Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Which Is The Whitest TV Network Of Them All? (CBS)

It's part of the reason CBS paid $10.8 billion for 14 years worth of broadcast rights to the NCAA tournament.

Yes, having the rights to a really popular sporting events allows networks to sell ad time at a premium during said event, but it also gives them the opportunity to pimp their own programming. "Hey, now that we have several million people watching Tennessee play Michigan, why not tell them about that new comedy we're airing?" It doesn't take a particular genius to figure that out, but all of the networks do it and they've all become pretty shameless about it.

It has led to painfully forced moments in corporate self-promotion, like Calista Flockhart casually taking in a World Series game or Christian Slater dropping by the Monday Night Football booth to fail at pretending he knows something about the NFL. While "America's Most-Watched Network" has avoided any such cringey moments during March Madness, CBS has been pretty relentless—the tournament is 63 games spread out over the better part of a month—so much so that even if you're not fully paying attention you start to notice things. Or thing.

Specifically: the lower-thirds and in-game bumpers for the shows CBS was promoting featured an awful lot of white people. "The Mentalist," Simon Baker: white. "Two Broke Girls," Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs: white and white. "The Good Wife," Julianna Margulies: white. (Jewish!) The Masters? Tiger Woods is out, and golf is so white that the ball and even the African player is white. The entire cast of "How I Met Your Mother": white, white, white, white and white. (Fun basketball tie-in: they all met when they were first cast as the Kentucky starting five in Glory Road.)

In all of the promos CBS ran, the only non-whites I recall seeing were LL Cool J ("NCIS Los Angeles") and Lucy Liu ("Elementary"). It got me to thinking, "Man, is CBS really that white?"

Yes. Yes, it is. By percentage, it's the whitest network on television.

It's not a runaway—but about 83% of CBS' scripted primetime programming is white (which is to say, the cast members are white). The U.S. Census projections for 2015 puts the non-Hispanic white population at 61.8% for 2015. That means that all four networks—CBS (82.9%), Fox (80.8%), ABC (77.1%), and NBC (72.7%)—are actually whiter than America itself, so it's not like any of the other networks can shame CBS with their racial progressiveness.

There are a myriad of caveats for those percentages, with two standing out. First, while I certainly aimed for accuracy, primetime network schedules are fluid. Methodologically speaking, I took the current lineups (using this and this), then went through each of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC show-by-show, and cast-by-cast, and noted the ethnicity of each cast member. But shows get cancelled. Shows go on hiatus. Shows just finish. "How I Met Your Mother" aired its final episode this week (although it looks like its slot will be filled by a show every bit as white: "Friends With Better Lives"). So just figuring out which shows to include in the current schedule, especially at this time of year with summer on the horizon, is not as as binary as it might seem.

Second, and often even less clear cut, is trying to determine a person's ethnic identity. Consider Megalyn Echikunwoke, of ABC's "Mind Games." She has a German/Scots-Irish American mother (presumably, that means her mom was an American with one German and one Scottish/Irish parent) and a Nigerian-Igbo father. She was raised on a Navajo reservation. What is she?

Well, she's whatever she wants to call herself, but for these purposes, by our weird historical American logic, she's black. I generally erred on the side of giving "benefit" to the networks. Anyone with a vaguely Spanish-sounding surname and skin that wasn't somewhere near 'pasty' on the alabaster spectrum I counted as Latino (short-handed as "Latin" above, for lack of a better term for a very diverse group of people). Being the arbiter of ethnicity is difficult—and not really fun—in many cases. Impossible in others. What's the ethnicity of a cartoon character? The Griffins look white. The Simpsons look yellow.1

Point being, there is a bit of a moving target aspect to the numbers. And if you give the task of calculating the percentages to a handful of people, you are likely to get back snowflakes, which is to say no two will be alike, but they will all be exceedingly white.

It's not just the total amount of white that's surprising—it's how it dominates shows from top to bottom, particularly at the top. There are very few non-whites in leading roles on any of the four major networks: Mindy Kaling ("The Mindy Project"), the aforementioned Liu and LL Cool J, and not much else. (Is Omar Epps supposed to be the primary star of "Resurrection"?)

And there are almost no shows that have predominantly non-white casts. In fact there is exactly one: "Community." Its cast has four non-whites (Yvette Nicole Brown, Danny Pudi, Danny LOL DONALD Glover, and Ken Jeong), to just three whites (Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, and Alison Brie). That's only because Chevy Chase got run out for season five. CBS' "Hawaii Five-O" does make it to parity with three Asians and a black guy (and a Samoan at large!) to go with its four white regular cast members.

But it's almost a primetime TV law that people of color occupy one or two supporting roles in ensemble casts that are mostly white. There is no equivalent of "Sanford and Son," "The Jeffersons" or "Good Times" currently on network TV (incidentally, the latter two of those were both originally aired on CBS).

