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A version of this story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Driven by the ratings success of shows with mainly nonwhite casts — Empire, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat — along with political pressure to make shows better reflect their diverse audience, American TV outlets increasingly are greenlighting series that feature black, Asian and Latino leads. Fox’s 24: Legacy, a reboot of the Kiefer Sutherland series, stars Corey Hawkins, famous as Dr. Dre from Straight Outta Compton. CBS has Rush Hour, based on the action movie franchise, starring Jon Foo and Justin Hires, and has cast Sarah Shahi, a former NFL cheerleader of Persian and Spanish ancestry, as Nancy Drew in its reboot of the lily-white mystery franchise.
“It’s color-blind casting,” says Sony Pictures TV casting director Dawn Steinberg. “There used to be a time when it had to be written that way to look for an actor with a specific ethnicity. Now it’s just who is the best actor for the role.”
But when trying to sell overseas, American shows are finding the color barrier is still there. Why? Insiders say it’s because international audiences have yet to truly embrace diversity on the small screen. “These shows are a reflection of our society, but [they are] not a reflection of all societies,” says Marion Edwards, president of international TV at Fox.
Take Empire. Fox’s hip-hop drama appeared to be a slam dunk for the international market: a splashy mainstream hit that felt both of-the-moment and a throwback to primetime soaps (and global hits) like Dallas and Dynasty. But the show has been a global flop. In the U.K., the first season drew a middling 717,000 viewers on Channel 4’s youth-oriented E4 network, a mere 3 percent share, and season two has fared worse, averaging a 2.2 percent share with 595,000 viewers. The show’s first season averaged 181,000 viewers on Australia’s Channel Ten, prompting a shift to the smaller Eleven network, where season two has averaged just 77,000 viewers an episode. In Canada, broadcaster Rogers Media moved Empire off its free TV network City after season two ratings dipped to 208,000 viewers, shifting the second half of the season to its online streaming service Shomi. While in Germany, Empire, which aired in primetime on Pro7, one of the country’s leading free TV networks, attracted fewer than 1 million viewers per show and less than 4 percent of the national audience, a fraction of the channel’s regular draw.
“I love the show, and we took a big risk on it. But our courage was not rewarded,” says Rudiger Boss, head of acquisitions at ProSiebenSat.1, which bought Empire for German TV.
Adds Edwards: “Having a diverse cast creates another hurdle for U.S. series trying to break through; it would be foolish not to recognize that. We are telling our units that they need to be aware that by creating too much diversity in the leads in their show means … problems having their shows translating to the international market.”
The diversity issue comes at a particularly perilous time for U.S. television studios because foreign outlets increasingly are creating their own shows or buying from producers in their region. American series simply aren’t as popular as they used to be. This is significant because international sales can provide a great deal of revenue. A 2013 study by U.K. group Digital TV Research estimated the sale of U.S. drama series to European television generated $5.4 billion for U.S. rights holders, $1 billion less than in 2008.
But it would be simplistic to call viewers in Europe, Canada or Asia racist. Edwards points to global juggernauts NCIS and CSI, “two hugely popular shows, both of which have had versions with diverse actors as major characters, without hurting their performance internationally.” The Digital TV Research study appears to confirm this, noting that NCIS generated $205 million in revenue for CBS from sales to Europe in 2012, making it the most valuable imported series. CSI was second on the list, with an estimated $188 million in revenue from European TV sales.
Edwards also notes the success of The Cosby Show, “which broke all the rules of international television: a half-hour comedy, with a black cast. And it translated everywhere,” she says. “It was the same thing with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
“Those shows and the success of the original Roots miniseries proved there is an interest in black stories abroad,” says Timothy Havens, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Iowa and author of Black Television Travels: African American Media Around the Globe. “But the pattern we’ve seen, again and again, is that black shows break new ground that white shows benefit from. So Roots was followed by a number of white miniseries that were very successful abroad, Fresh Prince by white youth-oriented shows.”
Havens also draws a distinction between shows like CSI and Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland productions (Grey’s Anatomy, How to Get Away With Murder), which feature “black faces but non-ethnically specific kinds of stories” and are often very successful worldwide — and the “specifically black stories” of series like Empire and Black-ish, which tend to sell only to smaller niche networks outside the U.S.
A broader issue on the international television market is the difference in viewing habits between U.S. audiences, who have largely embraced complicated storytelling and nongeneric drama formats, and international viewers, at least those watching on mainstream channels, who prefer traditional, episodic TV of the NCIS and CSI variety.
“Diversity is an issue with our audience, but it’s also the kind of shows coming out of the U.S. now — almost everything is serial, with long multiepisode story arcs, [and] that doesn’t work for us,” says Philipp Steffens, head of drama at RTL, Germany’s leading commercial network. Out of necessity, RTL in 2015 signed a deal with French network TF1 and NBCUniversal International Television Production to directly produce U.S. series themselves with a European audience in mind. The initial plan sees the financing of two development cycles with a target of producing three series over the next two years.
Says Steffens, “We’re hoping the deal will mean we’ll get the kind of shows we used to from the U.S.”
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