APAs on Prime-Time TV: Progress Has Been Made, But More Needs to Be Done

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By Karen K. Narasaki

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The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition last week released its 2010 Report Card on Television Diversity. The following statement was issued in Los Angeles by Karen Narasaki, chair of the coalition and president of the Asian American Justice Center.

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Ten years ago when we started grading the four major networks – ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC – on the inclusion of Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) in front of and behind the camera, the picture was dismal.

In 2001, only 17 Asian American actors were featured in the prime-time lineup and they were generally limited roles. The following year the number was even worse at 14. In 2010, the picture was much brighter with breakout shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Lost,” “Heroes” and “Glee” featuring APA actors in quality roles.

But to have prime-time television truly reflect the America we live in, the networks must do more to invest in shows that feature an APA as the central character. There has not been a primary cast of APA actors since Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” in 1994 — a span of more than 15 years. With the growing pool of proven Asian American talent in primary roles in large ensemble casts, the time is long overdue for an Asian American-led show.

Over the last decade, reality shows emerged as a force during prime-time hours. The networks should be commended for the diversity of shows such as “Dancing With the Stars,” “American Idol,” “The Amazing Race,” “Survivor,” “The Biggest Loser” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” which have featured APA talent including Carrie Ann Inaba, Cheryl Burke, Yul Kwon, Ada Wong and Kat Chang, who was part of the first all-female team to win “The Amazing Race.”

We applaud ABC for featuring Rhex Arboleda, a native of the Philippines, and his family on an episode of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” during the 2010-11 season. However, not every reality show producer has been committed to assembling casts that are consistently diverse.

Daniel Dae Kim

Losing “Lost” and “Heroes” will have an impact on the number of APA actors on scripted prime-time shows in the 2010-11 season if efforts are not made to ensure diversity initiatives are implemented. But we do see promise in shows such as “Outsourced” and “Hawaii Five-0.”

Overall, there were 37 APA actors cast in regular prime-time roles for the 2009-10 season, an increase of four from the previous season.

Although the quality of these roles has vastly improved — APAs are now cast in roles with real dimension, not just as sidekicks or in menial roles — APAs are still less likely than actors from other racial groups to appear in primary roles.

Since the 2007-08 season, the number of APA writers and producers has continued to fall. Even though the decline is slight, this is of great concern to the coalition as the number should be increasing. We are also concerned about the decrease for Latino and African American writers as well.

Time has shown that some showrunners are apparently uncomfortable writing for non-white lead characters and are not going to change. So it is necessary to create a new generation of writers and producers who can be successful in telling stories that will resonate with what America is today. We urge the networks to implement initiatives that will net gains in this area.

We believe that increasing the number of APA and other minority writers and producers will help lead to fully developed characters and central roles for APA and other minority characters. After more than a decade of effort, each network should have a strong pipeline of minority talent ready to become the next Shonda Rhimes (creator, executive director and head writer of “Grey’s Anatomy”).

Overall, opportunities for APA directors dipped slightly to 23 from 27. The coalition expects improvement at all of the networks but not enough APAs are being groomed for advancement or getting an opportunity to direct.

With the exception of FOX, the other three networks continue to make progress in their efforts to contract with Asian American businesses. NBC and CBS top the four networks in Asian American business contracting, with FOX trailing in this category.

This year, only NBC’s overall grade improved, up from a C+ to a B-. NBC’s grade rose because of its vast improvement in casting APAs on reality programs and in its holding deals with APAs. For non-scripted shows, NBC’s numbers increased from seven to 23. NBC also increased in the “development deals,” “procurement” and “APA executives” categories.

We are sad that NBC chose to take “Heroes” and “Trauma” off the air but we applaud the network for “Outsourced,” a 2010-11 season sitcom set in India that features several Asian characters.

ABC’s and CBS’s overall grades remained a B-; FOX maintained its C+ grade.

You can find our full report at www.aajc.advancingjustice.org but I wanted to point out a few of each network’s highlights:

ABC

It has been five years since ABC’s breakout hit “Grey’s Anatomy” first aired, a show with a minority showrunner and quality roles for minority actors. Since then, ABC’s diversity efforts helped launch homeruns such as “Lost” and “Ugly Betty” and now “Modern Family.” The coalition would like to see more from the network at the same level as these shows.

