Tim Goodman's TCA Journal No. 7: Diversity Is Not CBS' Brand

CBS has a weak history when it comes to shows about people of color. And as long as the channel is successful, that's unlikely to change.
Monty Brinton/CBS
Glenn Geller of CBS.

The Hollywood Reporter's chief TV critic Tim Goodman will be filing a series of journals from the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, looking at the bigger picture, unspinning the spin or crushing the life out of things.

CBS couldn't have been too surprised at the dumpster fire that ignited during its TCA executive session over the fact that it is a very white, male network.

That's pretty much its brand.

A decade of whiteness (and regularly being quizzed about it) should make CBS ready for just about anything.

Hilariously parachuting in a bunch of photos of minority stars it would be adding (in supporting roles) in the coming season suggested it knew which questions were coming. That Glenn Geller, president of CBS Entertainment, could only really muster up "We need to do better" was less hilarious, and his trying to spin his way out of this mess as the stage caught fire was even less impressive than the network's underwhelming fall offerings, which have generated zero buzz here among critics.

It was a bad look. But it wasn't exactly off-brand.

Though it got rightly pummeled  and with an aggression that comes from being locked up in a hotel for 14 days  and that was kind of a gleeful thing to witness if you're into that sort of thing, it was hard to come away from the beatdown thinking for sure that things would soon change.

They might get incrementally better, they might not. CBS has been winning a whole lot more than losing for a good long time now, and making a tidy sum in the process. It is and has been one of the best-run broadcast companies since Les Moonves whipped it into shape ages ago. You may or may not like the programming, but strictly within the confines of how a broadcast network runs  defining an audience and delivering it show after show of pretty much the same thing, professionally done for each genre  CBS crushes everybody else. It is a finely tuned machine.

But diverse? Look, it's 2016  for years now there have been diverse casts that almost every network can point to in order to temporarily wriggle out of a question. Diversity in the lead acting roles  which really tells a lot about what kind of show a network is selling to what kind of audience  has not been a CBS strong suit.

This year  of all years  is a pretty stark look for CBS. One so bad that another critic (of color) told me dismissively that CBS was "the Trump Network." Nobody ever said that into a microphone because all told it's probably not fair. But in the current climate, this is not a great look for CBS (and its weak defense left little doubt that fixing the problem isn't exactly the stuff of urgent executive meetings).

If you go back to 2000 –and that means counting up a ton of shows and I'm sure I missed a few along the way  not a lot of people of color have been in lead roles at CBS. Why? Because that's not what CBS is really selling.

Now, I define a "lead" role as either the first- or second-most seen person on the show, week to week. That's kind of tricky in an ensemble, where the show is five or seven actors at a hospital or in the law enforcement series of your choice (CBS basically lives on drama procedurals).

Back in the 2003-04 season, which you won't remember, there was a series called Century City that starred Nestor Carbonell, Viola Davis and Hector Elizondo for a few minutes.

The Dennis Haysbert-led drama series The Unit premiered in 2006.

In 2007, there was Cane with Jimmy Smits for 13 episodes. In 2009 we got NCIS: Los Angeles with LL Cool J in a lead role and that show is still on. I'm not going to count Grace Park or Daniel Dae Kim as leads in 2010's remake of Hawaii Five-0, because that seems like a real stretch.

Taraji P. Henson was a lead when Person of Interest premiered in 2011 and then was killed off in the third season (she appeared in a flashback episode later).

In 2012, CBS premiered Elementary with Lucy Liu in one of the two lead roles. That show is still on.

A better year for CBS was 2014, when it had Halle Berry in the summer series Extant, though it's no more; then Elyes Gabel as the lead in Scorpion (still on); and Maggie Q in Stalker (thankfully no longer on). NCIS: New Orleans also came out in 2014, but you might get some debate on whether that ensemble cast features C.C.H. Pounder in a lead role. The same could be argued about 2015's Code Black and Luis Guzman.

However, Supergirl would count in 2015 with Mehcad Brooks, though the series has switched over to sister channel CW.

In 2016 there was the very, very short-lived and much despised remake of Rush Hour, now dead, and the current BrainDead starring Danny Pino, who is of Cuban descent.

By any count, even if I missed one or two, and even if CBS were to bitterly argue that some ensemble roles are really "lead" roles  even when those asterisks are desperately added, that's not the makings of an argument that in any shape or form makes a person or a company look good.

In the fall, CBS will have zero series with non-white leads. It will have lots and lots of white males. At midseason, likely early 2017, CBS will have Doubt, with Laverne Cox and also Dule Hill.

So there's that.

And that's why CBS had to bring the hoses out for the aftermath of its executive session.

But look at CBS' history here. Look at its audience. Look at how well it has been doing. And then ask yourself if you think the channel is going to change that and if it's going to change that in a hurry. It might push the needle in the very short term, sure. But significantly change? History says no. Because diversity is not the brand.

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