Fall TV Season Hits Highs, Lows With Diversity

Television networks are working feverishly behind the scenes to wow viewers in the upcoming fall television season with a diverse new lineup of primetime programs. Host Michel Martin gets a preview of what's hot and what is sure to raise eyebrows this fall from Lisa De Moraes, TV columnist for The Washington Post; Jeff Yang, media observer and "Asian Pop" columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Mekeisha (meh-KEE-sha) Madden Toby, a TV writer for the Detroit News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, I tell you more about what's been on my mind. It's our weekly commentary we call Can I Just Tell You?

But first, there's lots of buzz about what's coming to your television screens this fall or to your computers if you manage to catch some of these shows online. There's sex and espionage. There's outsource comedy and there's drama off screen over some of the productions making their way to air.

Also, for the first time in some years, we can expect to see more than a few actors of color in leading roles this season. Is it a sign that times are changing? That diversity is finally being embraced as the in thing by network executives, among other reasons to tune in? Or are network executives giving us more reasons to tune out?

Who better to ask for a preview of the good, the bad and the ugly of what we can expect to see this fall than Lisa de Moraes, television columnist for The Washington Post, media observer Jeff Yang, who writes the column Asian Pop for the San Francisco Chronicle and Mekeisha Madden Toby, a blogger and television writer for the Detroit News. Welcome to everybody. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. LISA DE MORAES (Television Columnist, The Washington Post): Thanks for having us.

Mr. JEFF YANG (Asian Pop Columnist, San Francisco Chronicle): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, before we get into the primetime shows, I did want to ask about CNN's announcement that Piers Morgan has been tapped to replace Larry King. King, as I think many people may know, is retiring or being retired after 25 years on the air, and Piers Morgan is known here in the U.S. as one of the judges on "America's Got Talent," but he's also known as a former tabloid newspaper editor. Lisa, you wrote about this, is that a stretch or not?

Ms. DE MORAES: Well, you know, I mean Larry King was famous for his interview style where he did not like to be prepped. He liked to be surprised. I think his style is sort of time has passed him by. I think this is actually a very good hire. Piers Morgan isn't just a tabloid journalist, he's done a lot of TV interviews in the U.K. So they're hiring someone who can hit the ground running.

MARTIN: Is there any kind of talk about the fact that this is a high profile American television platform and the idea of no journalist in the United States or personalities in the United States who could fulfill this role, is there any talk about that? Or is it because CNN is a global media organization and people think it's part of their brand?

Ms. DE MORAES: You know, let's not underestimate the important of the fact that he does "America's Got Talent." This is a show that is right now getting about 12 million viewers a week. That's very important. CNN is getting under a million viewers with Larry King these days.

So this guy is a pre-sold commodity. There are people who are going to come check out this show who quite likely have never watched CNN. But they have watched him on "America's Got Talent" and think he's a sharp, witty guy and want to see what he does on this show. "America's Got Talent" is also seen in many countries worldwide. And CNN is, as you pointed out, an international network.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of the whole question of the international viewing experience, there's been debate, some of it cultural, over the new NBC show, "Outsourced," that conceit of the program is a catalogue company which sells items like whoopee cushions and wallets made from bacon and it's call centers -I don't know why I think this is funny - is outsourced to India. And so let's play a short clip.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Outsourced")

Unidentified Man: Come now, you're being too obnoxious, sitting around doing chit chat. It is my great pleasure to introduce Mr. Todd Dempsy.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BEN RAPPAPORT (Actor): (as Todd Dempsy) Hello. Hello, everyone. I'm really looking forward to working with all of you as your manager. So let's get to know one another, okay?

Mr. SACHA DHAWAN (Actor): (as Manmeet) Hi. I'm Manmeet.

Mr. RAPPAPORT: Manmeet.

Mr. DHAWAN: Yes, Manmeet.

Mr. RAPPAPORT: Your name is Manmeet? Wow, it must be hard to chat on the Internet with a name like Manmeet. All right, we will talk later.

MARTIN: Now, Jeff, you wrote about this and about how just right out of the box a lot of people think this can't be good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: This can't be good. I mean, unless you like, you know, culturally offensive stereotypes as your thing. But you actually thought that there was actually a lot more diversity of opinion around this. So tell us a little bit more about what's being said about the program and then tell us what you think, if you don't mind.

