Deadline’s ‘Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Casting’ a tone-deaf take on TV diversity

For the first time in Hollywood’s history, casting directors are turning actors away from roles because of the way they look, according to Deadline’s TV editor Nellie Andreeva.

In a recent article “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings – About Time Or Too Much Of Good Thing,” Andreeva uses the word “ethnic” so many times it likely broke a Guinness World Record. Networks hiring more diverse actors might not be productive, she writes, since more on-screen actors of color has spurred  the unthinkable: slightly fewer roles for white actors. 

Deadline’s editor, Mike Fleming Jr., has since apologized and amended the headline to simply read “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings.” The original article remains the same. 

Andreeva’s column didn’t just misfire in its understanding of the financial success of “ethnic” programming, but it also overlooked the social consequences of how television represents minority characters.

Networks are making a concerted effort to increase the number of roles available for non-white actors. According to Andreeva, the demand for “ethnic” actors has created a situation where more roles are now closed to white actors. There are also, apparently, not enough “experienced minority performers” to satisfy this increased need. This, of course, has led to the ill-advised casting of inexperienced actors such as Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Lucy Liu, Whoopi Goldberg, Morris Chestnut, Jada Pinkett-Smith and John Leguizamo.

All snark aside, Andreeva has enjoyed nearly two decades of reporting as a television journalist. She has undoubtedly made numerous solid industry connections, and she’s likely seen and heard pushback to recent changes in television casting. She wouldn’t be at fault for simply reporting this insider backlash, but she should have been more critical of it. 

In Hollywood, we’ve been told, the only color networks see is green. The lack of diversity must mean that there’s no money in it — not that there are racial biases at play. 

Well now, we have seen irrefutable proof that diversity sells. Shows like “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Fresh Off the Boat” (the first sitcom about an Asian-American family to air in 20 years) and “Black-ish” have been met with both critical and commercial success. “Scandal” was the first network drama to star a black woman in nearly 40 years, and it has since turned into a massive hit for ABC. In an age where most Americans simply aren’t sitting down to watch live TV anymore, hip-hop opera “Empire”’s season finale was watched by nearly 20 million viewers, according to Nielsen. 

So, if Hollywood is truly just about the money — and it’s clear these types of shows are generating it — then what’s the problem?

The problem, as Andreeva’s article unknowingly confirmed, is that money wasn’t the primary factor behind the previous dearth of roles for “ethnic” actors.

Minorities claim only 5.1 percent of lead roles, according to UCLA’s 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report. When they are cast, it’s usually as a racially charged stereotype (basically any non-white character on “2 Broke Girls”), or a thankless best friend role that merely exists to support the white main character (think Wallace on “Veronica Mars”). 

The popularity of these tropes has less to do with money and more to do with the fact that diversity behind-the-scenes is practically nonexistent. When people of color make up less than 14 percent of the people writing, directing and producing TV, according to the 2015 WGA Staffing Brief, it’s no wonder these portrayals continue to exist.

Television’s representation of diversity has detrimental effects on the children who watch it. A 2011 study by the University of Indiana found television negatively impacts the self-esteem of children of color. When the heroes on TV are always white, when the only people who look like you on your TV screen are homeless, criminals or maids, it is bound to affect the way children of color view themselves and their roles in society. 

Television lags far behind U.S. Census figures when it comes to the racial distribution of roles. For Andreeva to suggest that “the pendulum might have swung too far in the other direction” after one pilot season is embarrassing and offensive to those who’ve weathered the past few decades of blindingly white TV content. 

Audiences are clinging to shows like “Sleepy Hollow,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and the other aforementioned series because they are breaking away from the tired tropes of the past and presenting us with people of color who are fleshed-out characters of their own. For the first time in a long time, our multidimensionality is being explored, and the support has been so strong that networks can no longer pretend their unwillingness to produce more diverse content is purely financial.

Television is finally starting to reflect the diversity we see in our daily lives, and we, the audience, are excited by that. The same should go for the folks over at Deadline.

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