Television has a long way to go before it accurately reflects the country’s diversity, but compared with the film world, it’s a virtual rainbow coalition.
While the Academy Awards prepare for next week’s Walk of Shame — it failed to nominate a single person of color in an acting category for the second year in a row — TV can point to critical acclaim and strong numbers for racially mixed series such as “Orange Is the New Black,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “The Walking Dead.”
But despite the progress, it still feels as though Hispanic women are woefully underserved. Yes, Sofia Vergara of “Modern Family” is TV’s highest paid actress, but her success comes from playing a trophy wife who trips over the English language and refers casually to her violent Colombian upbringing. No other female Hispanic TV actress made Forbes’ annual list of big-money players for 2015.
If there’s hope that the times are changing, it’s on NBC.
Yes, NBC, the network that leapt to first place in the mid-1980s on the strength of “The Cosby Show,” about a well-off black family — and then blew it, happily basking in the success of “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” shows that suggested people of color no longer frequented diners and coffee shops in New York City.
NBC is desperate again, which means it’ll try anything — including having Hispanic actresses lead three series, “Shades of Blue,” “Superstore” and “Telenovela.” Network brass may not say it, but they are definitely taking a cue from ABC, which reversed its fortunes a decade ago by hitching its wagon to producer and writer Shonda Rhimes, who has done more for diversity in network TV than any other single person.
“I just remember watching ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and thinking, ‘Wow, she’s putting this person in this role and that person in that role,’ and it was so interesting,” said “Shades of Blue” star Jennifer Lopez. “Since then, it’s becoming more the norm.”
What’s worth noting in the case of “Shades of Blue” isn’t Lopez’s role on screen (her role as a crooked cop is about as credible as Denise Richards suiting up as a nuclear physicist in the 1999 James Bond flick “The World Is Not Enough”) but that she’s one of the drama’s executive producers — a sign that she’s a force to be reckoned with. In the film world, directors may sit atop the pyramid, but in TV, the producer is king — or, as is becoming more and more the case, the queen.
Producing a change
Still, being the boss doesn’t mean much if you don’t do something with the clout. Mexican Alejandro González Iñárritu may be in line to win his second straight Oscar as best director, but neither “Birdman” nor “The Revenant” featured a Hispanic in a prominent role.
One person who is using her behind-the-scenes influence to make a difference is Eva Longoria. In addition to “Telenovela,” in which she headlines a nearly all-Hispanic cast, she has helped develop “Devious Maids,” the American Latino Media Arts (ALMA) Awards and several Hispanic-themed documentaries.
“Did I intentionally start producing to help Latinos? I actually started producing because I like bossing people around, and I’m really good at it,” said Longoria, whose ability to make such statements and still come across as charming is why she’s such a likable comic actress. “I think there’s a lot to be done on having more diversity in front of the camera, but it starts behind the camera.”
Of course, even if “Shades of Blue,” “Telenovela” or “Superstore” becomes a hit — all three are losing viewers on a weekly basis — that doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing for Hispanics in the near future.
Lessons from ‘Ugly Betty’
“Ugly Betty” did very well for ABC, and star America Ferrera seemed poised to take over a rom-com universe previously dominated by blondes in size O dresses. But Ferrera said “Superstore” is the first job she was offered that wasn’t written specifically for a Latina.
“I do applaud NBC for what they are doing this season, but I do think it’s important to acknowledge that we have successes that don’t necessarily end up as watershed moments for diversity on television,” she said.
The only way to ensure long-term success is if minorities end up running networks, just as film won’t really change until people of color are running major studios.
“We need a pipeline, and the only way that you can become a network executive is if you touch every rung of the ladder in production, be a producer, be a director, know how TV is made, and then rise in the ranks,” Longoria said.
There may be significance in ABC’s decision last week to replace its entertainment president, Paul Lee, with Channing Dungey. She will become the first black president of a major broadcast network.
Could Longoria play that same role for Hispanic women? And if so, where do I sign up to be part of her support team?
“I’m too young,” she said in my attempt to launch a campaign.
Longoria may have the luxury of waiting a while. Not sure if the same can be said about broadcast TV.
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @nealjustin