Mr. YANG: Well, yeah, I mean I wrote my column, actually, this week on "Outsourced." And, you know, what's really fascinating about it is that there's a huge diversity of opinion. But the bulk of it, at least in kind of that cloud of commentarati on the Internet has mostly been negative - just negative from two different sources. There are people who are Indian-American who are kind of concerned about whether or not this will in fact be another opportunity to kind of mock the browns.

And, you know, kind of feed a group that already has often been, you know, misperceived as being foreigner or not kind of part of the American fabric, especially post, you know, the rising tide of xenophobia that's emerged out of 9/11. But there's also a very large group of people who are very many different races who are just concerned that the idea of a show about outsourcing at a time when unemployment's skyrocketing is in of itself kind of not super sensitive.

But all that said, I mean my inclination is try to give this show a chance. I feel like NBC has earned a lot of credit. They've done a lot in terms of trying to increase diversity in legitimate ways across their range of programming. It would be nice to see this become something more than what people suspect or fear that it'll become. And let's give it a shot to sort of see what happens. And if not, then we'll drop the hammer, you know?

MARTIN: Mekeisha, what do you think?

Ms. MEKEISHA MADDEN TOBY (Writer, Detroit News): I just, I mean it's funny. I think everyone is ready to sort of jerk the knee without seeing the show. And when I watched it, you cringed for a couple reasons. You cringed because of stereotypes against Indian people and as well as Americans. I mean it seems like every American on the show who calls in is like, how are y'all doing and da da da da da.

So it's, like, I don't think anyone is safe on the show in terms of stereotypes and presumptions. But it was not as bad I thought it would be. And it's definitely not as bad as "Cavemen" was a few years ago.

MARTIN: Let's not bring up "Cavemen" again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Lisa, what do you think?

Ms. DE MORAES: Well, I think the good news is that it's on NBC, so hardly anyone will see it.

MARTIN: Oh. Harsh

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DE MORAES: I have seen the show. I'm not a fan. It made me cringe in too many places. That's not a good thing.

MARTIN: Mekeisha, you also wrote about a new crime drama called "Detroit 1-8-7." It's supposed to be set in Detroit, but a lot of it has actually been shot in Atlanta.

Ms. TOBY: The pilot was. Right, a majority of the pilot was shot in Atlanta. And the other - the rest of the episodes were in Detroit.

MARTIN: It's got a cast of a lot of names that people will know in the cast like Michael Imperioli from "The Sopranos" and...

Ms. TOBY: James McDaniel from "NYPD Blue."

MARTIN: James McDaniel from "NYPD Blue." But you're withholding your applause on this one. Why is that?

Ms. TOBY: It just didn't feel authentically Detroit and I was hoping that because there's this platform that people maybe actually get a chance to see what Detroit is like beyond as sort of murder statistics and, you know, unemployment rates and car assembly lines. And you don't really get a lot of that. They play Motown music.

But it just - you don't get a sense of flavor or anything about the city like you would for, say, the shows like "The Wire" or even "NYPD Blue." And that's unfortunate because if you're going to call a show "Detroit 1-8-7," you know, you should feel like you're in Detroit. It really just felt like a generic cop show.

MARTIN: You point out at one point that the accused drug dealers brought in for questioning - and at one point he goes, you just drank the last of my soda. You said, what? We don't call it soda. It's pop.

Ms. TOBY: That is - Detroit is, you know, if you're going to come to a city, hire a consultant or talk to anybody on the street and say, what do you call this?

MARTIN: But if your main criticism is that it's not socially productive, is that really fair? I mean "The Wire" did not exactly reflect on Baltimore as like a human paradise. It was very watchable, but I don't remember, I mean a lot of people in Baltimore like it...

Ms. TOBY: But you felt like you were in Baltimore.

MARTIN: Yes.

Ms. TOBY: I think that's the thing. It's like, if you're watching a show and it's supposed to be set in a city, you want to feel like you're in that city.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the fall television lineup. What about the NBC espionage drama "Undercovers"? There are two black actors leading the cast -heartthrob Boris Kodjoe of "Soul Food" fame, and I think a newcomer named Gugu Mbatha-Raw. And they play a married couple who moonlight as spies. And here is a short clip.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Undercovers")

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of knocking)

Mr. BORIS KODJOE (Actor): (as Steven Bloom) Despite your tone, I will help you find Leo Nash, but only under specific conditions - the most important of which is that my wife can never know about my involvement ever. You understand?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GUGU MBATHA-RAW (Actor): (as Samantha Bloom) My wife can never know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KODJOE: I would have told you.

