The diversity stats for writers, directors and actors are generally meager. Similarly detailed reports on the executive ranks at major studios, networks, production companies and talent agencies would probably be just as disheartening, if not more so.
That said, there is no question that the entertainment workforce, like the nation overall, is becoming more multicultural. A microcosm of this change is illustrated by the execs who run key programming departments at Fox Broadcasting Co. They represent a mix of African-American, Latino, Asian-American, white, gay, straight, male and female perspectives that hold sway over the programs that land on Fox's air.
Just as the fall season rollout and pilot development got under way in September, eight Fox senior VPs gathered for a roundtable discussion about the thorny issues raised by striving for diversity on all sides of the camera. The question of why primetime TV doesn't look more like 21st century America stirs raw passions -- witness the recent outcry over the lack of minority women troupers on "Saturday Night Live."
"Diversity to us is a strategy, not an ideal," says Nicole Bernard, senior VP of the Audience Strategy unit, who is African-American. "It's about the practice of accepting and understanding how the country is changing in order to grow your business. The goal for us is (to attract) more viewers. I don't care what they look like, I just want more."
The focus across the 20th Century Fox lot during the past few years on embracing diversity as a business mandate has been galvanizing, the execs say. (Audience Strategy is a Fox Group-level department that stretches across TV and film.)
The Fox network for the past three years has hosted an annual forum for its creative partners, dubbed Seizing Opportunities, to present detailed research on the changing nature of the viewing audience. The message sent to showrunners and others is that American families are fast becoming more multiracial and transcultural. Fox's corporate view is that it's an economic imperative for programs to reflect this if the network is to be relevant to millennial and post-millennial demographics.
The watchword is creating new avenues of "engagement" with viewers, which is the focus of Bernard's department.
"This is not a conversation about diversity and how you'd better do the right thing, which gets so tiring," Bernard says. "A large part of what we have to do is dispel the perceptions that if a show is this, it can't be that, or if it's that, it won't be successful. A lot of it is making people question learned behavior."
One eye-opening data point that registered with attendees at the most recent session in October was the fact that nearly one-third of the TV households in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest market, are Hispanic.
"I saw a huge change in the writers I was working with after they attended that forum," says Suzanna Makkos, senior VP and head of comedy development, who is white. "The mindset became, 'This will help me find a hit show.'â"
First and foremost, the execs stress, diversity is about expanding the horizons of storytelling by giving the audience something fresh, no matter what the cultural milieu. That means putting a premium on efforts to seek out fresh talent, and to make a concerted effort to increase the pool of experienced showrunners, directors and producers. Because the real measure of diversity, the execs note, cannot be laid on the shoulders of casting late in the development process.
"Casting is the most immediate way to reflect diversity, but after we started that forum, it wasn't just me on the other end of the phone any more," explains Tess Sanchez, senior VP of casting, who is Latina. "It became a broader picture of producers, casting directors and our studio counterparts."
Fox has let it be known to scribes that there's a demand for very specific cultural perspectives in shows, with the recognition that African-Americans are not a monolithic population, nor are Latinos or Asian-Americans or myriad other groups.
"A lot of times historically you would look to retrofit a show after (development)," says Terence Carter, senior VP and head of drama development, who is African-American. "But we were missing the opportunities for different ways of telling stories."
The Mindy Kaling comedy "The Mindy Project" is a prime example, with the Indian-American heritage of its creator and star. So is the midseason drama "Gang Related," which chronicles a Latino police officer's rise in the elite squad that takes on a gang he knows from his youth.