TV Gets Woke: How Scripted Series Are Confronting Social Issues Like Never Before

Shots Fired Producers
Brinson+Banks for Variety

Reggie Bythewood’s grandfather was a police officer who taught him how to drive. He also gave him “the talk.”

“That’s what to do and what not to do when a racist police officer pulls you over,” explains Bythewood, a writer and producer whose films include “Notorious” and “Get on the Bus.” “Stay calm,” he recalls. “Repeat the officer’s name. No sudden moves.”

It’s a life lesson he passed on to his own son, Cassius, when they were driving together and a cop pulled him over for no apparent reason. “He asked if I was transporting something, and I said I was transporting my son,” recalls Bythewood. “And then he asked why I was nervous. I said I wasn’t. It was a crazy, awkward ordeal.”

Dan Doperalski for Variety

Recounting the incident months later in the writers’ room for the new Fox limited series “Shots Fired,” Bythewood says, “There are good cops and bad cops. We recognize that what’s going on has gotten to the point where we cannot keep passing it on.”

That’s what inspired him and his wife, Gina Prince-Bythewood, to create “Shots Fired,” which premieres March 22 and explores the aftermath of a fictional police shooting in North Carolina.


The Defenders

A Medium With a Message: Inside TV’s Long History of Tackling Social Issues

The show arrives at a time when fissures along lines of race, religion, sexuality, and politics in American life have burst open. But Fox is not leaping into the cultural chasm alone. Across broadcast TV, programmers are confronting hot-button issues with an intensity not seen in decades — from “event” limited series such as ABC’s “When We Rise” to comedies such as NBC’s “The Carmichael Show” and CBS’ “Superior Donuts.” The new wave of “woke” broadcast shows is a response to the political and cultural moment, but also to long-simmering changes in the TV business.

A limited series about a police shooting, one could argue, may not be the best idea for a business whose mandate is to attract the broadest possible audience. But just as competition from cable and streaming has driven down broadcasters’ ratings in recent years, it has also challenged their relevancy. FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” Amazon’s “Transparent,” and HBO’s “The Night Of” drove conversations and reaped awards. None, however, drew audiences whose size would have been anything other than disappointing on broadcast. (Though Amazon does not release viewership data, Symphony Advanced Media claims that “Transparent” is among the streaming service’s least-watched original series.)

But in an era of extreme audience fragmentation, broadcasters must balance broadness with the risk of losing their audience to cable channels and streaming services that target specific segments.

“I don’t have the luxury of being a streamer where we can go for one very, very niche audience and say, ‘OK, we’ve done our job,’” says ABC entertainment president Channing Dungey.

Earlier this month, ABC premiered “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s “When We Rise,” about the history of the gay rights movement. Black says he was “highly skeptical” when he first met with ABC. “I was incredibly surprised that they were even interested in this area,” he says. “Four years before, I couldn’t get ‘Milk’ made. I had to charge the development fees on my credit card. And this was ABC — this was the network I watched as a kid growing up in the South. This is a network my mom trusted me to watch unattended.”

Pivoting off the success of “Modern Family” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” ABC in the last decade has built a programming strategy that has prioritized diversity, leading to success with “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” and “Black-ish.”

“We have always wanted to try to tell stories that represent America in all of its shapes, sizes, colors — you name it,” Dungey says. “So that kind of programming is important to me. Whether it comes in the form of a limited series or a comedy or a drama. It was important to me yesterday. It will be important to me tomorrow.”

For Black, it was important to avoid “preaching to the choir” on a platform that might have provided him greater resources but less reach. “Arguably, on a cable network or a subscription network, they would have spent more money,” he says. “I would have had more time.” But in the end, he adds, “It was worth making some of the compromises that had to be made to be able to tell this story on a major network like ABC.”

Still, in a world of more than 450 original scripted series a year, broadcasters can no longer guarantee massive audiences.

In eight hours aired over four nights, “When We Rise” averaged a meager 0.5 Nielsen live-plus-same-day rating in the 18-49 demographic and 2.3 million total viewers. The second night drew a 0.6, shedding 70% of its lead-in from an episode of “Modern Family” that ABC aired outside its normal timeslot to give the limited series a boost.