Ms. MBATHA-RAW: Oh, really?

Mr. KODJOE: Someday I would have told you - by Christmas at least I would have...

Ms. MBATHA-RAW: I'm not sure you would have told me. Stop telling me different.

Mr. KODJOE: No way is it different.

Ms. MBATHA-RAW: Sure it is. That it's me and I have my reasons.

Mr. KODJOE: Okay, so what are your reasons?

Ms. MBATHA-RAW: What are yours?

Unidentified Man: Guys, as much as I'm enjoying this, my plane leaves in two hours, whether I'm on it or not. Are you in or out?

Mr. KODJOE: We're in.

Ms. MBATHA-RAW: We're in.

MARTIN: Lisa, NBC is giving this a huge push. It's produced by J.J. Abrams, who was behind "Lost" and "Alias," which is interesting because they're actually marketing him as much as they are marketing the show and pushing it out. So, what do you think?

Ms. DE MORAES: Yeah, marketing J.J. is very smart of NBC. A number of people who cover TV were very surprised, pleasantly so, when this show was cast with these two actors. The rap on NBC for years was that they could come up with an all-white cast, even on a multitude of shows that were set in New York City. So it is a terrific cast. And I think it's wonderful that NBC has finally discovered African-American actors who can lead shows.

MARTIN: Mekeisha, what do you think about it?

Ms. TOBY: I think my expectations were too high. I wanted the show to be like "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" with black people in it, and it's not. It's more like "Hart to Hart."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TOBY: And that's fine. I mean...

Mr. YANG: I loved "Hart to Hart."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TOBY: Me, too, but not from J.J. Abrams. I guess I was expecting something a little more edgy and something more like "Alias," and it's not that. At least the first version we saw. And then they're talking about revising it and doing some - adding some edge. But my early impression was, no, this is not dark enough and it's not action-packed enough and there's just not enough there.

MARTIN: And by dark, you don't mean, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You mean the metaphor, not the actors.

Ms. TOBY: No, I mean (unintelligible) are wonderful. But I mean the completion of the show.

MARTIN: Oh, okay.

Ms. TOBY: I mean - because it's a spy show. Why is it light and fluffy? It shouldn't be light and fluffy if it's a spy show.

MARTIN: There you go again with that whole reality thing. What's up with you? What are you thinking? I mean, like, authentic, I don't know. But what about Lisa's point that after years of being criticized for a lack of diversity in prime time, some people say this season shows some promise. The Hollywood Reporter notes that six drama pilots were cast with non-white actors, compared to only one last year, which was L.L. Cool J on "NCIS: Los Angeles."

So, what's your take on that? Do you think that this is a sea change? Or is this - what do you think's going on here?

Ms. DE MORAES: It's a sea change, but I think it's going to also be one of those sea changes that if it works, then you'll see more of it. If it doesn't, then this is going to be it, and you better enjoy what you see. I don't know if - of the shows that have, like, you know, a really diverse casts - in particular I'm thinking of the NBC shows. Because here's the thing: Last year, NBC came out with a slogan that said they were more colorful. And people were, like, where? Where are you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TOBY: (unintelligible)

Ms. DE MORAES: And so (unintelligible) were colorful, but that was it. And so, you know, now you have these casts that reflect that slogan. And you have "Undercovers" and you have a show like "The Event," where Blair Underwood plays the president, and his name is Martinez. And they don't even explain it, and that's fine. And then you have a show like "Outlaw" with Jimmy Smits and, you know, his best friend, sidekick is an African-American with a Jewish last name, and then later on, they explain, of course, he was adopted by Jewish people.

I mean, there's all these, like, really creative ways - and in particular because these were not originally written for African-American people, and they cast African-American actors. So that does give hope to people because, you know, it goes with, like, that whole "Grey's Anatomy" and "Lost" thing that ABC has, you know, been doing for years, which is these are roles for actors who happen to be of that race, but not - the character itself is not just a black character or just a Latino character or just an Asian character. There's actually a lot more to them. And that's good to see. I'm glad NBC's doing this now, just - I guess we'll wait and see if it pays off.