It's mildly surprising that Fox is such a close challenger to CBS' ivory crown. In the network's infancy it was progressive in not only casting African Americans but also doing entire shows that were predominantly black. "In Living Color" had every Wayans ever, David Alan Grier, Jamie Foxx, Tommy Davidson and T'Keyah Crystal Keymáh. "Living Single" cast Kim Coles, Queen Latifah, Kim Fields, and Erika Alexander. Fox even gave Sinbad his own show. Instead of putting a token minority on an otherwise white show, Fox was casting shows that were almost entirely devoid of white people. Curiously though, the development of new such show casts trailed off about the time Fox won the rights to the NFL in 1993 (although they did run "The Bernie Mac" show from 2001 to 2006).

Today there are so many cable outlets with narrowly defined programming, that viewers, no matter their ethnic makeup, shouldn't lack for anything they want to watch. And CBS is a business. If they've figured out that appealing to an old, white demographic—that's just an inference working back from what they are currently programming—is their path to staying America's Most White Watched Network even that problematic? It's probably something their shareholders appreciate—or they do as long as there are Baby Boomers. That mightn't be sustainable long term, but CBS' market cap has just about doubled over the past 24 months.

Moreover, does anybody watch an NBA game and get upset that, of the 10 players on the floor at any given time, maybe eight or more of them are not white? Demanding that the racial makeup of a professional basketball game mirror that of America would probably just lead to basketball games that not many people without Aryan Nation passports would want to watch.

Much like the NBA—the hypothetically racially-balanced one or the real one—scripted network programming is entertainment. The idea is that if a show is not good, people won't watch it and it will get replaced with something better. (At least, eventually.) You could make a defensible argument that the slate of network shows is simply what the market has left us with. If CBS could make money with a reboot of "The Jeffersons," they would do it (uh, and if this goes into development tomorrow, someone better cut me a large check).

That does leave out one key distinction between sports and TV networks though. The NBA is not a public good. The airwaves are. And you can still put up an antenna and get network TV for free and even get it in HD. In exchange for the privilege of using hundreds of billions of dollars worth of our airwaves without paying for said privilege, networks are supposed to serve the educational and informational needs of the people—or at least pretend to every now and then. And a monochromatic primetime scattered over four networks might not really be serving the cultural interests of America.

In the summer of 1999, Kweisi Mfume, the then-President of the NAACP, threatened a boycott of the major networks when not a single new show in their fall line-ups featured a person of color in a leading role. After some self-serving self-flagellation, Hollywood made some small changes and recast a few shows. Most gains won in that battle are long gone, the work of Shonda Rhimes notwithstanding. And it's entirely possible that, collectively, the networks have regressed from where they were 15 years ago.

Maybe CBS can find small consolation in its coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament itself. The studio show for its $10.8 billion investment in unpaid college kids features Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg, Kenny Smith, and Charles Barkley. All four are African Americans. So, in five-minute increments, spread out over three weekends, CBS honcho Les Moonves is fighting the power that is himself. Even if only just a little.

1 Note: I originally punted on cartoons and just left them out of the calculations. But, you'll notice in the drop down menu there is an item for "Fox with Animation." If you assume that the yellow Simpsons are actually white, and then put the entire line-up of Fox's Sunday cartoons into the mix, then Fox actually overtakes CBS as the whitest network on TV. But, the numbers are very sensitive. As noted, CBS has at least four people of color in one show, "Hawaii Five-O." If you remove that from CBS' line up (also in the drop down menu), it would again take over the top spot. That show is on TV, though. So that's not to arbitrarily humiliate CBS even more, but to show how much that one show affects CBS' numbers.

Michael Bertin is a writer rarely in New York.

15 Comments / Post A Comment

You realize, of course, that CBS didn't pay $10.8B alone for the rights to the NCAA tournament. They did it in partnership with Turner, and the Final Four is on TBS this year for the first time. Of those 63 televised game this year, CBS carried only a portion, while TBS, TNT and TruTV carried the rest.

Tuckman Marsh (#266,695)

That's your takeaway from this, Clarence? Or did you just not read past the first sentence? Also, while the national semi-finals are on TBS, the final is still on CBS, so it's not entirely true that "the Final Four is on TBS"

@Tuckman Marsh That's your takeaway from my comment, Tuckman? Or did you not notice that the author began and ended the piece on the premise that CBS has invested $10.8B in March Madness rights, ostensibly to promote white programming to while people?

If TBS was such a huge part of securing those rights (and they were), I'd like to see TBS on the whiteness index. Regardless of the title game (which will maybe double the average ratings of a national semifinal game), TBS's networks broadcast way more of the tournament, which averaged 10M+ viewers per game. They've also got a pretty big relationship with MLB for the playoffs, and they've inflicted Frank Caliendo on unsuspecting baseball fans in the same way that CBS shills Two Broke Girls.