Across television, ratings aren’t what they used to be. Live-plus-same-day numbers have suffered steep and steady declines for years, lowering the threshold of success and narrowing the gap between hit and non-hit. With reruns no longer viable against competition from year-round cable and streaming, broadcasters are airing more original programming than ever before, making pickups more likely for series that in another era would have been busts. And changes in viewing habits mean that live-plus-same-day numbers are no longer the sole expression of a show’s value. Advertisers now buy against C3 and C7 ratings, which measure ad-supported viewership over longer periods of time, and they have become increasingly open to multiplatform deals.

Co-creator and director Gina Prince-Bythewood on the set of “Shots Fired” in North Carolina.
Courtesy of Fox

“The fact that these shows are also going to be available on-demand as well as streaming on the networks’ websites gives the networks an opportunity to put programming out, not only for additional advertising revenue, but also on additional platforms for cross-promotion,” says Lawrence Epstein, a professor at Drexel University and former CBS finance executive. He adds that the platforms put programming in a place where younger viewers are more likely to see it. “Younger viewers have demonstrated an appetite for somewhat dark, somewhat controversial, somewhat ripped-from-the-headlines programming.”

And in the streaming era, “When We Rise” and “Shots Fired” may be especially suited to enjoy long lives beyond their respective eight-hour and 10-hour runs. “[Limited] series are custom-made for binge-watching,” Epstein says.


Shots Fired Producers

‘Shots Fired’ Was Originally Pitched as a 10-Hour Film, Says Cast

Comedy, too, is ripe for more daring subject matter — in part because the bar for success is even lower than it is for drama. Of the top 25 shows on TV last season in Nielsen seven-day 18-49 demo ratings, only three were comedies. The bulk of broadcast comedies that landed renewals last season averaged only a few tenths of a ratings point more than other shows that their respective networks canceled.

NBC struggled for years to develop new comedies to succeed absurdist hits such as “30 Rock” and “The Office” — going so far as to dismantle the two-hour Thursday comedy block that had been its scheduling cornerstone for decades. The network has finally begun to find success with a new batch of comedies rooted in character.

“Clearly, things that are more authentic are catching on more successfully, because social media is in a constant conversation about things,” says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke. “It doesn’t feel authentic to not address what’s going on in the world and what people are really talking about. I think that’s a sweet spot for comedy in general.”

Salke points to NBC’s “The Carmichael Show,” which has addressed Black Lives Matter protests and the Bill Cosby rape accusations, and “Superstore,” which last season revealed one of its characters to be an undocumented Filipino immigrant.

On ABC, “Black-ish” drew critical raves for a January episode devoted to the aftermath of the November presidential election. Star Anthony Anderson and co-creator Kenya Barris took inspiration when developing “Black-ish” from classic Norman Lear sitcoms such as “All in the Family” and “Good Times.”

“We didn’t just want to be a family comedy show,” Anderson says. “We wanted to be substantive and have a conscience and have something to say without beating you over the head with that message.”

The creators of “Superior Donuts” had similar goals. CBS was criticized last year when it unveiled a lineup of new fall series with only white male leads. “Superior Donuts,” which debuted in January, fits the CBS comedy formula — a multicamera ensemble with comedy and story beats driven by banter — while pushing the formula’s boundaries. Set in a Chicago donut shop and starring Jermaine Fowler as a young African-American clerk and Judd Hirsch as his Jewish boss, the show deals bluntly with race and class. Its fifth episode begins with a gentrification storyline, then pivots hard when the neighborhood dry-cleaning establishment owned by an Iraqi-American (played by comedian Maz Jobrani) is vandalized with graffiti reading, “Arabs Go Home.” Later, another character says to Jobrani’s, “I’m going to miss you when America is great again.”

Executive producer and showrunner Bob Daily notes that “Superior Donuts” needs such jokes to stay current.

“At some point you feel like these are the things that everybody’s talking about — why are we not joking about them as well?” But Daily adds that he and his writers must balance that impulse against the demands of broadcast. “Obviously, we’re a new show. It’s a very competitive environment. We can’t afford to alienate huge swathes of the public. We try as much as we can to be balanced.”

