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The hit ABC television series Lost begins its third season tonight. The show has attracted a huge fan base with its story about a group of plane crash survivors on a strange island. The cast of Lost has also been held up as a model of the kind of diversity networks should aim for in the future.

As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, the networks are beginning to see diversity as economic necessity in today's competitive market.

LYNN NEARY: In the late '90s, Carlton Cuse was developing an idea for a TV show called Martial Law. At one point, he suggested an African-American should be cast opposite the lead character, who was Asian.

Mr. CARLTON CUSE (Executive Producer, Lost TV Series): And there was a lot of resistance initially to that idea. They felt that the network thought that that show was going to be too ethnic.

NEARY: Cuse, who is now one of the executive producers of Lost, says things have changed since then.

Mr. CUSE: I think the networks realized that the mold that they've had is not necessarily working. And I think that a show like Lost is an example of a new mold, which is now influencing the way other shows get made and cast, hopefully.

NEARY: The cast of Lost includes not only African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, there's also a Nigerian character and an Iraqi, along with a few Australians, Scots and Brits. One character even speaks all his lines in Korean, subtitles usually provided.

(Soundbite of show, "Lost")

Ms. MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ (Actress): (As Ana-Lucia) Your buddy ran off into the jungle.

Ms. EVANGELINE LILLY (Actress): (As Kate) Michael, he just left.

Mr. DANIEL DAE KIM (Actor): (As Jun-Soo Kwon)(Speaking foreign language)

UNKNOWN ACTOR: (As Michael) What's he trying to say? What's he's saying?

Mr. DAE KIM: (Speaking foreign language)

NEARY: Damon Lindelof, also an executive producer of the show, created Lost with JJ Abrams. He says he and Abrams did not create an ethnically diverse cast out of any sense of obligation. Rather, the idea appealed to them as storytellers. Lindelof says starting the series with passengers on an international flight gave them the device they needed.

Mr. DAMON LINDELOF (Executive Producer, Lost TV Series): That really opened the doors for us to go, you know, to April Webster, who was our casting director, and say look, we have these parts and there's - you know, and there's Jack, and there's Soya, and there's Kate, and there's a guy who's a father and we don't even have a name for this character yet, but he's got this kid, and bring us characters of all races and nationalities and ages, and we'll just cast the best actor.

NEARY: The success of Lost and other shows with diverse casts, like the current number one hit Grey's Anatomy, sends a message to network programmers, says Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition.

Mr. ALEX NOGALES (National Hispanic Media Coalition): Unless you start including minorities in your shows, you're going to get out of job.

NEARY: Nogales's organization is part of an umbrella group, the Multiethnic Media Coalition, which has been giving out annual report cards on network diversity since 1999, when the NAACP accused the networks of whitewashing their programming. Now, Nogales can quickly list a number of shows with Hispanic actors in prominent roles, including the star of the most popular new show of the season, Ugly Betty.

Mr. NOGALES: George Lopez anchored his show. Eva Longoria is one of the biggest over at Desperate Housewives, one of the top ten shows in the nation. So you have examples of this throughout the broadcast networks.

NEARY: Nogales says there are still problems. He was appalled by CBS's decision to begin its new season of Survivor with tribes broken down along racial lines. And the NAACP has expressed concern about the lack of leading black actors in new comedies. Mitsy Wilson is Vice President for Diversity at the Fox Network, which cancelled the African-American sitcom The Bernie Mac Show.

Ms. MITSY WILSON (Vice President for Diversity, Fox Network): It was disappointing to us as a network that we weren't able to replace Bernie with another show.

NEARY: Wilson says the network is always looking for opportunities to include diversity in their programming. She notes that 24 was the first network show to cast an African-American in the role of president.

(Soundbite of show, "24")

Mr. DENNIS HAYSBERT (Actor): (As president) A bomb goes off on U.S. soil today, I will have no choice but to retaliate with immediate and decisive force against your government.

NEARY: Wilson says it's easier to achieve diversity on reality shows like Fox's American Idol, which draws from a wide pool of participants.

Ms. WILSON: When you're looking at your scripted shows, then you're now beginning to look at a craft. And that craft includes individuals who study theater, acting, etcetera. So, that's a little limiting, but should not prevent that diversity to inclusive on those shows, as well as on the reality shows.

NEARY: Ensuring diversity behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera is important, says Wilson. And that, says Alex Nogales, is where more progress is needed.

Mr. NOGALES: In many cases, if you look at the writing stables, you will find that the people went to the same schools, come from the same sections of the country, so that type of an incestuous small group that continues to propel these shows.

NEARY: But Fox's Mitsy Wilson says the commitment to diversity on network TV is real. Because, she says, it just makes economic sense. All the networks are looking for younger viewers and to get them, Wilson says, you've got to create shows that reflect their world.

Ms. WILSON: They've grown up in a different era, and they're looking for this. For them it's just part of what they - who they are and what they see. So when I say it must be, we've got to make sure if we're going to be successful. That we can retain and attract that younger demographic that's accustomed to this.

NEARY: And when Lost premiers tonight on ABC, there will be a new character added to the mix, a Brazilian.

Lynn Neary, NPR News. Washington.

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