The fact that the writers and producers of Saturday Night Live can laugh at themselves is cute. Self-deprecating humor can be funny. But, SNL's diversity track record is no laughing matter.
On their latest show Kerry Washington played both Michelle Obama and Oprah and a message to viewers scrolled up the screen acknowledging the lack of black women in the cast.
When it was announced in September that Saturday Night Live, one of NBC’s most iconic programs, would be bringing on six new comedians - all of whom were white and only one a woman - I was one of the many fans of the show to do a major #facepalm.
And when Kenana Thompson publicly said black women comedians are just not “ready” for SNL, I cringed.
Besides infuriating a lot of people who began listing every funny black woman performer they've ever heard of, many people simply disagreed.
But, good grief! Considering our President and First Lady are black, one would think Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer, would make sure Jay Pharoah, the actor who plays SNL’s Barack Obama, had a Michelle. Pharoah, who is currently the only other black SNL comedian, even went on the record to tell theGrio that the show’s producers need to “pay attention.”
Like most industries, entertainment is a business. And like all businesses, decisions are based on the bottom line. In this case, what’s at stake is distribution and ad sales, so viewers (eyeballs) are essential. If there were ever any question that having more women of color on SNL would mean lower ratings, Washington’s SNL debut - at the very least - proved otherwise.
Kerry Washington’s episode delivered the show’s highest rating since Miley Cyrus hosted on October 5th. According to NBC press notes, it was the number one non-sports telecast of the night of all the Big Four networks (which includes ABC, CBS and FOX).
Currently, there are no black women among the 16 repertory or featured players. According to the Huffington Post, out of 137 cast members since the start of of the show in 1975, only four were black women. But this isn’t just an NBC issue.
A recently published study by UCLA’s Bunche Center for African American Studies examined 1,076 television shows during the 2011-2012 season (844 cable programs and 219 broadcast shows). They found that minorities were underrepresented in lead roles by nearly 2-to-1 on cable television shows, despite the finding that ratings were highest among cable programs with casts that were 31 to 41 percent minority.
Diversity in the writer's room seemed to influence ratings as well. Shows with the highest ratings “had writing staffs that were significantly more diverse—from 21 to 30 percent minority—than those of most broadcast shows.”
While this may signal the need to diversify the entertainment industry in front and behind the camera, writer and producer, Lena Waithe, said it's a lot more complicated than adding a few faces of color to the writing staff.
"There’s still a black token writer in every room and even that sometimes doesn’t exist," Waithe said. Because it's an industry problem, "there's no easy fix," according to Waithe. However, "television viewers make their voices heard by tuning into quality diverse programming," she said.
Waithe cites ABC political drama, Scandal—the show Kerry Washington stars in—as a prime example. "Scandal’s doing extremely well. It’s audience builds upon itself each week which is unheard of." Waithe even calls it the "Scandal effect." "The industry is going to have to start taking notice of what the audiences are saying to them based on their viewership," she said. "Execs pay attention to the numbers. They want to duplicate what works. So let's watch shows that support diversity in front of the camera and behind the camera as well"
At present, more than one-third of the U.S. population is a minority and by 2042 it is projected that the nation’s white population will no longer be the majority. The times they are a-changin' and Hollywood needs to catch up. Whether living in a major city or a small town, seeing people of different races, ethnicity, body sizes, abilities, gender expressions and sexual orientations is an everyday experience. That means casting diverse actors and writing story lines that reflect diverse experiences isn't about being politically correct, it's about living in reality.