All that said, the presumption that sports audiences are overwhelmingly white — "appealing to an old, white demographic" — and therefore willing recipients of white casting in shows doesn't add up for me. A UCLA study found that more diverse casting results in higher ratings: "Median household ratings peaked among broadcast television shows that were 41 to 50 percent minority, while ratings took a dive for shows with casts that were 10 percent minority or less."


The author admits the perils of taking a casting snapshot based on current programming and assigning the cast to racial buckets. And I'm not denying the preponderance of white-dominated casts on TV. I'm just saying there are some red herrings in this piece. Because, you know, I read past the first sentence.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Well now, I don't know that it's CBS' fault that Sherman Hemsley died.

shostakobitch (#1,692)

CBS is working on it. They just killed Josh Charles.

Tuckman Marsh (#266,695)

Clarence… Pretty sure that this is entirely wrong: 'All that said, the presumption that sports audiences are overwhelmingly white — "appealing to an old, white demographic" — and therefore willing recipients of white casting in shows doesn't add up for me.'

Pretty sure that the old white demographic was the author working back from the exceedingly white shows CBS is airing in primetime. The inference being that if those lily-white shows are really popular they are probably popular with a really white audience. I don't think there was anything said about the audience watching sports. In fact this whole piece has very little to do with sports. Sports is just where the promos were happening.

Also, TBS is a cable outlet. They aren't using up broadcast spectrum that's part of the public good.

@Tuckman Marsh Very little to do with sports? The author conspicuously uses CBS's $10.8B NCAA contract (without mentioning Turner's role) to bookend the post, and uses the NBA as a counter-example of white programming. Not sure what you consider sports, but that's sports, and a prominent rhetorical use of sports.

And why do sports matter? Because sports programming appeals to one of the most sought-after demographics for advertisers: males 18-40 with higher than average HHI. And promoting their other shows to that demo is intended to increase their audience in that demo for, you guessed it, selling advertising. Why do ratings matter? Advertising. What demo is pretty useless to advertisers? Old, white people.

So, given that the UCLA study shows that ratings are better for shows with diverse casts, and ratings are better for selling advertising, it's completely counter-intuitive to presume that CBS (or anyone else) is deliberately programming for old white audiences that don't support their revenue model. It's why you don't see lower thirds promoting Family Guy on Fox News, 82% of whose audience is over 55.

I mean, it's a nice device to make this leap for a piece: "they've figured out that appealing to an old, white demographic—that's just an inference working back from what they are currently programming — is their path to staying America's Most White Watched Network". But it doesn't stand up to the reality of TV network business models.

JasonH (#266,857)

FYI, the actor on Community is Donald Glover, not Danny Glover. And unfortunately Donald recently left the show.

KimO (#10,765)

Really weird you'd say the only non-white leads on network television are Mindy Kaling, LL Cool J, Lucy Liu, and "very little else." What about the cast of Scandal? Grey's Anatomy? Sleepy Hollow?

Also, your "methodology" of determining the ethnic identity of actors gave me the creeps.

nonvolleyball (#9,329)

@KimO yes, this. also, why no mention of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (which features two Latinas and two Black men in its ensemble)?

at least there was an explanation for the usage of "Latin" in the pie chart, but I question how much space was saved by omitting a single character.

RLB (#204,075)

Thank you for writing this – I literally had these same thoughts while watching the ads for CBS programming during the NCAA tournament.

Was considering taking it a step further – CBS kills all the other networks in the ratings. If CBS is the whitest network, what does that say about Nielsen?

I unfortunately watched "Blue Bloods" a couple of weeks ago with my mother, who is dedicated to watching every crime procedural in the known universe. Not only was the entire main cast white, it was straight-up jaw-droppingly racist. It was titled the "Knockout Game," so you can probably guess how it went. Stay strong, Lucy Liu.

skyslang (#11,283)

This is very perplexing. In the 70s, many of the top shows had all black casts. Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son…these were shows in the top 10, watched by everyone, old and young, white and black. Obviously, people were down with a sitcom as long as it was funny. I think that's still true today, so why the lack of color on TV?

hershmire (#233,671)

Latina mortua est.

This article is bogus nonsense. "Community" is the only multi-ethnic show on TV? "Brooklyn 99" has 7 cast regulars – 2 black, 2 Hispanic and 3 white. The two senior officers on the show are black and one of those is a gay.

Regardless, if a network's programming features 70-80% white characters is that a bad thing? Consider that the most recent census shows the U.S. population is 72.5% white, so it's not that far out of line with the general population. Consider also that there are entire broadcast networks that cater to the Hispanic population, some of which pull higher ratings than the traditional Big 4 broadcast nets. There are multiple cable networks that cater specifically to African American audiences — Centric, TVOne, BET, etc.

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