TV Pilot Season's Big Get: Diversity

Empire S01E04 Still - H 2015
Chuck Hodes/FOX

Empire S01E04 Still - H 2015

'Empire's' huge ratings help fuel a trend toward multicultural casting as race becomes a hot topic and in-demand minority actors field multiple offers.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

This could be the year that diversity becomes more than just a buzzword in television. Thanks to Fox's No. 1 new show Empire and several minority-led hits, TV execs are scrambling to make the annual pilot season less white.

Race is part of the premise of several new projects, comedy and drama, and execs forecast an increased push for color-blind (and even minority-specific) casting in other pilots. The central couple in the NBC relationship drama Love Is a Four Letter Word was changed from white to black, for instance, as was the family in ABC's TV update of John Hughes' Uncle Buck. And NBC has made early development pacts with such minority talent as Will Packer, Jennifer Lopez, Eva Longoria and Jerrod Carmichael.

"On top of just wanting to reflect how the world looks, diversity is good business. And I think that's finally started to sink in during the last two years," says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke. "A show like Empire is a turbo boost to the change. It's a wake-up call that there's a gigantic audience that doesn't want to see themselves reflected in token casting. They want authenticity."

The increased demand has led to a battle for familiar, nonwhite actors this pilot season. Actresses Meagan Good, Paula Patton and Sandra Oh have been offered projects. America Ferrera is in demand, and NBC is locking down Latino actors for Silvio Horta's The Curse of the Fuentes Women and Asian-Americans for the martial arts drama Warrior. Hot comedic actor Damon Wayans Jr., who is stepping away from his role on Fox's New Girl, already is fielding multiple pilot offers for his own vehicle — including CBS' adaptation of the Rush Hour movies. Says one talent agent who has noticed black clients in higher demand this year: "There aren't enough Boris Kodjoes to go around."

A priority for some networks — including CBS, which, according to a recent AP study, is nearly 80 percent white — are Latino viewers. (See: the network's recent order Taxi 22, starring John Leguizamo.) Despite Latinos being 17 percent of the U.S. population, the only Hispanic-fronted series of note on broadcast are CW critical darling Jane the Virgin and ABC's Friday sitcom Cristela.

Fox's Empire, which has grown its audience to 11.4 million viewers (a 4.6 rating in adults 18-to-49), clearly is a factor. Fresh Off the Boat, the first Asian-American-fronted U.S. series in 20 years, had a promising launch on ABC on Feb. 4. And the network has two of the season's other top freshman, How to Get Away With Murder and Black-ish, each with African-American leads.

But the trend toward diversity was afoot even before this season as networks court an audience approaching 40 percent nonwhite (minorities over-index on social media as well). ABC Studios exec vp Patrick Moran says his outlet simply is responding to the material. "Black-ish is Kenya Barris' personal story and Pete Nowalk's [Murder] script was color-blind. Then Viola Davis got ahold of it and was interested," says Moran. "Going into this season, we're taking a similar approach to just go for the best actor."

Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report