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Network's Fall TV Shows Embrace Diverse Casts


Television networks are making efforts to sustain diversity on screen. Regular viewers know that the last TV season featured big hit programs with stars of color. Think about "Black-ish" or "Empire." The question is whether the networks can make that last, and that question was on the mind of our critic Eric Deggans as he attended the television network upfronts. That's an annual ritual at which the networks present their programs for the new season. Hi, Eric.


INSKEEP: So what's the answer? Are things looking pretty diverse?

DEGGANS: I think TV is changing, even if it's slowly. So I looked, and there's about 40 new shows coming next TV season. And about a quarter of them star either non-white actors, feature a mostly non-white cast or have non-white actors as co-leads. And best of all, these shows, they run the gamut of different kinds of shows.

So NBC is doing a version of the all-black musical "The Wiz," and it bought three different shows featuring Hispanic women as leads, showcasing America Ferrera from "Ugly Betty" and Eva Longoria, who used to be on "Desperate Housewives," and Jennifer Lopez, late of "American Idol." CBS has a remake of the movie "Rush Hour" with a black and an Asian actor as co-leads, and ABC has an African-American-centered remake of the movie "Uncle Buck," along with a sitcom featuring the comic actor Ken Jeong. Now, you might remember him from "The Hangover" movies. But here, he stars as a doctor called Dr. Ken. Let's check out a little bit of it.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: He's the wildest comedian of our time. But before all of that, Ken Jeong was a real doctor, and now he's playing one on TV.

KEN JEONG: (As Ken) You have ankle swelling, shortness of breath. Your thyroid's within normal limits.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) What's the diagnosis?

JEONG: (As Ken) You're fat.


INSKEEP: It's a good thing the studio audience was there to remind me to laugh.

DEGGANS: (Laughter). Well, you know, it's tough to judge a series by the five-minute trailers that they show you here at the upfronts, but I do worry that some of these shows are kind of dumb. I mean, if you look at a show like "Blackish," that came out last year on ABC, and it's this broad comedy that really smartly looks at how an upper-middle-class black family navigates race and culture in modern life. So, you know, I would like to see a little bit of that in some of these new shows. Now, maybe it is progress to see that people of color can be in derivative shows too, which brings us to Wesley Snipes' new show for NBC called "The Player." Let's check out a bit of that.


WESLEY SNIPES: (As Mr. Johnson) Mr. Kane, my name is Mr. Johnson. This is the house where the probabilities of criminal activity are determined. There are all always three members of the house. Cassandra is the dealer, and I am the pit boss. Will you be our player?

PHILIP WINCHESTER: (As Alex Kane) Why show me this? Why tell me this?

SNIPES: (As Mr. Johnson) Crime, Mr. Kane - we gamble on crime.

INSKEEP: OK. Crime bookies - sounds interesting.

DEGGANS: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Are advertisers excited by shows like this, Eric Deggans?

DEGGANS: Well, I think advertisers want to see a show that can play on as many platforms as possible in as many markets as possible. I mean, they want international sales, and they want syndication, which we call reruns, that comes after you get about a hundred episodes of show.

So the media buyers I talked to were concerned that the most successful shows that featured non-white casts and actors were comedies, and they were these serialized dramas like "Scandal" or "How To Get Away With Murder." And neither of those kinds of shows travel well overseas because comedy is very culturally specific, and shows that are serialized, they're hard to rerun because, you know, if you miss a show here or there, you lose the track of the story. So I do think that media buyers are looking for something that fits the mold that they're used to, like a "Law And Order" or an "NCIS," but that's often very different than the kind of shows that we call quality shows on television.

INSKEEP: Eric, thanks very much.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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