Audacious list (1 of 10) – A lack of diversity

Diversity on daytime, or the lack of it, is hardly a new conversation. OLTL is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and it was new and bold in 1968 specifically because it did have ethnic diversity (much more diversity, it should be noted, than the show has today).

The shows do suffer because of a lack of diversity. And I’m not simply talking about diversity in terms of what we all associate that word with.

It’s very, very true that African-Americans are woefully underrepresented on daytime. Latinos are only slightly more visible. Asians are almost non-existent on daytime outside of a few recurring roles, and other cultural or ethnic minorities are almost never featured.

And for every story where a character eases onto the canvas naturally and has a story that is genuine and real – Jesse or Angie (AMC), Jessica Griffin (ATWT), or Carla and Sadie Gray (OLTL) – there have been countless other stories where attempts to introduce non-WASPy characters have fallen flat and been terribly awkward.

Daytime has been trying to feature more LGBT characters, but outside of the controversial Luke and Noah story on ATWT, most of the stories we’ve seen so far have followed the same script:

(1) The LGBT character is just short of sainthood. (e.g., Bianca on AMC) In addition to being presented as an example of moral fortitude for the entire town, the character picks up litter, saves stray puppies and pulls people out of burning cars and buildings.

(2) S/he helps other characters and/or is the catalyst for an epiphany in a major front-burner character’s life. 

(3) LGBT characters are so busy being virtuous that they don’t see a lot of action. Whereas most characters in their age bracket are seeing more action than Pamela Anderson’s divorce lawyer, LGBT characters’ action level hovers around the “Nancy Hughes” level.

(4) S/he is there for a few cycles, and then mysterious disappears or is sent out of town, to be brought back at Christmas (if at all).

These are all examples of where daytime misses opportunities to keep our interest with a diversified canvas. But that’s only part of the picture.

I’m also talking about the kind of diversity we had when our shows had multi-generational casts and storylines. And more importantly, when characters had POINTS of VIEW – viewpoints that didn’t change every 13 weeks, along with the head writer.

Cady McClain is a notable actress, but she’s also incredibly intelligent about the industry. Some of her comments in her blog make me wish she would give up acting and come over to the dark side to become a writer or producer. She made a great comment (in an amazing post) about shows needing a character like the local storeowner who disapproves of the young, pregnant teenage customer. (Look towards the end of the post.) That’s the kind of character where you can put four or five of them in a room and the story writes itself.

I think the lack of diversity (both cultural and personality-wise) hurts daytime for two very specific reasons:

(1) With leaner, more streamlined casts, the characters shows keep are often so similar to one another it’s hard to tell them apart. On GL, Reva, Cassie, Harley, Blake, Beth, Dinah and Olivia are all, to some degree or another, the same damn person. On ATWT, most of the female contract characters under 40 are the same – they’ve all been painted with the same brush.

(2) When everyone is the same, and everything is the same, a very simple, logical result happens: THERE ARE NO SURPRISES. There is also no burning need to tune in tomorrow. Why? You know what will happen. Not because of spoilers, but because there are no surprises.

Can this be fixed? Creatively, it seems possible. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy are doing a great job of making diversity both a fact of life and a non-issue. But financially, I’m not sure this can ever become a priority for daytime. When we have shrinking budgets and disappearing vets, it seems less likely for a show to introduce a new character of family.

But I’ll make a point here as to why they might want to think about it. I would argue that the two most iconic soap stories of all time – the ones that even non-soap fans will know and acknowledge – are (a) Luke and Laura, and (b) the life and times of Erica Kane. Those actors and stories have made a lasting imprint on people. More importantly, they also brought a lot of non-soap fans – NEW FANS, which the format desperately needs – to their shows.

There’s something just like this happening right now – Luke and Noah on ATWT. Now, I’m not a Nielsen expert, or an industry insider, and I can’t verify the figures and the viewers and write all of this in stone for you. But we do know this: Their first kiss has had nearly half a million viewers on YouTube. ATWT went to #3 during the period when Luke and Noah were first playing front-burner. More importantly, people who did not watch before are watching. EVERY DAY. The site AfterElton.com has people liveblogging episodes of the show.

Part of that success is probably the new technology, but part of it has to be creative. ATWT is playing a new idea, with character “types” we haven’t seen before, in a very old-fashioned way. Every show would be wise to keep diversity in mind when they try to give us something “never before seen on daytime TV.”  (And hopefully they’ll do a better job managing it than P&G, who seems to support the Luke/Noah story but hasn’t capitalized on the story publicity-wise as much as they could have. )

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6 thoughts on “Audacious list (1 of 10) – A lack of diversity

  1. Hey Patrick, many congratulations on branching out on your own! I’ve been reading your work on Marlena’s site since the beginning, and I’ll be watching your new site with great interest. Having become a blogger myself last spring, I have a newfound appreciation for how hard it actually is, and a great respect for anyone who puts a serious effort into using this kind of forum to create something artistic and lasting.

