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 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.

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.”