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Diversity in Television: Are We There Yet?

Lucette Jefferson | 6/3/2010, 10:45 a.m.

The 2010-2011 TV season is shaping up to be one of the most diverse ever with regard to on-camera talent. There will be nearly double-digit representation by all ethnic groups (African American, Latino, East Indian/Asian) in leading roles -- with the heaviest number of actors appearing on NBC vehicles. Tonight, 'Are We There Yet?' a sitcom based on the hit series of films starring Ice Cube, debuts on TBS -- but that's just one of several promising programs featuring talented people of color.

NBC
The biggest increases stem from dramas. The canceling of 'The Jay Leno Show' has provided some benefits -- those extra five hours his prime-time departure created has returned drama-series orders to pre-2010 levels. NBC has ordered 12 new series this year: seven dramas and five comedies.

For the dramas, the obvious suspects are -- married superspies 'Undercovers' with leads Boris Kodjoe and newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw; 'Outlaw' with Jimmy Smits, who stars as a Supreme Court justice who quits the court and starts his own law practice; 'The Event,' featuring Blair Underwood as the president of the United States; and 'Outsourced,' a comedy about a customer-service call center in India, whose cast is mostly actors of East Indian heritage.

Supporting roles can be found in 'Chase' with Amaury Nolasco, formerly of 'Prison Break,' as well as Aml Ameen as Malcolm in 'Harry's Law.'

And comedies have definitely made something of a comeback. Yes, series pickups by writers of color were few, but the development season was pretty brisk overall. Both broadcast and cable networks have stepped up to embrace both traditional multicamera sitcoms as well as single camera.

TBS
For sitcoms, it appears that for the first time cable TV, particularly TBS, leads the charge for minority-driven comedies.

Are We There Yet? series joins Tyler Perry's successful sitcom combo of House of Payne and Meet The Browns. And we can't forget that George Lopez leads the late night charge for the cable net Monday through Thursdays. Though TBS stands alone in singularly featuring sitcoms lead by African-Americans actors - the major broadcasters don't have any, there are other shows on both broadcast and basic cable that appeal to other ethnic demos. There is one small exception -- Fox does have the animated Cleveland Show to represent - though not all of the actors that provide voiceover talent are of color.

ABC
The dramas lead again with Jason Winston George formerly Chandra Wilson's squeeze of Grey's Anatomy. George reappears as one of the leads in creator Shonda Rhimes, Off The Wall, co-starring Enrique Murciano; Sonja Sohn formerly and formidably of The Wire with Windell Middlebrooks, co-star in Body of Proof. Detroit 1-8-7 is fully loaded with Jon Michael Hill as Det. Damon Washington, James McDaniel as Sgt. Jesse Longford, Shaun Majumder as Det. Aman Majan, Aisha Hinds as Lt. Maureen Mason, with Natalie Martinez as Det. Ariana Sanchez.

Chip off the old block, Damon Wayans, Jr. co-stars in the ensemble "Happy Endings"; and the often underrated though wonderfully talented James Lesure is back in the Matthew Perry starrer, Mr. Sunshine;

CBS
Former Lost front man, Daniel Day Kim returns in this 2010 remake of Hawaii Five-O; and former child star Jurnee Smollett appears in The Defenders as Lisa Tyler, former exotic dancer now young attorney; And for the prolific Forrest Whitaker, he appears as Special Agent Sam Cooper in the untitled Criminal Minds spinoff.

FOX
Writer/Executive Producer Shawn Ryan gives us his latest, a gritty Chicago cop show entitled Ride-Along with Delroy Lindo, Jennifer Beals and relative newcomer, Todd Williams.

And last, but not least, Liza Lapira co-stars in the comedy ensemble Mixed Signals.

While multi-hued actors are the obvious symbol of change, the true test of diversity lies in who's hired in the writer and executive suites. These are the true gatekeepers. These numbers must increase dramatically if audiences hope to see the kind of change they experience at home, school and at the office.

No matter your narrative palette, there's something for nearly every ethnic group this upcoming season. Whether these new shows will bear fruit in the ratings remains to be seen, but it's just nice to see so many different cultures represented on the small screen. Is it enough in 2010? No, but it's a start, and that's good TV, and good business.