    Keep up the terrific work, sir! This industry needs all the intelligent supporters and fan it can get!

    Response: Thanks for the encouragement!

  2. Hi Patrick! Congrats on your new “home!”

    One of the WORST travesties about ratings system is that it doesn’t accomodate simple folk like me who simply enjoy their stories. I’ve never been a girl, I’m not age 18-34 anymore, and I was never in a one of those mysterious households in the middle of nowhere that wielded a disproportionate amount of power over the fate of our shows.

    But what’s really sad is that the live bloggers on AfterElton, as well as the YouTube watchers, are not counted. I for one am not home during the day, and have given up on SoapNet (I don’t like D-movies and don’t care much about Canadian hockey players). But I watch a YouTube channel to get my OLTL fix, and if anyone is lookin’, they get A LOT viewers.

    Can’t wait to read the next nine…

    Response: Thanks Damon – or should I say, Soap Shrink!

    I think SoapNet is definitely missing the mark by running the “soapy” B-list movies. I thought MVP had some promise, but it’s a nighttime show.

    I think a great way to break away from WASPy middle America on the shows would be to base the premise of a soap in Canada, or on the border. I could just see it now – Canadian girl falls for brash American boy. Her father would disapprove (some Canadians are, shall we say, less than fervent fans of American culture). It writes itself, no?

    I think several members of a sports team would also be a great focus for a soap. Since it’s financially unlikely to see big core families being introduced to a show, tying characters together with a commonality like a sports team is a fresh idea. I’m sure Thorsten Kaye (a big hockey fan) would volunteer to be a hockey player on AMC! Zach has been just about everything else already.

  3. Patrick! I am so glad you have your own blog! And thank you so much for mentioning my blog!

    As for diverse characters; years ago I got some old GL tapes. There was one scene when IQ (played by Jaison Walker) went to talk to Beth. This was during the Galahads storyline when Lujack went back to try to break up the gang. IQ was African American, and Phillip called the police and they arrested IQ, no questions asked. Watching it now shocked and horrified me.

    As for the “saint” gay character, it reminds me something I learned in my African American lit class years ago; when a minority is introduced to culture; be it fictional or otherwise, they must be a saint in order to be accepted by the public. Withness: Jim from Huckberry Finn, Sidney Poitier’s roles in the 60’s, etc.

    I really wish Generations was on longer or picked up by another network. That show had so much promise.

    Response: Thanks, Jennifer! I’m a big fan of your blog as well.

    I think Generations was a show before its time. I wish we still had a “Doreen” in daytime – a strong African-American woman fighting for her family. She was the black Dorian Lord. I loved that actress, too – Jonelle Allen.

  4. Hi Patrick~

    Love the analysis, especially the point that diversity is about many things, including age and viewpoint. I’m looking forward to your top ten list.

    Response: Thanks KM – is this KMInfinity? I’m glad you liked the first entry.

  5. Great post!!

    I’ve felt for a long time that many gay/lesbian characters on TV are either portrayed as martyr/saints or comic relief in order to be accepted by “mainstream” audiences.

    I do have a theory about one of the reasons for the lack of diversity on daytime. IMO, interracial romances (particularly black/white ones) are still considered “taboo” by TPTB. So there’s a lot of hesitance to cast a role with a “minority” actor because they may feel limited in who they can pair that character with. I think they just don’t want to “go there” and would just rather cast a white actor who can be paired with anyone down the road w/o any controversy.

    BTW, I loved Generations and LOVED Doreen! I was just a kid when I watched the show, but she’s still one of my all-time favorite characters. Jonelle Allen was one of the best criers on daytime (and that’s saying alot!)

    Response : Thanks for the comment, Melanie!

    Primetime has done much better at interracial romance – on Grey’s Anatomy it was a total non-issue. I do remember Y&R getting some serious hate mail when they tried to pair Neil and Victoria, and that wasn’t all that long ago.

    I love Mel on GL – I thought she could be with anyone, black, white or otherwise. I could see her being one of the leading ladies of the show, for sure.

    I saw Jonelle Allen last year on Girlfriends playing a very divalicious mother of one of the characters. Love her!

  6. I don’t understand how budget cuts prevent soaps from introducing more Minority characters…it doesn’t stop them from introducing new white characters and interweaving them onto the canvas.

    I think that a lack of diversity hurts soaps from more than the same characters/same storylines angle. I know a lot of people myself included) who have gotten frustrated and have stopped watching soaps altogether because of a lack of diversity. Soaps executives don’t make diversity a priority because they don’t care.

    Response: Crystal, thanks for your comment!

    My thinking with diversity and the budget cuts is this: When shows have to streamline casts, they keep characters who, in their minds, appeal to the broadest number of people. I think the more ratings drop and the more budgets are cut, the shows get more and more scared and conservative.

    I’m talking more in this blog about the creative elements, but I’m sure there are lots of other elements involved. And it does feel on many fronts like the shows just don’t care. I think when you have a fan saying that, no matter what the reason, it’s a bad sign for the show.

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