2013 Offered Up More TV Cast Diversity, Foreign Shows

The year 2013 offered a wealth of quality television programming — which can't be said of every year. Looking back at the year in television, a few trends stand out: more diversity in prime time offerings, critics and audiences found a lot to love in foreign offerings, and streaming services continued to encroach on cable.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

'Tis the season of joy, but is also the season of lists and here at NPR we are not immune. Our TV critic, Eric Deggans, is weighing in with his choices for the best on television in 2013. And high on his list this year are political dramas.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "HOUSE OF CARDS")

KEVIN SPACEY: (as Francis Underwood) Look at the bigger picture.

MICHAEL KELLY: (as Doug Stamper) I think I see what you're getting at. Kern first?

SPACEY: (as Francis Underwood) Look at the bigger picture.

CORNISH: That was a scene from "House of Cards" from the online streaming site Netflix. Another one of his favorites - and I confess, mine too - "Scandal" from ABC.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "SCANDAL")

KERRY WASHINGTON: (as Shonda Rhimes) And how would I have told you? What are the right words? Nice to meet you, Governor Grant. My father runs the nation's top secret government spy organization.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That's exactly what you were supposed to tell me, because I was going to be president and that was information I needed to know.

WASHINGTON: (as Shonda Rhimes) I didn't know you were going to be president.

CORNISH: Both shows are indicative of some major trends in the industry, especially when it comes to diversity in casting and new ways to deliver content. Eric Deggans is here to talk more about those trends. Hey there, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: How are you doing?

CORNISH: So we just heard Kerry Washington on "Scandal." That was the first network drama in ages that had a black woman at the lead. But over at Fox, there seems to be a downright shift, right? We've seen several shows with non-white leads.

DEGGANS: Yeah, it's really interesting. They're using non-white actors as sort of co-leads in shows. So we have on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," we have Andre Braugher paired with Andy Samberg. And on "Almost Human," we have Michael Ealy paired with Karl Urban. And then on "Sleepy Hollow," we have Nicole Beharie.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "SLEEPY HOLLOW")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You've been emancipated, I take it?

NICOLE BEHARIE: (Lieutenant Abbey Mills) Excuse me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: From enslavement.

BEHARIE: (Lieutenant Abbey Mills) Do you see this gun? I'm authorized to use it on you.

DEGGANS: So "Sleepy Hollow" has this really crazy plot, where Ichabod Crane comes back from the dead and he's fighting the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. And he's paired with an African-American female policeman. And it lends this really nice dynamic. And I think Fox is shooting for that through all of their programming by diversifying the co-leads.

CORNISH: So what happened there? Why did they make the shift?

DEGGANS: Well, what happened was they had these seminars that they started to hold a few years ago, where they brought together all their producers and rolled out all this demographic data, to show how diversified the nation was becoming and, by extension, how diversified their audience was becoming. And it became good business to have a diversified cast and even diversity behind the camera, because that's the audience that they're speaking to these days.

CORNISH: So there's been diversity in also where our programming comes from, right? I mean a lot of critics talking about foreign TV shows they love. I know you're a fan of British series "Broadchurch."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "BROADCHURCH")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: What's going on?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Someone said the police are at the beach. They might have found the body.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, God. I know him. He's my boy's best friend.

CORNISH: So, Eric, better quality shows or better access to them?

DEGGANS: Well, in a weird way, I think it's both. What we have now is better access to them through services like Netflix and Amazon On Demand and iTunes. And this is the cream of the crop in British television. You know, they're going to do an Americanized version of "Broadchurch" on Fox. But I think seeing the shows in their original form is also a wonderful sense of cultural exchange, and we get to see them as they were created.

CORNISH: So here's the thing, Eric. There may be more places to watch. At the same time, the cost of cable hasn't really changed and it seems like TV is just as expensive as ever.

DEGGANS: Well, yeah. If anything has happened with your cable bill, it's gotten more expensive. The FCC estimates that cable rates rise about six percent annually. And that's way higher than the cost of inflation. Industry analysts, NPD Group, said that the average cable bill is $90 a month which is a pretty penny for most folks. So there's no surprise that even though cable penetration is at about 83 percent of TV homes, now that's gone down about five percent in recent years. So some people are rethinking whether they want to spend that much to access these services.

But what I'm concerned about is that we're finding that some of the best television is occurring on these premium cable channels like HBO or Showtime, or the very least there happened a cable channels like AMC and FX. So you have to pay to access those cable channels. Or if you want to see something like "Broadchurch," I mean right now you have to see it on iTunes and you have to pay for each episode.

So I worry that we're creating a system where there are haves and have-nots in TV watchers, where people who have can access a level of television that's much better, much more diverse, much more high-quality than those who don't.

CORNISH: That's Eric Deggans, NPR's TV critic. Eric, thank you.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

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