By Teddy Zee
Television is no longer black and white. I know this may not sound like news to many of you, but take a look at prime time these days. More Asians are starring in top shows on network TV. The conclusion is both simple and profound: Diversity on the screen is good for business.
But this revelation is only starting to take hold. Just six years ago, it was hard to find any Asian actors in prime time. In fact, there were only two, Lucy Liu on “Ally McBeal” and B.D. Wong on “Oz.” Today the impressive list includes Sandra Oh on “Grey’s Anatomy”; Daniel Dae Kim, Yunjin Kim and Naveen Andrews on “Lost”; Mindy Kaling on “The Office”; Parminder Nagra on “ER”; Ravi Kapoor on “Crossing Jordan”; Will Yun Lee on “Thief”; Grace Park on “Battlestar Galactica”; Masi Oka, Sendhil Ramamurthy and James Kyson Lee on “Heroes”; Lauren Tom in “Men in Trees”; and Keiko Agena on “Gilmore Girls.” With Asian American actors playing a big part in the success of these shows, audiences have spoken. They want diversity!
However, in this case the egg comes before the chicken. Such visible changes could not have happened without advocates within the networks and studios. As you probably know, the new head of Lifetime is an Asian American woman who ran ABC’s successful slate of reality programs. Top casting executives at ABC and NBC are Asian Americans. The person supervising Fox’s monster hit “American Idol” is Asian American. So are producers of The CW’s “America’s Top Model” and Fox’s “The Simpsons.” And every major studio and network now has a diversity officer in place.
Unfortunately, not all the news is good. A recent Writers Guild of America report had a familiar ring to it. Its key findings show 40 percent of all TV shows during the 2005-06 season did not employ a single minority writer and the percentage of non-white writers in Hollywood was actually down from 2004 to 2005. This trend likely will continue with the cancellation of several minority-themed shows that came out of the recent merger of UPN and The WB into The CW.
When we say diversity, what we are really saying is that the composition of faces on television (and behind the camera) should accurately reflect the world in which we live. All you have to do is walk down the street to understand that the face of America is changing. The country is a true melting pot, where the aggregate of minorities is quickly becoming a very visible majority.
Asian Americans are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in this country. With higher education and household incomes, Asian American buying power is estimated to reach $526 billion by 2008. This has motivated companies like JCPenney, State Farm, AT&T and Anheuser-Busch to set aside budgets to reach this audience. In fact, all of these advertisers are major sponsors of the upcoming “Asian Excellence Awards,” which will air May 28 on AZN Television, a Comcast-owned cable television channel targeting Asian Americans.
Of course, cable television was way ahead of the pack in its foresight and recognition of this audience as being underserved. A number of single-language networks serving various Asian expatriate communities have cropped up and gained subscribers over the years. AZN plays to Asian Americas, the majority of whom speak English and are entrenched in American culture, but want to remain in touch with their Asian heritage and see themselves on television. By providing a national platform to reach Asian Americans, channels like AZN not only serve the community, but make it easy for Madison Avenue to reach a highly desirable market.
AZN will celebrate the achievements of Asians and Asian Americans in the arts with the 2007 “Asian Excellence Awards.” Among the honorees are actor Chow Yun Fat, fashion designer Vivienne Tam and restaurateur/chef Nobu Matsuhisa. What’s remarkable is that this is only the second year a national awards show like this has been in existence. Television has long honored its African American and Hispanic American actors-now is our time. We know there’s still a long way to go, but in the meantime, let’s rejoice in how far we’ve come.
And it’s also time for more people in the television and advertising industries to recognize that America wants its TV in color. Including Asians and other ethnic groups on television is not only good for audiences; it’s very good for business.
Teddy Zee is executive producer of the 2007 AZN “Asian Excellence Awards” airing on AZN Television May 28. He also produced feature films “Hitch,” “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Saving Face,” “West 32nd” and “Life, or Something Like It.”