Black-and-white Emmys reflect TV’s narrow ethnic view
LOS ANGELES — When cameras pan across the faces of eager, anxious Emmy Award nominees at Sunday’s ceremony, TV viewers will see a record 12 African-Americans vying for comedy and drama series acting honors. But it’s a lop-sided outcome in the struggle for diversity.
“Master of None” star Aziz Ansari, who is of Indian heritage, is the sole Asian-American to be nominated for a continuing series lead or supporting role. Not a single Latino is included in the marquee acting categories.
An Emmy version of the 2015-16 #OscarsSoWhite protests would miss the point: Worthy films and performances from people of color were snubbed by movie academy voters, while insiders say the scant Emmy love for non-black minorities largely reflects closed TV industry doors.
“There are a lot of us, but because we haven’t gotten the opportunity to shine you don’t know we’re around,” said Ren Hanami, an Asian-American actress who’s worked steadily on TV in smaller roles but found substantive, award-worthy parts elusive.
The hard-won progress made by the African-American stars and makers of Emmy-nominated shows including “black-ish” and “Atlanta” has brought them creative influence, visibility and, this year, nearly a quarter (23.5 percent) of series cast nominations.
A long record of fighting for civil rights is behind the gains, said Leonard James III, chair of the NAACP Image Awards committee.
“We’ve been engaged with the Hollywood community for 100 years,” James said, including NAACP-led protests against D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915, just six years after the organization was founded. “I think you’re beginning to see some of that work get very positive results.”
While such success is cheered by other ethnic groups, they say it illuminates how narrowly the entertainment industry views diversity despite the fact that Latinos and Asian-Americans are America’s first and third largest ethnic groups, respectively.
But it also stands as proof that change is possible with a combination of activism, education and business savvy, according to industry members and outsiders seeking change.
“TV has never been ‘brown-ish,'” said actor-comedian Paul Rodriguez, riffing on the title of the hit African-American family comedy. He starred in the 1984 sitcom “a.k.a. Pablo,” one of the handful of Latino-centered series, and wrote “The Pitch, or How to Pitch a Latino Sitcom that Will Never Air,” a 2015 stage show he reprised this month in Los Angeles because, he said, Hispanics haven’t gained ground.
“They don’t put us on television enough for them to even know if it’s not working,” Rodriguez said. “They just assume it won’t work. And it goes on year after year. Our population keeps growing, and so does our frustration.”
It’s reached critical mass, said Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. In 1999, the coalition joined with the NAACP and others to demand action from broadcast networks in the wake of an all-white slate of new shows.
“I’m tired of being the nice Mexican. It hasn’t taken us anywhere,” Nogales said. His new plan: Make sure networks and increasingly popular digital platforms such as Netflix know when Latinos — nearly 18 percent of the U.S. population and with an estimated buying power of about $1.5 trillion and growing — are unhappy with their programming.
“Networks have brands that have been around for a very long time. We can damage that brand, we can do it by marching in front of their offices and embarrassing them. We can do it through social media,” Nogales said, including putting pressure on TV advertisers.
The financial bottom line is key, agreed Gary Mayeda, president of the Japanese American Citizens League, which focuses on civil rights issues affecting Asian- and Pacific Islander-Americans.
“Diversity is profitable,” he said. “Cultural diversity takes nothing nor steals from any other group.”
He called for more and better market research on consumers, a point Rodriguez drives home in his play “Pitch.” In one scene, a network executive character uses a pie chart that purports to show why Latinos are a loser for TV: Compared to blacks, they don’t watch enough TV.
But a different picture emerges in the Nielsen research the industry uses. According to a recent report, the number of Hispanics that TV reached monthly in the first quarter of 2017 exceeded African-Americans (50.7 million compared to 39.3 million).