“I don’t have the luxury of being a streamer where we can go for one very, very niche audience and say, ‘OK, we’ve done our job.’ ”
Channing Dungey, ABC Entertainment president

For Dana Walden, the co-chairman and CEO of Fox Television Group, “Shots Fired” was born out of watching coverage of the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after the unarmed black teen Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer. She recalls thinking, “There are clearly many different points of view in all of these hot spots around our country as they erupt and as protests begin, and I’d like to see that explored.”

Walden called producer Brian Grazer, who recruited the Bythewoods. They soon developed an idea that Fox picked up straight to series.

“They hit that small, small bull’s-eye at the point where entertainment and important storytelling can meet,” says Walden.

Bythewood remembers writing for the 1990s sitcom “A Different World,” when difficult subjects would be earmarked for “a special episode.” “It’s just great that we’re able to dig in for 10,” he says.

Months of research informed the Bythewoods’ process — including meetings with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who challenged them as writers to give voice to a range of characters, even those with whom they might disagree.

“Gina and I have a saying, that we want to give a view from every seat in the house,” Bythewood says.

“Shots Fired” opens with a black cop shooting a white teenager — a reversal that may take viewers by surprise. “If we create a narrative where people could empathize with the character and see the humanity, we thought they could understand what we go through when these shootings happen,” Prince-Bythewood says.

The case is investigated by an ambitious lawyer from the Dept. of Justice (Stephan James) and an equally aggressive investigator (Sanaa Lathan). It soon leads to the office of the governor (Helen Hunt), as issues of race, justice, and power get ensnared in what become two murder mysteries.

The political became personal for the producers, who remembered their own reactions to the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.

“Being able to get in touch with that anger that we felt watching the Zimmerman trial, and the connection that we felt with Trayvon and with his parents, having two boys ourselves, and not understanding at all how this man could get off, and having to try to explain to our kids why that would happen — these things were fueling us in wanting to say something to the world, and how we could use our art as a weapon to speak on this,” Prince-Bythewood says.

Ultimately, their search for answers led them to find solutions that they hope will speak to viewers as well.

“One of the mantras we have is that anyone can portray reality, but an artist portrays what reality should be,” Prince-Bythewood says. “I think that this is absolutely an opportunity to show what’s going on and then go further and speak to things that we think need to change. And how a dialogue can open between police and communities. That needs to happen right now. Neither side is talking. One side feels occupied, and the other side feels under siege. They need to come together.”

That “Shots Fired” landed at a broadcast network came as a welcome surprise to producers.

“The reach is undeniable,” says Francie Calfo, president of TV at Imagine. “One of the great things about being in broadcast is that opportunity to really cast your net wide.”

Adds Grazer, “It’s a catalyst for what could be the beginning of a conversation and a solution. Ultimately, the root, the heartbeat of it, is about accountability. And it deals with the universality of how human beings relate to each other. We all have to take responsibility.”

“Shots Fired” was filmed and written a year ago, under a very different administration in Washington, D.C. Since then, “there’s been a 180-degree change,” says Prince-Bythewood. “Now the Dept. of Justice is absolutely under siege under this new administration. Will it even have the ability or the desire to look into cases of injustice?”

But she’s not giving up hope. The climate may have changed in the capital, but the nation is still hungry for answers to a problem that hasn’t gone away. “The show feels even more relevant now,” she says. “Everything happens for a reason.”

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  1. william moran says:

    their is another new show called American something and its on every year and this year it is about illegals struggles getting to american and one being killed and showing their struggle to live in america well live in California and they love it for they get welfare for poor Pedro and maria and you can also work off the books and make that to and i dont fall for that crap anymore for mexico should fight for their rights an mexico and its against the law to come here illegally and why dont they make a show about the struggling Americans after the illegals have taken all their jobs and i am no longer a democrat/socialist and will never vote for cry barbies like the socialist and you foolish liberals in Hollywood and your foolish followers

  2. william moran says:

