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A Troubling Trend in Cancellations: Are Inclusive Shows in Danger?

Rosewood,” “The Get Down,” “Sense8,” “Pitch,” “East Los High,” “Sweet/Vicious,” “Underground,” “American Crime.”

These are all shows that were canceled recently. Notice a pattern?

They all had non-white and/or non-male leads or ensemble casts. Often the main creative voices behind the scenes were not necessarily what most showrunners are — white men. The programs listed above were all very different from each other in tone and execution, but they were the kind of programs that, from an inclusion standpoint, Hollywood leaders have repeatedly said they want to make.

The industry did make those shows, and now they’re all gone.

I haven’t crunched the numbers on this, and let me be clear, I am a fan of crunching the numbers when it comes to matters of inclusion and diversity (or the lack of it that is still the hallmark of too many segments of the TV industry). Variety writes stories like this all the time — including this year and last year and lots of other times — and we’ll continue to monitor and digest the numbers that come out from various guilds and from our own data-gathering efforts.

So, given my penchant for numbers, charts and data when it comes to these issues, I am fully aware that one anecdotal list does not prove anything definitively. Lots of shows get canceled every year, especially in spring and early summer, when the networks are clearing the decks for their next few rounds of acquisitions. If someone wanted to make a counter-argument, they most certainly could do so by mentioning that “Last Man Standing” and “The Odd Couple,” two shows with white male leads, were also canceled in recent weeks. WGN America didn’t just cancel “Underground,” it also canceled the predominantly white “Outsiders.”

But there’s still reason to be worried.

Having written about these issues for a very long time, here are a couple of truths I learned the hard way: Hollywood is way too quick to pat itself on the back for the smallest and most overdue steps forward when it comes to diversity, inclusion and representation — and the industry is far, far too quick to let the backsliding begin. And when that backsliding does begin (as it has many times in the past), many who mouth easy platitudes — instead of doing the real work of increasing the diversity of the industry — very easily and even reflexively turn a blind eye to the return to the status quo. (If that status quo was ever even seriously challenged — and at too many networks and studios, it is not. Still.)

Many of us who observe the TV scene have noted that its recent expansions — which have gotten us within shouting distance of 500 scripted shows per year — have led to the existence of many more TV shows created by non-white, female and LGBTQ writer/producers. This is one of the best things about the last few years — the explosion and expansion of points of view, protagonists, subjects and styles. Seeing shows led, in front of and behind the cameras, by men and women who reflect the world we live in was both a relief and a beginning — it was not the end of institutional sexism and racism, but the start of an era that had tentatively begun to right of decades of bias, blindness, arrogance and neglect.

But there was always an undercurrent of worry when many of us celebrated the TV industry’s (very incomplete) progress, as it started the process of truly expanding its worldviews and creative rosters. That progress is non-existent or weak in some quarters, and inconsistent in others, for starters. Beyond that, for some time, many of us have been worried that, if Peak TV were ever to begin contracting, that the shows created by non-white, female and LGBTQ creators — especially the newer entrants into the mix — would be the first ones shown the door.

Two years ago, NPR’s Linda Holmes began to sound that alarm, and since then, it’s been picked up by many other critics, fans and TV writers. As Holmes put it then, “If there is to be a contraction that works to the benefit of the industry and the audience at large, it can’t come from cutting off newcomers and telling them we’re full.”

I agree. And for all I know, TV is still expanding. Maybe the quest for inclusion and better representation in Hollywood will pick up steam (though the media’s ongoing coverage of this topic says that, in many regards, that’s not occurring).

But this recent spate of cancellations still worries me, I must admit. Especially in these troubled times, when it’s more important than ever to reinforce views of America that are forward-looking, inclusive and tolerant. I do know that there are men and women in this industry who care deeply about these matters. I often wonder, frankly, if there will ever be enough of them to counteract the entrenched pressures that led to decades of lingering inequality. 

I love TV, but it’s an industry that so often relies on — and reverts to — bad habits. The industry’s progress in these vital arenas is patchy and incomplete. That’s one way of saying that I certainly don’t want to see a rerun of where we were a decade ago.

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