Last week was a great week for African-Americans in television. Jada Pinkett Smith set it off as the villainous Fish Mooney in the new FOX series, Gotham; we “kept it real” with Anthony Anderson in ABC’s family comedy, Black-ish; and Viola Davis garnered record ratings in ABC’s much anticipated How to Get Away With Murder. (Not to mention Shonda Rhimes’s command of that entire Thursday night, with the lead-ins Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal.) And that was just last week.
It seems that diversity in television, an issue that has sparked much debate and intensive network initiatives, is on the rise. There’s no debating it—seeing more Black people on the screen and in positions of creative control is a win. But with more Blacks on the small screen, is there still room for improvement? The short answer: yes.
Color Creative TV, producer/writer Issa Rae’s new initiative to support minority writers by showcasing and eventually selling their work, also launched three pilots by three writers last week. Bleach features an OCD carpet cleaner who’s forced to assist an aging hitman. Words With Girls explores the relationship between girlfriends, dating and achieving success. And So Jaded is a coming of age, stoner comedy.
Each pilot allows fans to “Get This on TV” by clicking on the subsequent link and petitioning for a series. “We’re providing a unique opportunity to get your pilot made,” Rae says. “Instead of going through the development process that can take a year, we’re getting content made within a month and exposing it to an audience to get support behind it.” It’s that support—the number of people watching and talking about a show—that pushes networks to put more people of color onscreen.
Rae first established her brand as a dynamic content creator with the hit web series Awkward Black Girl. From there, she’s worked with other media platforms such as I Am Other (created by Pharrell Williams), Tracey Edmonds’s Alright TV, and Shonda Rhimes, and has also developed a pilot for HBO.
Rae’s newest venture in creating opportunities for people of color comes at a time when Black folks are finally making a dent on television. While networks measure current success (it’s all about the numbers) when considering featuring more people of color and women as leads, Issa Rae says this influx of diversity is in danger of becoming a trend.
“People of color are still missing in positions of power and as show-runners,” says Rae. “They’re still missing in making the decision of what gets greenlit and what doesn’t. Until that happens, this can just be another trend.”
Rae distinguishes Color Creative as an inclusive program. “A lot of these diversity initiatives staff writers to a television show and pay them separately through a diversity salary,” she says. “Everyone knows they’re the affirmative action diversity hire, which is kind of embarrassing. They’re not given the respect that other staffers get.”
Additionally, Color Creative allows more creative control for the writers. The initiative intends to grow minority writers into show-runners and decision makers, a scarcity in television’s current climate.
While supportive of the current scope of Black leads and minority centered shows on network and cable, Rae predicts a future of diverse shows online. “I predict that Netflix absorbs people of color,” she says. “I can also see a solid BET of the future online, where the content of people of color is its own network.”
Rae may be on to something. If last week showed us nothing else, it proved that the decision makers are paying attention to the diversity of its viewers. Streaming services and online platforms are looking to capture the next generation of content consumers hungry for characters who look like them. There will definitely be an expansion in minority-focused content, as long as there’s support for it and writers can successfully create it.
The success of people of color on television is worth celebrating. How many Scandal premiere watch parties popped off last week? How many “gladiators” joined in the conversation on Twitter? Shows like Scandal have redefined how we watch TV (mixing social media with viewing) and made the experience fun again. Ventures that aim to keep the momentum going are needed now more than ever.
The next generation of show-runners is the content creators of today. The creative climate is more inclusive, allowing everyone with talent to create their own opportunities. Once again, Issa Rae is at the forefront of what’s next. She adds, “We are breeding the next great writers and show-runners. I’m in great company with Lena Waithe, Justin Simien [Dear White People]. We’re being brought up in an environment where it’s cool not to be in competition with one another.” And that’s exactly where we need to be.