    Another series created by the obama liberal machine and i was hoping it would be a good show but its anti police and anti white and i had alot of black friends when obama was elected and even worked on black peoples home but i am no longer close to those friends and black s dont even have me work on their homes anymore for obama has divided us big time and i will not be watching this show for i saw it all when obama was in office creating the divide so you Hollywood liberals can stick this up yours for you crybabies are the last ones i willl listen to after seeing how you act towards our new president

  3. Mike Wells says:

    Apparently someone missed the entire 70s where rape, abortion, and child molestation were covered with only 3 networks to choose from. You also had subversive anti war commentary on MASH, and All In The Family even covered the subject of(OMG!) menopause. There has been plenty of social commentary in television, and all while battling government censors, since the concept of cable-only television series(not under the thumb of the FCC) is really only 20 years or so old. This is sad, coming from what is supposed to be sort of ‘the’ authority when it comes to the film and television industry.

  4. So responsible father figures in the black community tell kids the exact same thing responsible father figures in the white community do but only the black community get to make a TV show about it that cries “racist” “racist” “racist” over and over again.

    • Dunstan says:

      Marilyn, do you know how insane you sound? “Shots fired” isn’t about some advice; it’s about the aftermath of a police shooting. Or did you miss that fact in your faux rage?

  5. Braddah Nui says:

    It’s bad enough that our kids are having the SJW BS shoved done their throats with the lies and fixed data I need it now n TV. Change the channel folks and or complain to the advertisers.

  6. Jacques Strappe says:

    Reading many of the critical comments about broadcast and cable networks’ programming efforts to be inclusive and diverse, one would think that the majority of current programs that still star white, Christian and straight characters don’t exist. Interesting how fear and loathing of Americans different from you cloud reality..

  7. Shlomo Shunn says:

    Blacks in ONE city killed each other at a rate 1820% higher than the Klan hanged in 20,000 cities during an ENTIRE YEAR.

    Put another way: Chicago blacks in just 12 months, in just one part of just one city, killed more of each other than the Klan hanged in 20 years at its peak all over America.

    When will there be a TV show on that?

    • Mike Wells says:

      Blacks weren’t killing each other merely because of the amount of pigment in their skin.

      In other words, your statistic is meaningless because you have no idea what you’re saying.

  8. Shlomo Shunn says:

    > “That’s what to do and what not to do when a racist police officer pulls you over”

    That’s sound advice when ANY cop confronts you.

    Also, don’t be committing a crime.

  9. MadMagyar says:

    “The Talk”, eh? What is never mentioned is that the cops themselves don’t know what the words they use (legal parlance) actually mean. Neither do we, for the most part. “Driving” is a commercial activity, where you are “transporting” something (cargo, goods, etc.) or someone (“passengers”) for HIRE. What if it’s your own private possessions (groceries, tools, Christmas gifts, etc., which are not being “trafficked”) or your GUESTS are your friends or family members? See? You don’t know there’s a difference between what you own and who your guests are and “passengers” and good/cargo/etc. – both of which require the same kind of paperwork that commercial truckers have to carry when “transporting” something for another “person” or entity for pay. You are considered to be trafficking in something when you call yourself a “driver”. Yes, it’s “just semantics”. But that’s what ALL statutory law is – a matter of what you’re calling yourself. The run-of-the-mill cop is not trained to distinguish the difference, either, since we’ve all been taught from the first day of attending a government brain laundry we call “school” to use those words without discriminating their meaning. So, when admitting and confessing to “transporting” his son, he subjects himself to the statutory laws of the state codified in the Transportation statutes.

    How about calling yourself what you are – a “man”? That’s not defined at all in statutory laws, except in describing things like a “man-made” body of water, or a “woman” being the mother of a child. Everywhere else in statutory law, a “person” is defined as being a commercial entity (like a corporation), not a “man” or “woman”. They can’t apply statutes which regulate commercial/commercial activity to living men and women – since WE wield the power that created the corporate state to begin with. They cannot lawfully acquire more power than the creators of the corporation. We CAN, however, subject ourselves to the power of the corporation. But we cannot be MADE SUBJECT to it, except by our own will and actions,

  10. Paul's Boutiquge. says:

    The article doesn’t mention this, but ABC’s When We Rise got abysmal ratings and (surprisingly) mixed notices, despite massive hype. Last year, the Ghostbusters movie (which pandered to SJW’s) bombed.

