LOS ANGELES – Gina Rodriguez wasn’t done shedding tears. Two days after winning the Golden Globe for best actress in a TV comedy, she was still caught up in the moment.
“I was like, ‘Don’t trip!’ ” Rodriguez said on the set of “Jane the Virgin,” remembering when her name was called out over such heavyweights as Julia Louis-Dreyfus. “I was like, ‘Thank you, God; thank you, God; don’t trip; don’t forget anybody’s name. Was that Oprah? That was Oprah! Oh, my God!’ ”
Rodriguez isn’t the only person of color crying out for joy these days. While Oscar voters may have taken a step backward with an all-white slate of acting nominees, the TV landscape has never been more diverse.
As networks struggle to keep up with cable and streaming video, they are reaching out to groups they once ignored — and the ratings prove they’re doing the right thing.
The same day as Rodriguez’s victory, the CW network announced a second season of “Jane,” which features an almost entirely Latino cast. African-American producer Shonda Rhimes oversees three Thursday-night dramas — “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “How to Get Away With Murder” — two of which are headlined by black women.
“Empire,” a new Fox soap about a black family struggling for power in the music industry, attracts more than 11 million viewers a week, steadily growing its fan base over the course of its first four episodes, a rare accomplishment in network TV.
ABC’s “Black-ish,” starring Anthony Anderson as an ad executive desperate to have his kids appreciate their African-American roots, retains much of the audience that tunes in for its lead-in show, “Modern Family” — a sign that the network may have finally found the right companion piece for its signature hit.
One of this winter’s most promising new shows is another ABC series, “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first network sitcom to put an Asian-American family front and center since Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” two decades ago. A “Wonder Years”-like sitcom set in the mid-’90s about a Taiwanese family adjusting to life in Orlando, Fla., it will premiere Feb. 10.
“When you walk down the hallways of ABC and look at the photos [of the stars], it’s completely different than it was five years ago,” said Jake Kasdan, one of “Boat’s” executive producers. “ABC truly has put on the most diverse prime-time lineup ever.”
That’s no coincidence.
The color of money
“Look, Hollywood is often ahead of the curve and often behind the curve,” said ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee, who must be well aware that the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that, by 2043, whites will no longer be the majority in this country.
The U.S. Hispanic and Asian populations grew 43 percent from 2000 to 2010. Spanish-language channels Univision and Telemundo are now competitive with the Big Four networks in the 18-to-49 demographic.
“It’s wonderful to see us reflecting the country now,” said Lee. “We’re trying to tell authentic, specific stories that reflect our audience.”
Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson, who plays a master manipulator in “Empire,” is more blunt in her assessment of the tidal change.
“People are seeing that shows with people of color can make money,” she said. “When things make money, people get interested.”
For years, networks aimed to placate minority groups by sticking actors of color in stereotypical, secondary roles — the Latina sexpot (Sofia Vergara in “Modern Family”), the supportive spouse (Joy Bryant in “Parenthood”), the wacky roommates (Lamorne Morris and Damon Wayans Jr. in “New Girl”).
“For the past several years as an actress, I have felt like shows are willing to cast Asians, but always in the third or fourth position,” said “Fresh Off the Boat” star Constance Wu, who plays a tightwad mother. “Hopefully, if we’re successful, there will be more opportunities for Asians to be the lead.”
One of the best sitcoms these days is also one of the most diverse. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” features a police squad in which four of its nine primary members are people of color.
“Five years ago, I would have been the token Latina,” said Melissa Fumero, who plays an uptight detective on the Golden Globe-winning series. “I feel like we’ve turned the corner.”
Viewers have had reason to hope in the past. But important shows such as “Julia” in the 1960s, “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s-’90s and “Ugly Betty” in the ’00s never really triggered a proper revolution.
“Everything is cyclical,” said “Black-ish” star Anderson. He remembers how the WB lost interest in his 2003-04 sitcom “All About the Andersons” when executives decided the network was getting too Afrocentric. “All we can do is leave our imprint here and hope that it sticks.”
One reason to believe that diversity is here to stay is that people of color now have more power behind the scenes.
“Boat” is being captained by Nahnatchka Khan, an Iranian-American who grew up in Hawaii, while black filmmaker Lee Daniels (“Precious,” “The Butler”) is an executive producer of “Empire.”
“God bless Fox for being so bold,” Daniels said. “I mean, who’d have thought they would let me on TV?”
Louis Gossett Jr., who starred in “Roots” and appears in BET’s first miniseries, “The Book of Negroes,” said shows are bound to get better with more minorities in powerful positions behind the camera.
“I highly respect my Caucasian counterparts, but if you’re going to tell the story about an African-American baseball player or a black university, maybe it’s best to get someone who has had that experience or may be a bit more sensitive to the dialogue,” he said. “Until then, you’re going to get some flaws in the story.”
This new generation appears less willing to compromise than its predecessors. Margaret Cho has been vocal about how ABC tinkered with “All-American Girl” to the point that it no longer matched her vision. It was canceled after one season.
“You can’t sell out,” said Cristela Alonzo, the star and creator of “Cristela,” an ABC sitcom that doesn’t shy away from addressing stereotypes and tension between races. “You can’t care about getting the best ratings of all time. If you try to get ratings, then you end up with a ridiculous show, like a sci-fi series where I’m in space with a puppet. I’ve always said I wanted to tell the story I wanted to tell and not the show other people were telling me to make. If it doesn’t work, then it’ll be on my terms.”
Rocking the ‘Boat’
But for some, networks are still interfering too much. “Fresh Off the Boat” is adapted from a memoir by celebrity chef Eddie Huang, who recently teed off in a New York magazine essay that accused ABC of aiming for a “cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane.”
At a news conference a week later, with show-runner Khan seated nearby, Huang retreated a bit. “I need to make sure it stays authentic, to the book, the Asian community and to all people of color,” he said. “I do believe now that the show is very strategic and smart in how it’s opening up.”
Khan downplayed Huang’s jab at her, and defended her role.
“I can really relate to the immigrant experience of this show, being first-generation [American] and having parents who weren’t born here,” she said. “And when you take source material that comes from such a strong voice, you try to develop it for a broader audience and make it into a family sitcom for broadcast TV, you need a lot of different access points.”
In other words: For these new shows to have staying power, they must speak beyond those with the same skin color.
So far, “Empire” seems to be doing just that, taking over the title of most-watched new network show from “How to Get Away With Murder.”
“I think people really want to see the full world and the full spectrum,” said the drama’s star, Terrence Howard. “It’s so unnatural to go in a room that’s stark white or a room that’s stark black. When you have different shapes and different colors involved, you feel like there’s more of a natural space. We’re showing real life now.”