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TV Execs Break Down How They’re Working Toward Diversity

When ABC revealed that “Black-ish” would have a spinoff, sister network Freeform raced to sign the series up. For Freeform, “Grown-ish” would hit all the right notes — it came with a proven pedigree in creator Kenya Barris, and even more important, featured a young, diverse cast.

The decision was a wise one, indeed. “We chased the show that became ‘Grown-ish’ because we very much wanted a diverse comedy on our slate, and who better to partner with than Kenya?” explains Freeform exec VP, programming and development, Karey Burke. “It very quickly drew new viewers to our channel and ‘Siren,’ which follows it, has a more diverse audience than ever.”

“Diversity” has been a jargony watchword for years among programmers and content creators in the youth and young adult worlds. But it’s only in recent years that select networks like The CW, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, Freeform and Netflix have made diversity more than a watchword — it’s a true mandate for new series. In 2018, if you want to draw young eyeballs and develop YA brand loyalty, diversity is your key selling point.

Netflix VP of original series Brian Wright agrees. “I can’t quantify [diversity’s importance] for you — it’s more of a gut response. But you’re gonna get a better, more well-rounded, more resonant end result if you have shows that feature a lot of different people with different backgrounds contributing both in front of and behind the camera.”

Freeform can quantify it, at least on one level: the network boasts that 85% of its on-air and pilot casts are female and diverse. But few executives or showrunners are ready to make a quid-pro-quo evaluation that the more diverse a show is, the higher its ratings or (when relevant) the larger its ad buys. It’s more about that “gut response”: First, diversity is the right thing to do; second, it’s the right way to serve your audience.

“If you’re asking whether a show needs to be diverse for it to ‘sell,’ well, we don’t ‘sell’ our shows,” says Disney Channel executive VP of original programming Adam Bonnett. “But for a show to succeed, it has to reflect the world we live in. It’s so important for kids and tweens to see a diverse cast, so they can see themselves on the screen.”

“Grown-ish” executive producer Julie Bean adds: “You’d have to be crazy to marginalize any percentage of viewers who want to put their eyeballs on your show. It’s got to be [a selling point].”

Content creators are ground zero when it comes to the diversity discussion. At the pitch stage these days, they’re either bringing in a show where diversity is built into the story — think Netflix’s “On My Block” or Freeform’s “Grown-ish” — or offering concepts with open-ended casting ideas, as with Disney’s “Andi Mack,” which found its titular star and guiding light when it hired biracial Peyton Elizabeth Lee.

“I wrote Andi from the point of view of my own experience,” says creator/showrunner Terri Minsky, who is white. “But [Peyton] was Andi more than any other person who had come in, more than I even imagined Andi to be.”

The CW’s policy on diversity starts with color-blind casting, explains executive vice president of development Gaye Hirsch. “We don’t really start out putting any restrictions on who the character is,” she says.

But, she notes, “More and more creators have become savvy to the fact that audiences want characters that reflect themselves, and our network wants to reflect our audience in our characters. So creators are coming in with characters who come from different ethnic backgrounds or experiences.”

One such creator is Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, showrunner for “Riverdale” and the upcoming Netflix series “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” “I’m Latinx,” he says. “So definitely we talked about diversity when we pitched the show, in every room we pitched it, too. If we had tried to do an all-Caucasian cast on ‘Riverdale’ … we wouldn’t have been allowed to get it made. That’s not how television works anymore.”

This embrace of diversity is the result of years of slow tectonic shifts.

“Technology is opening things up in a different way,” says Li Lai, founder of diversity-focused reviews website Mediaversity. “Twenty years ago, you had to create media that attracted a big, mainstream audience. But streaming has made everything a little more a la carte, and you can make money by being more niche.”

Another contributing factor is that millennial and post-millennial generations are far more diverse than their parents or grandparents.

“Older generations demanded tolerance; this generation wants acceptance,” says Shelly Sumpter Gillyard, executive VP for Nickelodeon talent, music and events. “Shows have to reflect what’s happening in society — and young audiences are demanding it.”

Creators say it no longer makes any sense to pursue a non-diverse show, in more ways than one.

“We have an extra responsibility with the younger generation to show what the world looks like to them,” says Sean Cunningham, co-creator (with Mark Dworkin) of Nick’s “Knight Squad.” “We don’t think of it as a ‘selling point’ when we’re pitching a show. It’s way more important than being a ‘selling point.’”

But to Lauren Iungerich, co-creator (with Eddie Gonzalez and Jeremy Haft) and showrunner of Netflix’s “On My Block,” diversity is just one element of a successful show. “I don’t see it as being pro or con,” she says. “People are looking for great stories. Of course people would like to show more representation across the board, but I think it always comes down to the show, and the stories.”

That philosophy makes business sense, too. “If you look at content as a pie, all of the slices you want to put together include being a strong ratings driver, a big audience hit,” says Nina Hahn, Nickelodeon senior VP, international development. “One of those slices is diversity. The magic of all that is when those slices come together.”

But, says Joanna Johnson, showrunner of Freeform’s “Good Trouble,” “it’s a slow process. There’s still a lot of tokenism in television — there’s still a reticence to put darker-skinned people on television. We’re not there at all. But what’s changed is this pushing for diversity.”

Still, for Mediaversity’s Lai, it’s about the bigger picture. “I’m glad that diversity makes money,” she says. “It’s more interesting and it better targets who’s watching TV right now. But it’s wider than ‘does diversity sell?’ This is the world, and if you want to be a good artist and creative storyteller, you find your audience — and you talk to them.”

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