Oprah, Gabrielle Union Talk Need for More Diversity As They Celebrate African-American TV Achievements

Andy Kropa /Invision/AP
Gabrielle Union at Wednesday night's Paley Center-hosted event

Winfrey, who served as host of the Paley Center tribute, and BET CEO Debra Lee said they hoped the small-screen trend of diverse programming would continue.

Oprah Winfrey, Kerry Washington, Phylicia Rashad and Lee Daniels were just some of the stars who gathered in lower Manhattan Wednesday night to celebrate African-American achievements in television. The Paley Center-hosted event looked back at 70 years of African-American contributions in drama, comedy, news, talk shows, sports and music, with guests like Michael Strahan, Larry Wilmore and Gwen Ifill, Wynton Marsalis and Black-ish stars Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross recounting historic moments in each of those TV genres.

Those who took the stage also praised the current abundance of popular shows with powerful black characters, including Scandal, Black-ish, Empire and Being Mary Jane. But many of those on hand also argued television could still be more diverse.

As Cicely Tyson said when she took the stage at Cipriani Wall Street, "We ain't there yet. But we're gonna get there."

Earlier, Gabrielle Union said of the state of diversity on TV, "There's always more work that needs to be done."

"When we have yet to match our actual numbers in this country — and that's black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American roles for women in front of and behind the cameras — across the board, we have a long way to go," the Being Mary Jane star told The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet before Wednesday night's tribute. "We have some things to celebrate this year. Not just pilot season and all the wonderful people of color who are cast in pilots, but you have the Thursday night block that Shonda [Rhimes] has created. So much diversity. You've got Empire, Black-ish, Being Mary Jane, The Haves and Have Nots. You've got so much programming, but we can always do more. We can always improve."

Indeed, BET Networks CEO Debra Lee echoed Union's comments as she reflected on the 35th anniversary of the African American-aimed TV network, which was also celebrated Wednesday night.

"Diversity on television matters. It mattered 35 years ago when Bob Johnson founded BET, and it matters today," Lee said onstage. "The fastest way to get to know another ethnic group or religion or social orientation is to see it portrayed and represented on TV in a respectful and responsible way…I am very proud that diversity is popular in television this year. And I hope it lasts."

When asked by THR what other networks could do to better represent their diverse audience, Lee said, "I think put more African-American characters in shows, have more shows that emphasize our community, and some of them are doing it. I hope they continue to do it."

At the top of the show, Winfrey, who served as the host for the evening, urged those in attendance to "continue to tell our stories."

"We've got to keep telling our stories because our experiences are so broad and rich and multifaceted there isn't just one way to be black or ish," she said, referencing the ABC hit. "The more stories we share the more reflective we can be of the whole diverse African-American community."

She did, though, indicate that so much progress had been made from how African-Americans were represented on television when she was growing up that kids today "might have trouble actually understanding what we're all doing here tonight."

"Your children might say, 'Mom, what journey? What struggle?' A child growing up now sees a very different landscape than the one I grew up in and than the one many of you in this room grew up in," Winfrey explained. "When I was growing up, first of all my grandmother didn't have a television, and when I could see a television, in rural Mississippi, the only reflection of me was in the Little Rascals and Buckwheat. No one wanted to be Buckwheat, that's for sure…Today African-Americans are starring, co-starring, creating, writing, producing, directing and hosting some of the top shows on television…That was not always the case because when I was growing up there were so few people of color on television, when there was one of us, we would end up missing it because we would be calling everyone else…To see someone whose face and life looked like ours was just that exciting."

When asked which African-American TV stars served as role models for her, Washington cited Rashad's work on The Cosby Show, Debbie Allen on Fame and the careers of Tyson and Diahann Carroll.

"There were so many women whom I know paved the way for me to have the career I have today," she said. "So I feel just overwhelmed with gratitude tonight."

The Chew co-host Carla Hall also cited The Cosby Show as significant.

"I think when the Cosbys came along, people were wondering, 'Do blacks really live like this? Or is this just some fabricated, fictional story of blacks?' So I think that was the first time I remember in my lifetime that blacks were celebrated on television," she said.

Hall told THR she feels a responsibility to reflect African-American culture on The Chew.

"I think the way I wear my hair, my culture. Even on a talk show, talking about black Santa," she said. "There are certain things that are very unique in our culture that I think are important to share and talk about because it's those little nuances that people who watch will say, 'Oh yeah I remember that; you see me; I hear you, and this is your culture.'"