For those of you keeping score, there were 37 APA actors cast in regular prime time roles for the 2009-2010 season, an increase of four from the previous season. That's more than I realized (and I watch a lot of television). Here's an overall breakdown of how the major broadcast networks are doing, ranked by letter grade:
If you think these grades are mediocre (Tiger Mother Amy Chua would most certainly call the networks "trash"), you should have seen how abysmal the networks did ten years ago. The good news is that things have improved a lot over the last decade... but there's still plenty of room for growth.
Beyond just numbers, the quality of roles for APA actors has vastly improved -- we're not just sidekicks and background players -- but APAs are still less likely than actors from other racial groups to appear in primary roles.
In fact, given the growing pool of Asian American talent, Asian Pacific American Media Coalition chair Karen K. Narasaki says the time is right for a network show featuring a primary cast of APA actors:
Ten years ago when we started grading the four major networks - ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC - on the inclusion of Asian Pacific Americans (APA) in front of, and behind, the camera, the picture was dismal. In 2001, only 17 Asian American actors were featured in the prime-time lineup and they were generally limited roles. The following year the number was even worse at 14. In 2010, the picture was much brighter with breakout shows such as Grey's Anatomy, Lost, Heroes and Glee featuring APA actors in quality roles.Narasaki also singles out reality shows as a bright spot for prime time APA representation, applauding the diversity on shows like Dancing With the Stars, American Idol, The Amazing Race, Survivor, The Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
But to have prime-time television truly reflect the America we live in, the networks must do more to invest in shows that feature an APA as the central character. There has not been a primary cast of APA actors since Margaret Cho's All-American Girl in 1994 — a span of more than 15 years. With the growing pool of proven Asian American talent in primary roles in large ensemble casts, the time is long overdue for an Asian American-led show.
That's all in front of the camera. Behind the scenes, the outlook is quite as good. The number of opportunities for APA writers, directors and producers have all taken a declined over the last couple of years:
Since the 2007-2008 season, the number of APA writers and producers has continued to fall. Even though the decline is slight, this is of great concern to the coalition as the number should be increasing. We are also concerned about the decrease for Latino and African American writers as well. Time has shown that some showrunners are apparently uncomfortable writing for non-white lead characters and are not going to change. So it is necessary to create a new generation of writers and producers who can be successful in telling stories that will resonate with what America is today. We urge the networks to implement initiatives that will net gains in this area.I'm glad we can say that it isn't the same old story every year -- we can measure positive, quantifiable change, and we can affirm that purposeful, strategic efforts to improve diversity can indeed change the face of television. We can also point to areas that need a lot more work. See, network execs? No need to be afraid of diversity. Now let's do better.
We believe that increasing the number of APA and other minority writers and producers will help lead to fully developed characters and central roles for APA and other minority characters. After more than a decade of effort, each network should have a strong pipeline of minority talent ready to become the next Shonda Rhimes (creator, executive director and head writer of Grey’s Anatomy).
Overall, opportunities for APA directors dipped slightly to 23 from 27. The coalition expects improvement at all of the networks but not enough APAs are being groomed for advancement or getting an opportunity to direct.
My one major complaint about this report is that still focuses solely on the four major networks. But what about cable? The fact of the matter is, network television is not the broadcasting juggernaut it once was, with audiences rapidly shifting to find content on cable, broadband and beyond. It would be ideal to include APA actors on cable shows in "the count," and bring in cable networks to the conversation about diversity.
To read the full 2010 APAMC Report Card on Television Diversity, including additional notes about each television network's progress (or lack thereof), go to the Asian American Justice Center website here.