    The whole article ignores whether people are actually watching these shows, which can lead one to believe that the preachy, “getting in their face” attitude of the PC crowd is alienating people and making their ratings drop.

  11. Dana says:

    All those tips he gave his son when stopped by police apply to all males of all races. This shouldn’t be new to anyone.

  12. Wayne Kelly says:

    I immediately stop watching any series that gets preachy. I find plenty of neutral programming to watch. PBS, CBS, NBC, ABC, and HBO are dead to me now. Frankly I don’t consume nearly as much television as I used to. The creativity is gone, and all that is left on the networks is political dogma. Hiking, kayaking, and walking the dogs all handily beat watching anything on those networks.

  13. Lord Ligonier says:

    If you love YOUR children, you’ll give the …The Talk: Nonblack Version – Taki’s Magazine

  14. Brian Norman says:

    Oh boy, here comes another TV show I won’t bother to watch. I saw the preview once and it told me all I needed to know to convince me that I don’t need to waste my time.

  15. stercuilus65 says:

    “The political became personal for the producers, who remembered their own reactions to the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.”

    Martin was not “murdered”, he was shot in self defense something this hack writer knew damn well.

  16. jackdeth72 says:

    And you can fully expect all of these whiny, crying Butt Hurt leftist “Special Interest Talking Point Topic” Television Shows, Mini Series and Specials to crash and burn rating wise everywhere outside where they were filmed, edited, streamed or produced.

    Because after eight years of Bed Wetting Liberal BS being shoved down tolerant throats. People are sick and tired of it!

  17. The doctor says:

    The justice department is under siege? The reality is the current AG prosecuted the KKK but don’t let facts get in the way of your sinking ratings

  18. Charlie Foxtrot says:

    Why North Carolina? We are little tired of the racist finger being pointed at us every chance you get. Just because you are from California or New York doesn’t mean the you are less racist. So, how about you point the finger at yourself sometime and leave us out of your equation.

  19. KR Rayberry says:

    Sure seems like the industry is ripe to come alive with some decent family viewing. Seems like the networks are more committed to their ideologies than their viewers.

  20. Screw the viewer, just push your agenda. Vast wasteland indeed.

  21. rbblum says:

    ‘Death panels’ activists appear to be making their presence felt in the television industry.

  22. Just one more reason I haven’t even tuned into a network station for a few decades. Why bother?

  23. Lex says:

    I’m with a lot of people here. I’m sick of this garbage. You look at all the urban violence that gets people killed and some we get yelled at about it. It’s like they don’t see the cause of the problem because they aren’t very smart. Television isn’t really that entertaining anymore, anyway. It’s not worth my time.

  24. David Gurney says:

    Diversity didn’t make America great.White males did.For further study see the 1950’s.

  25. JoJo Wasaman says:

    The only idiots that watch and ingest this garbage are the senseless, brainwashed terrified liberals who will never change their juvenile imbecilic way of existing anyway. So . . . there is no point.

  26. pugwantstoknow says:

    I want to be entertained not brainwashed. My viewing is down to a paltry few shows.

  27. Larry says:

    All these programs are doing is giving me more time to catch up with my reading and time with my dogs.

  28. Alana says:

    I guess some people enjoy being preached at. I don’t. I avoid those shows which do.

  29. l says:

    …and losing audiences like never before.

  30. DT says:

    I am tired of being preached at, of having someone else’s social justice views broadcast in my home. I watch scripted shows for the entertainment value, which, along with viewership, is declining. Coincidence?

  31. GoodGrief says:

    And networks wonder why their ratings are tanking. People want to forget our problems at the end of the day, not be lectured.

  32. “We have always wanted to try to tell stories that represent America in all of its shapes, sizes, colors — you name it,” Dungey says

    Just not straight, white, Christian or conservative…unless we parody them and make them the villain of every joke and story line.

    And then they wonder why people are tuning out.

  33. mfcummings says:

    Remember when you tuned in for entertainment? These days we get the privilege of being sermonized by self-righteous, virtue signalling douchebags and their sycophants.

