Can Hollywood Help Bridge the Cultural Gap Through Storytelling?

The depth of the political divide exposed by Donald Trump’s victory raises a practical question for Hollywood: How do you make TV shows and movies with broad appeal for a country in the grip of a cultural civil war?

The extremist views Trump espoused during his campaign fly in the face of the entertainment industry’s recent focus on diversity and inclusion, not as a lofty goal but as a business strategy to bring disparate demographics to the TV screen and to multiplexes. The sobering returns tallied in the wee hours of Nov. 9 shined a florescent light on the fact that there are at least two Americas, separate and unequal in the eyes of the other. That makes for a body politic that is as hard to reach with mass-market entertainment as it is hard to govern.

Writer/director Judd Apatow says he is deeply disturbed about what Trump’s win says about a big portion of the American public. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s victory, he is forcing himself not to obsess about the larger message of the vote.

“If I thought to myself that 25% of our country just voted for a disgusting man who is a misogynist and a racist who incites violence, it would make it harder for me to go to work every day trying to amuse them,” Apatow says.

Several senior programming executives acknowledge that the extreme urban/rural divide evidenced in the election returns is reflected in Nielsen ratings. One pointed to NFL viewership as evidence of an audience segment that correlates with Trump’s stronghold regions and has largely abandoned primetime programming. CBS, NBC, and Fox can bring them in for pro football, but there’s a big segment of the NFL audience that rarely comes back for other shows, the exec notes.

As the shock of Trump’s win set in, storytellers began grappling with the huge ideological divide between Trump supporters and people who voted for Hillary Clinton.

“We have to think long and hard about why people are feeling so disaffected,” says Neal Baer, a veteran showrunner. “It’s incumbent on all of us as artists to tell stories that touch people’s minds and hearts. The lesson of the election is to tell more complicated stories that can speak to everybody and move them emotionally and intellectually.”

America’s growing racial and class divide is daunting to tackle in narrative form. Fox is attempting to do so with its upcoming drama series “Shots Fired,” revolving around a racially charged police shooting in North Carolina.

“People hear ‘Black Lives Matter’ and think ‘I hate the police.’ People see Donald Trump and think ‘All white people are racist,’” says Nelson George, author and cultural critic, as well as a co-exec producer of Netflix’s “The Get Down.” “We have to address this other swath of America and use our storytelling ability to reach them and build bridges. Clearly, the country can’t function in a state of perpetual war. It’s going to explode.”

George notes that the mainstream success of Fox’s “Empire” and movies such as “Straight Outta Compton” and “Creed” can have crossover appeal, which reinforces that entertainment programming remains a forum for bringing people together.

The election, he adds, “should solidify everyone’s commitment to diversity — the idea of America as a melting pot as a fundamental business vision of our country. The media business is fulfilling that vision in a way that it’s never done before.”

George, who is African-American, notes that he’s never seen a time when so many people of color have been employed in film, TV, and other media. That has coincided with the exponential growth of linear and digital channels serving up original programming. Programs such as Donald Glover’s FX series “Atlanta,” widely praised for its authentic portrayal of young black men, and Aziz Ansari’s biographical Netflix comedy “Master of None,” can be successful without “Empire”-level ratings.

But the fragmentation of the TV landscape has also contributed to a lack of cultural connective tissue among disparate subsets of the population. And that very likely is contributing to the tribalism that Trump harnessed on the campaign trail.

“There was a time when 40 million people would watch an episode of ‘ER,’” says Baer, who worked on the NBC medical drama in the 1990s. “That is never going to happen again. Our shared experience has become a fractured experience. We’ve lost something in the process. We’ve still got all these fundamental problems — racism homophobia, xenophobia. We’ve got to find the way to talk about these things that roil us.”

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