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,
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.