  34. Michael S. says:

    The media and Hollywood are failing because they are politicizing EVERYTHING.

  35. Lynn Wood says:

    Yes. Bang the heads of the audience with the message. If you preach and sermonize long enough why even us dim bulb non progressive types in Middle America will be able to recite the lines.

    Propaganda. And more propaganda to sell more adverts.

    I mean why waste any time in just telling a story when you can beat down the audience for being so backward as to tolerate anything.

    Meanwhile, main street crumbles and the banksters are having logistical problems moving their money, digital and physical, about while our ruling elitists are calling for constitutional and civil rights for AI robots equal to or superior than those given to the Corporations by our federal court system.

    Well back to my house purchased through Amazon, financed by Amazon, supplied with fuel and water paid through Amazon, to conduct all my activities on devices purchased through Amazon and to view all entertainment played produced by Amazon.

    Will AI robots have the right to self defense???

  36. RightStuff44 says:

    Yup, pushing the leftist/interventionist/socialist/multicultural/anti-God agenda 24/7 in an effort to corrupt the minds of the intellectually weak. How do you like it being shoved down yours and your childrens’ throats every time they turn on the boob tube?

  37. RLABruce says:

    TV series aren’t “confronting” social issues; they are propagandizing and promoting the Liberal view of social issues. I automatically turn off their BS and watch old movies that don’t preach at me.

  38. JOHN T. FOX says:


  39. J says:

    “Shots Fired” opens with a black cop shooting a white teenager — a reversal that may take viewers by surprise”

    We should probably change “surprise” to “utterly predictable cliche”.

  40. Kuvan says:

    I am truly glad I don’t live in shallow world of skin color. Thank you God!

  41. “That’s what to do and what not to do when a racist police officer pulls you over,” explains Bythewood, a writer and producer whose films include “Notorious” and “Get on the Bus.” “Stay calm,” he recalls. “Repeat the officer’s name. No sudden moves.”

    On its face this is about as stupid as it gets. So when a non-racist police officer pulls you over it’s ok to be aggravated and make sudden moves? This should be common sense no matter what police officer pulls you over.

  42. Tony Barnes says:

    Every new show that comes out now is the same crap with the black man/woman in charge with a bunch of different nationalities sprinkled in along with homosexuals and mixed couples. The idiot in the group
    is the white guy. Even the kids are smarter than their dads, even in commercials. The entertainment writers think this is a good way to brainwash Americans but from what I see and hear, they a failing. I have found other ways to entertain myself. So, stick your sick idea’s up your ass.

  43. hanginout says:

    Typically, I watch TV for entertainment. When the story line starts drumming on social issues, any social issues, I flip channels. That means I don’t watch much network TV. I don’t need an agenda with my R&R time.
    Don’t watch ESPN, other than games. I don’t need someone’s agenda tied with my sports.
    When I am looking to be informed, I watch the news…read the papers, etc.
    Entertainment people better get their heads wrapped around this concept. Otherwise viewership will continue to decline.

  44. Neil Johnson says:

    Nobody with half a brain watches these shows.

  45. In case you had not figured out why white folk are no longer watching broadcast TV …

  46. Paul Smith says:

    Social re education shows? Not interested.

  47. Scott A says:

    I’m white and my father had “the talk” with me. It consisted of: don’t break the law, when a patrol car turns it’s lights on pull over immediately, when the officer approaches the car treat him/her civilly and politely, follow their directions, and since you weren’t breaking the law answer their questions truthfully even if you believe that you were pulled over for no reason.

    Simple directions that have seen me not get beaten or shot by the police when I have been stopped. I’m willing to be that if the minority community had this kind of “talk” with their children then there would be a lot fewer problems including people getting shot.

  48. Me says:

    “How Scripted Series Are Confronting Social Issues Like Never Before”

    And how they suck like never before.

  49. Atilla Thehun says:

    It’s all the SJW’s in Hollywood. Each out to outdo the others in their shedding light on social injustices – same as the commercial world where every spot has to have multiple minorities. Thank goodness for DVRs

  50. svede says:

    The entertainment industry is going to find when they only have a small slice of the pie and they insult half of that there isn’t enough left to eat with a cup of coffee.

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