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As Seen On TV

TV Programming Has Had to Evolve to Be Diverse

© by Wikicommons

A couple of weeks ago, I came across an analysis of a particular episode of The Andy Griffith Show on YouTube. The segment focused on an element of the set that had some deeper macabre significance. While interesting, I reflected on another aspect of that show, and many others of my childhood. While meant to entertain, they promoted the values of our society: kindness, caring, community, diligence. For impressionable kids, they painted for us what we should expect from, and our duties to, society. Andy, after all, was a policeman. He was about obeying and respecting the law.

Of course, they are dated. They were black and white, and even when I saw them, they were already re-runs. But what I, like so many others, failed to notice, was the homogeneity of their casts. A search on IMDB shows that of the hundred-plus actors who appeared on the show, there were only a few who I was count as being a minority.

At 10-years of age, I had dozens of minority friends in school. But I never noticed that there were only a few portrayed on TV. Maybe Linc from the Mod Squad. I recall how edgy The Jeffersons were, or Moving On Up. And they stood out. Star Trek seemed progressive. And Welcome Back Kotter leveraged the stereotypes.

But it should have been obvious, while we were immersed in such programming, what was the message if you were not caucasian? Were you like the children a couple of generations earlier, seen but not heard? Was it still equal but separate? And if so, where was the equal programming? Alternatively, if not just schools and lunch counters were supposed to be unsegregated, then should not TV have also become inclusive? 

As observed by others smarter than me, the future is here it’s just not evenly distributed (Gibson, Neuromancer). Over time, more minority actors got their breaks; more shows added minorities to their casts: first as sidekicks and then leads. But even so, many times they were portrayed in ways to be tough as nails. Take Huggy-Bear in Starsky & Hutch or Shaft as examples.

While so many pundits expounded on the evils of TV violence, I cannot recall any discussion about creating more content that promoted community, inclusiveness, or the power of diversity in the 1970s and 80s. How could it be that the experts could see correlations in violence and miss the absence of role models? (Ironically, the one positive that springs to mind is The Bill Cosby Show.)

The programming (or more appropriately content) at the time reflected what those, paying the production costs, thought would reach and resound with their audiences. But at some point, P&G and Colgate must have realized, in the not-so-distant future, the audiences seeing their ads would be only half of the US population. And for studios, as the broadcast model changed to subscription TV services such as Netflix and Apple TV, audiences would become even more segmented.

Continuing the 1950s-70s homogenous casts would not be lucrative. However, the role that programming continues to have on society, that of inspiring the next generation, remains.

Drawing on more diversity in ethnicity as orientation is, despite Luddite rants and legislation, having an impact on our society. And we can see that filtering into how we think about careers, and the expectations we put on business to make efforts to be more diverse and inclusive in the workplace.

While advertisers can better target their consumers given the vast knowledge we reveal through our digital footprints, studios also now know more about the complexion of their audiences. Both are realizing that the characters in the series they hope to hook their audiences with must reflect more than a single segment of the country. 

Programming continues to play a big part in our psyche. We can all recognize a famous line from a movie or show, like “I’ll be back!” They become part of our culture; a saying that unites us as citizens of the same country. This also applies to the heroes we see and then identify with. And this will continue, but changing demographics and economics are now driving what production companies create. With more choice for content (which can be free), the return on a series that shows only a sliver of the ethnic diversity of the country is unlikely to be large.

As to the messages themselves, while there’s an attraction to the macabre and grotesque, for the most part, audiences throughout history support underdogs, doing the right thing, charity, and catching the bad guys. Expecting us to break with that appetite that has stood for millennia is unlikely. Thus, we can expect programming to continue to deliver aspirational messages.

Among the diverse voices, consider Chadwick Boseman, a black American actor, and playwright who has inspired countless youth, of all colors, think about their futures. He insightfully pointed out that tomorrow’s workers need to be flexible in their thinking about their careers. He emphasizes that we need to have a purpose from which we can derive our happiness and sense of fulfillment.

Public Domain from wikicommons

The German philosopher, Hegel, observed that history evolves by playing off the status quo against its opposite to synthesize a new status quo. His theory on thesis and anti-thesis is borne out through the way that TV programming has changed since its inception. Coming from an even earlier medium of radio, TV was at first driven by what the sponsors would finance. In the days of exclusivity, they had a captive audience. But the audience itself was diverse and the sponsors, slowly at first, could only grow market share by changing tactics.

Today, we have a vast choice of content allowing us to select topics, storylines, and characters that are relatable in some way to ourselves. The fact that the economics itself is forcing diversity can only bode well for the way, over time, will become more integrated and welcoming to one another.