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Comedy Central’s Friday announcement that Larry Wilmore would take over the time slot previously occupied by Stephen Colbert with his new Minority Report caps a major week for black leads on the small screen.
The Daily Show correspondent, who will launch his new series in the 11:30 p.m. slot starting in January, joins a rapidly growing roster of black leads on newly ordered primetime broadcast scripted series.
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The emergence of black leads was one of the earliest trends to emerge from the wave of broadcast network pickups this week. ABC on Thursday ordered Anthony Anderson comedy Black-ish to series. That comedy — on which Wilmore was poised to serve as showrunner — stars Anderson as an upper-middle-class black man who struggles to raise his children with a sense of cultural identity. Laurence Fishburne exec produces and has a recurring role in the single-camera comedy that’s loosely based on the life of The Game showrunner Kenya Barris. With the new gig, Wilmore will remain with the comedy until a succession plan is in place. (Black-ish, sources tell THR, went head-to-head with ABC’s similarly themed comedy pilot Keep It Together, starring Romany Malco in a semi-autobiographical comedy based on the life of Kevin Hart, who had a recurring role. The jury is still out on if ABC will pick up the Hart comedy to series.)
Elsewhere at ABC, the network picked up its Shonda Rhimes-produced drama How to Get Away With Murder. That stars two-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis as a criminal defense professor who, with her students, becomes entangled in a murder plot. The pickup gives Rhimes (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy) three series on the air next season, with Davis joining Emmy nominee Kerry Washington fronting two of the three.
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Over at Fox, the network added hip-hop drama Empire, from The Butler‘s Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, that features a largely black cast toplined by Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. Also coming to Fox’s schedule is Red Band Society, starring Octavia Spencer, who will make her series TV debut in the adaptation of the Spanish drama from EP Steven Spielberg.
On CBS, Oscar-winner Halle Berry will star in the network’s upcoming summer sci-fi drama Extant.
At NBC, meanwhile, 12 Years a Slave‘s Alfre Woodard stars alongside Katherine Heigl in political drama State of Affairs. Seventeen-time Emmy-nominee Woodard will play the president of the United States in a role that was originally conceived as a male character. The Office‘s Craig Robinson also returns to the network with the leading role in comedy series Mr. Robinson. Of course, NBC attempted to reboot Ironside earlier this season with Blair Underwood in the starring role. That drama was canceled last fall shortly after its lackluster debut, as networks have repeatedly tried to launch black-led series but fell short. (Scandal‘s Washington became the first black female lead with a show to earn a sophomore run since 1974.)
The wave of new black leads comes as ABC’s political thriller Scandal has become a key asset for the network. The series, which was renewed this week for a fourth season, has become both a critical hit and one of the network’s key-ratings bright spots this year.
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The fast-paced Scandal achieved megahit status in its third season, regularly topping lead-in Grey’s Anatomy and averaging a 3.0 among the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demographic and 9 million viewers. Those numbers surge to a 4.6 and 13 million total viewers when factoring in seven days of DVR viewing.
The series also scored a key early syndication sale to BET, with repeats airing within eight days of their original broadcast. Thanks in part to the cast’s weekly live-tweets, Scandal has become a big word-of-mouth performer and critical darling, counting fans such as Oprah Winfrey, who featured Washington and Rhimes on an episode of Oprah’s Next Chapter. The series also proved that it wasn’t immune to behind-the-scenes turmoil when ABC recently declined to pick up the option on co-star Columbus Short following domestic abuse claims. He will not return for season four.
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