MARTIN: Well, it's not just NBC. Forest Whitaker is the lead on CBS's "Criminal Minds" spin-off. Laz Alonso is the lead on the Fox action drama "Breakout Kings." Freddy Rodriguez is on CBS's CIA drama "Chaos." Espionage is big this year, it's interesting. Maggie Q plays a title character in "Nikita."

Ms. TOBY: Which is great.

MARTIN: And I think, what is it, Roberto Sanchez is a lead in "Cutthroat" and -I don't know. Jeff, what's your take on this?

Mr. YANG: You know, it's funny, 'cause I was in a conversation with somebody about this and, you know, the joke that we - that I'm (unintelligible) had was that ABC was the already-brown channel, and NBC's the newly brown channel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I like that.

Mr. YANG: Well, you know, there's some truth to the fact that, you know, if you look back at some of the experiments that have been successful, I mean, you know, ABC with, again, "Lost," "Grey's Anatomy," et cetera, and just creating ensembles that have had people of color in really key roles, not necessarily in roles that were meant to be of color, right? And, you know, viewers did not flee in fear. This was not something that led to ratings, you know, purgatory or anything like that.

And this has led to, I think, a certain kind of greater security on the part of the network executives, on the part of producers to take more risks when it comes to casting. And more than just casting, to take more risks when it comes to just opening up the horizon of what is a viable story to put on network television. And I think that's a good thing. I do agree that there is a tendency to kind of be two steps forward, then five steps back, you know?

If all these shows suddenly just end up foundering, there may well be a real retraction, but I tend to be pretty positive about this. I think that, you know, looking at the trend of things, people are more aware, more globally aware than they've ever been. They're more connected with people who have just different kinds of narratives than they've ever been. And you see this, you know, maybe less so in kind of the political narrative these days. But certainly in the cultural narrative, people are just I think interested in seeing stories that are not necessarily photocopies of their own. And that is a good thing. It's only a good thing - for performers, especially.

MARTIN: Lisa, before we leave this topic for - and talk about what I know you all have been waiting to talk about, Oprah - which is why was it that you think that there has been this diversity - noticeable diversity this year? 'Cause, I mean, the networks have been criticized for years about this. And as Jeff pointed out, sometimes you have years like - well, you know, "The Cosby Show" was a top 10 show for years. And then he leaves the schedule, and then there's nothing there. And, of course, the NAACP, among other groups, have constantly criticized the networks for this to no avail. I'm just wondering why you think this year - all of a sudden, we're seeing these diverse casts. Any idea?

Ms. DE MORAES: Well, I think that the news this year is that NBC has diverse casts. I think the other networks have been doing increasingly good jobs of coming up with ensemble casts that are integrated. And I am very cynical about NBC's move this year. They have been, for some time, dealing here in Washington with the Comcast deal. Comcast wants to purchase NBC Universal.

And in hearings and meetings, one of the things that has been coming up is NBC's lack of diversity on air. And lo and behold, this year, they decided to do a show with an African-American couple in the lead and to have these other shows that are racially diverse in their casting. So I think that it will be a really good thing if this Comcast deal is dragged out for maybe two more seasons so that we'll a couple more seasons of NBC doing this kind of casting.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break right now, but when we come back, we are going to continue our conversation about the fall TV season. In a moment, we'll be talking about what to expect from Oprah's final season. We're speaking with Lisa de Moraes of the Washington Post, Jeff Yang of the San Francisco Chronicle and Mekeisha Madden Toby of the Detroit News.

Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, our weekly check in on one of the stories we really liked from the latest Washington Post magazine, and my commentary.

But first, back to our conversation to our fall TV lineup. I'm joined once again by Lisa de Moraes television columnist for The Washington Post, Jeff Yang, who writes the column "Asian Pop" for the San Francisco Chronicle and Mekeisha Madden Toby, a television writer for the Detroit News.

And we can't look at what's ahead without mentioning this: the final season of a show known simply as "Oprah." It's the end of an era in daytime television. Here's how it all started back in 1986.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Oprah Winfrey Show")

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Host): I'm Oprah Winfrey, and welcome to the very first batch of "The Oprah Winfrey Shows."

(Soundbite of cheering)

Ms. WINFREY: After deliberating for some time, we decided to do what we do best, and that is a show about and with everyday people.