Rebecca Hazlewood of NBC's comedy series Outsourced

Despite ABC’s effort with “FlashForward,” the 2009-10 season was a disappointment. The network’s APA number fell for a second year in a row in the writers, recurring actors and reality show cast members categories. And with the conclusion of “Lost,” the numbers will fall further without renewed attention in development and casting.

There were two lost opportunities in ABC’s new season, “Off the Map” and “Body of Proof,” which are produced by ABC Studios. These broadcasts are both medical shows; originally, at least one was written with an Asian character in mind, but a non-minority actress was cast instead.

The most significant improvement for ABC came in the minority-contracting category.

NBC

Overall, NBC improved in on-air, prime-time, unscripted shows and program development.

And with “Outsourced” added to the lineup, we expect the numbers for next season to rise for scripted shows even with “Heroes” off the network.

NBC continues improving its diversity initiatives and has broadened its efforts beyond just television. It leads the way with its digital efforts, which hold much promise for ensuring and increasing diversity as media continues to evolve.

NBC is also committed to diversifying its workforce in the front office. The coalition commends NBC for hiring Michael Chen from GE to serve as president of strategic initiatives.

Another exciting opportunity for diversity inclusion at NBC was triggered by Comcast Corporation’s merger with NBC Universal (NBCU). AAJC, East West Players, Japanese American Citizens League, Organization of Chinese Americans and Media Action Network for Asian Americans executed a landmark agreement last month with Comcast and NBCU that spells out very substantial provisions to increase the inclusion of Asian Americans that will set a high standard for the media and the communications industry.

FOX

FOX has delivered a big hit with “Glee.” We appreciate the diversity of the cast but would like to see the APA actors have an opportunity to develop into more central characters.  For example, Jenna Ushkowitz is one of the original characters but has yet to have her back story fully told. Also, Iqbal Theba plays a wonderful supporting character on the show but he deserves more screen time.

Archie Panjabi

FOX’s new season has been a disappointment with only two new Asian regulars — Indira Varma added to “Human Target” and Lisa Lapira appearing in the mid-season replacement “Mixed Signals.”

For the 2009-10 season, FOX is one of two networks that improved in the writers and producers category. FOX’s effort to focus more resources and attention on the development of minority-led projects continues to be promising. Its casting Internet site is a very innovative initiative.

CBS

CBS, under the committed leadership of Nina Tassler, has made great strides in its diversity initiatives since 2001. One example —CBS made concerted efforts to increase the number of APA actors in the daytime segment of the schedule and these efforts are beginning to pay off.

CBS, like FOX, improved in the writers and producers category as well as the procurement and network executives areas. The 2009-10 lineup included a new show, “Three Rivers,” which cast Daniel Henney as a central character. Even though the series was canceled, w

Jenna Ushkowitz

e applaud CBS for going out of its way to secure the actor as a regular and not just relying on agents to submit clients for the show.

In fact, the network also did this with Adhir Kalyan in “Rules of Engagement” and Archie Panjabi — who won the Emmy for best supporting actress in a drama series — in “The Good Wife.”

The current season is promising with “Hawaii Five-0,” which features Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park in primary roles.

Conclusion

The coalition is very pleased with the progress we have seen over the years in the minority-contracting category. We praise the networks for their commitment in this area and remain encouraged that improvements will continue.

While progress has certainly been made through this decade of report cards, it is disappointing that the progress is not consistent. At this stage, one would expect  each network to feature at least a dozen APA regulars. But only NBC meets that mark. And no network airs a show with an APA as the central character or that features an APA family.

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2 Comments

  1. I am a South Asian actor and I truly appreciate the good work you are doing. I would also like to bring to your attention the fact that FOX also lags behind in paying minority actors, specially Asians, their due wages. FOX got rid of Patrick Gallagher (asian) and Dijon Talton (Af. Ameri.) because they were asking for a raise, a raise above SAG minimum pay i.e. They were both duly written out and the other minority actors like Iqbal Theba and Harry Shum were threatened with the same treatment if they didn’t “behave”. Glee also uses Jenna Ushkowitz as a token minority and still has to write a storyline about her character. Minority actors in that show are given less money and less screen time compared to their fellow Caucasian actors. You can confirm these facts by just watching the show and calling FOX payroll and casting.

  2. The danger with bean-counting is that it leads to quotas, which are just another form of discrimination — and one that frequently hurts APAs in particular. The focus should be on nondiscrimination and equal opportunity, not achieving predetermined politically correct results.

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