Television Can Still Surprise Us

Jan 16, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Lillian Jackson

On New Year’s Eve I was at a party where in addition to the booming music the host had the television on. The sound was off but on screen was a stylishly dressed black man standing in front of a live backdrop of New York’s Times Square and the throngs of revelers waiting for the ball to drop on the close of 2005. Almost without exception, party guest after guest glanced at the TV screen and then in surprise remarked something along the lines of, “Is that a black person hosting a New Year’s Eve event?”

Well, yes it was. The black person was sports commentator Stuart Scott and the event was ESPN2’s first New Year’s Eve countdown party, which featured musical acts and a visit from E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt. As the scenario-glance, gaze, awe-played out again and again throughout the evening as each new guest arrived, I marveled that each person-all were African American-was reacting to a black man hosting a network New Year’s Eve telecast the same way we all probably had years earlier when we yelled down the street to our neighbors and called long distance to our relatives to tell them to turn on the TV because, say, the Jackson Five were appearing for the first time on “The Ed Sullivan Show” or Vanessa Williams was being crowned Miss America. Here it is 2006, and yet there is television territory so uncharted by minorities that a black man’s venture into it still can astound.

Since the party I’ve wondered: What other breakthroughs or advances in TV diversity were made in 2005? I quickly identified a few notable occurrences, but I needed input from other people. I made some calls and sent out some inquiries and the responses rolled in. Here is a compilation of some noteworthy diversity efforts in television for 2005.

Shout out to ABC. Among the Big 3, ABC was the diversity powerhouse in 2005. Veteran sitcoms “My Wife and Kids” and “George Lopez” were joined by “Freddie,” which stars Freddie Prinze Jr.; crowd-pleaser “Lost” displayed a panoply of ethnicities among its characters, a multicultural bench that only got deeper in the hit’s second season with the addition of Michelle Rodriguez and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje to the cast. Not since Fox in the revolutionary days of its infancy, when the network’s lineup regularly boasted series such as “In Living Color,” “Martin,” “Living Single,” “Roc,” “New York Undercover,” “M.A.N.T.I.S.” and others, has a broadcast network delivered such diversity.

ABC also deserves credit for its hit medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy.” The series was created by an African American woman, Shonda Rhimes, who is also the showrunner. Quick-name two other successful dramas created by women of color -yeah, I didn’t think so.

And ABC announced its decision to make all its prime-time programming available closed-captioned or dubbed in Spanish.

The numbers game. For the first time in the history of Nielsen, the ratings measurement service began including Spanish-language TV networks Univision and Telemundo in its national sample. In the first two weeks of the network’s inclusion in the sample, Univision drew a larger and younger audience than UPN or The WB.

Cable nation. Last year was a good year for the launch of diverse cable networks. Channels that target gays, such as Logo and here!, debuted, and QTV, which premiered in 2004, went nationwide in 2005. Logo broke further ground with its soapish “Noah’s Arc,” an hour-long dramedy that follows the lives of a quartet of gay black men in Los Angeles. The Africa Channel, which aims to bring positive news of African culture to American viewers, also launched.

Global warming. The new UPN sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris” was nominated for a best series Golden Globe award. My research, which was thorough if not exhaustive, indicates that “Chris,” based on the life of comedian Chris Rock, is the first African American sitcom to receive a best series Golden Globe nom since “Frank’s Place” back in 1988. “The Cosby Show” won best series in 1985 and was nominated in 1986 and 1987; “The Jeffersons” was also nominated in 1985.

Courting Latinos. The syndicated courtroom strip “Judge Alex,” featuring Florida’s Judge Alex Ferrer, a Cuban American, was the top-rated new strip for the fall season. Its success has greased the skids for other Latino-led syndicated shows such as “Judge Maria Lopez,” from Sony Television, and “Cristina’s Court,” from Twentieth Television, both of which are planned for fall 2006.

Asia minor gets major. Asian Americans, arguably the most underrepresented group in television, had some positive signs of change last year. Sandra Oh had a prominent role on “Grey’s Anatomy” as a surgery intern, and Rex Lee played Lloyd, the long-suffering assistant to Jeremy Piven’s acidic agent Ari Gold on HBO’s “Entourage.” AZN Television, which describes itself as “the cable network for Asian America,” has nominated Lee for recognition as its 2006 Asian Excellence Awards outstanding newcomer.

The new boo. That’s “boo” as in main squeeze and significant other and no longer as in taboo. Interracial relationships of all stripes are flourishing in prime-time television, a trend that has merited the attention of National Public Radio, which discussed the ramifications in a December edition of “News and Notes With Ed Gordon.” Some examples: “Grey’s Anatomy’s” Christina (Ms. Oh) and Preston (Isaiah Washington); “Lost’s” Rose (L. Scott Caldwell) and Bernard (Sam Anderson); “Lost’s” Shannon (Maggie Grace) and Sayid (Naveen Andrews); “My Name Is Earl’s” Joy (Jaime Pressly) and Darnell (Eddie Steeples); and “Veronica Mars'” Alicia (Erica Gimpel) and Keith (Enrico Colantoni), just to name a few.

This list is encouraging, but not overwhelming. It would have been good to be able to say that “George Lopez” and “Girlfriends” had been nominated for best series Emmys in 2005-or that any of the funny and talented actors on UPN’s swath of comedies had been given a nod.

For television to become truly diverse, there is still a lot of ground to be covered, so here’s hoping that 2006 will prove to be a year of many glance-gaze-awe-call-your-neighbor breakthroughs.