MARTIN: So she's not leaving television entirely. She's going to host an evening program on her cable TV network, OWN. But this is the end of this era, at least at the end of this season. So, Lisa, what do you think? I mean, what could we expect to see, and is this really a big deal?

Ms. DE MORAES: It's definitely a big deal, particularly for Oprah fans. But you are already seeing syndicators moving in, trying to find the next Oprah in the syndication market. So it's going to be really interesting to see what syndicators develop for next season if they try to capture some of her fan base. It was definitely time for her to do this. Her numbers were starting to fall.

MARTIN: And I do want to mention - well, you also mentioned that Larry King is retiring. Cristina, the Spanish-language television interviewer star - a lot of people call her the Oprah of Spanish language television. Cristina has also said that she is going to retire. So - but - clearly, there is this big change next season. But she's, you know, Oprah's given away cars. She's given away everything you can put in a house. She's interviewed, you know, all these top celebrities. I mean, she interviewed George W. Bush in the 2000 election. And what can she do to top that?

Ms. DE MORAES: I think she's going after Lindsay Lohan is what - this week's big news on Oprah that she's going to get Lindsay Lohan's first interview.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. DE MORAES: Yeah, I know. Big thought.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yeah, yeah. OK. I'll wait for that one. Jeff Yang, what do you think?

Mr. YANG: I have to say, I mean, I don't watch Oprah myself. I'm a little bit out of the demographic, I think.

MARTIN: Liar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Liar, liar, pants on fire.

Mr. YANG: Got to admit it now.

MARTIN: So I'll be calling you up next week and have you recount to me what was on the show, but that's okay. Okay.

Mr. YANG: Well, I think, actually, even if you don't watch the show, Oprah has been such a cultural phenomenon, in touch with so many different other kinds of media and platforms, that her moving into another stage in her life is actually going to be a huge impact in other ways.

I mean, you see, for instance, the book industry mourning the fact that Oprah's book club is going away. It was the surest way to launch title that would otherwise potentially have trouble finding an audience.

And also - I mean, this is sort a side thing, but she was able to kind of create celebrities out of ordinary or overlooked and unseen talent. And it will be very well felt across very many places, very many cultures that Oprah is moving on. And I...

MARTIN: You're right, though. She has created a number of unlikely stars, like Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray, the spinoff. You're right, that's interesting to see.

Mekeisha, final thought from your about the end of the Oprah era?

Ms. TOBY: It's going to be missed. I mean, she helped elect a president. She's more powerful than any talk show host on television, period, night or day. And I don't know. I don't think her network is going to stack up against it because the thing about Oprah is, like, she has, you know, like, her XM station, "Oprah and Friends," it's more friends than Oprah. So no one listens. Oprah is powerful, and I want to see her do something else with her power. I'm glad she has a network, but I'm going to miss her.

MARTIN: Who do you think...

Mr. YANG: Oprah in 2016.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Who do you think, Mekeisha, if you had to put money on who might claim the crown?

Ms. TOBY: No one that's on television now, and it's definitely not going to be like a Wendy Williams or anyone of that caliber. I don't know. I just - I really don't - I mean, of course that was something that she built over time, and it'll, you know, be interesting to see if anybody can even, like, maybe scratch the surface. I know Tyra tried to, but she left. She bowed out before Oprah even did, because she realized she wasn't going to reach that.

MARTIN: Lisa, who do you think will claim the crown?

Ms. DE MORAES: I don't think there is anybody on the landscape now who's going to swoop in and scoop up her viewers. That person does not have a show yet.

MARTIN: I will leave you all with two words: Sarah Palin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YANG: Ouch.

Ms. DE MORAES: No.

MARTIN: No? Lisa, no?

Ms. DE MORAES: Could she become a syndicated TV host? Absolutely.

MARTIN: See? We'll see.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YANG: I'm kind of curious what Sarah Palin's book club would look like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Lisa de Moraes is a television columnist for the Washington Post. She joined us from their studios there. Jeff Yang is a media observer and writes the regular column "Asian Pop" for the San Francisco Chronicle. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Mekeisha Madden Toby is a blogger and television writer for The Detroit News, and she joined us from NPR West.

Ms. TOBY: I thank you all so much for speaking to us.

Ms. DE MORAES: Youre welcome.

Ms. MADDEN: Thanks for having for having us.

Mr. YANG: Thanks, Michele.

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