘doesn’t work.’ ”

Looking forward, Deggans wants more obscure actors given chances.

“Octavia, Halle, Viola—they’re the cream of the crop,” he continues. “It’s great they have shows, but it would be nice for actors of color who are not really at the top of their game to get a shot at some of these opportunities.”

Maureen Ryan wants more diversity behind the scenes. “You have to have, present at creation, writers, producers, and directors of color. Otherwise, how will you represent those voices in a forthright, thoughtful way?” she questions.

Undoubtedly, there is still work to be done. But for this upcoming season at least, as far as the diversity we’ll see on screen and the voices we’ll hear, it’s pretty safe to say: It’s handled.