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As TV's Fortunes Rise, Diversity Plummets

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire March 6, 2014 at 10:18AM

The stats on premium cable's commitment to women and people of color are even worse than you think.
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At the Huffington Post, Maureen Ryan undertakes an epic investigation into the diversity of premium-cable diversity, and comes to a conclusion that unfortunately boils down to a few simple words: White men. Crunching the numbers over the nearly 40 years of HBO's existence, Ryan finds exactly one one-hour drama series created by a woman, and not a single "original one-hour drama or dramatic miniseries creatively led at its debut by a person of color." (One thing that has changed over that period is the way showrunners are credited, so in some cases the question of who had creative control comes down to an educated guess.)

It's hard to exaggerate how bad the numbers are:

Of 38 narrative architects of one-hour HBO dramas and dramatic miniseries between 1975 and 2014, Cynthia Mort of "Tell Me You Love Me" (2007), Abi Morgan of "Tsunami: The Aftermath" (2006) and M.M. Kaye, co-writer of "The Far Pavilions" (1984), are the only women, and Mort was the only woman to create a one-hour drama series. According to HuffPost's research, Michael Henry Brown, who co-wrote "Laurel Avenue" (1993), is the only person of color on that roster. (HBO confirmed to HuffPost the names of creators and narrative architects, but did not identify any people of color on the list, aside from Brown.)

Even in HBO's current, post-"Sopranos" era, as the network endeavors to craft a new identity for itself, the picture hasn't improved. Actually, it's gotten worse.

Guess how many women or people of color have been a creator or narrative architect on a one-hour HBO drama or miniseries since 2008 (the year after "The Sopranos" ended)?

None. Not one.

As Ryan points out, the picture grows more complex when you bring in half-hour shows, standup specials and the like, which as the New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum suggested on Twitter may have a lot to do with the fact that half-hours and one-offs cost less to produce and are therefore less risky. (In addition to having less material to shoot, half-hours are much more likely to be situated in the present day, which removes the world-building cost of "Game of Thrones" or "Boardwalk Empire.") A show like "True Detective" reflects this mindset, but Ryan is careful to note that it's at worst a symptom and not a cause.

Ryan points out that although "prestige" networks style themselves as envelope-pushers, they actually lag substantially behind broadcast networks when it comes to diversity: There's no HBO equivalent of Shonda Rhimes or Ryan Murphy. That might seem counterintuitive, but it's important to remember that cable networks aren't interested in ratings so much as in cultural, and critical, capital. It's not enough to have shows that people want to watch; they have to have shows that people feel they need to watch. They need to be "important," and it seems the easiest way to do that is still to focus on white men and leave women and people of color on the sidelines. 

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This article is related to: True Detective


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