The longest-running, scripted TV show of all time featured a young Burt Reynolds, who portrayed a half Native American character, seeking revenge for the murder of his father.
Gunsmoke aired on CBS for two decades, from 1955 to 1975, and Reynolds, who is said to have Cherokee roots himself, helped propel this record-breaking series to unprecedented heights. But despite the show’s popularity with audiences, this would prove to be the first and last time a major network would feature a Native American leading character.
For most of the television industry, diversity has been at the forefront of each of the major networks and studios’ programming initiatives, but recent data collected on television shows with minority led casts suggests that “diversity” for the most part stops at content aimed at African-American audiences.
James Angler, who is 67 and Sioux/Lakota Native American, recalled watching and enjoying any minority programming that aired when he was younger.
“I was just accustomed to seeing white people [on TV], so to see someone of color, even if they weren’t Native, even if it was Cheech & Chong, it was good to see people,” Angler recalled.
Ashley Allen, a Brooklyn transplant from Florida, shared a similar sentiment.
“I watch Insecure.” Allen revealed.
This popular HBO series has a predominately African-American cast and has been a hit with millennial audiences for two seasons.
Allen, 28, said of the show, “I like it because I feel like there’s no holding back and everyone is being real and discussing the B.S. that happens in everyday life. That’s pretty universal; not just a black thing.”
Series with mostly black casts have proven to be successful for television networks since the 70s. Programs like Sanford and Son, Family Matters and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air drew in millions of Black and non-Black audiences alike across three decades.
Since the 1950s when television sets first became standard household appliances, African-American TV series have accounted for more than half of the top networks’ minority shows. Even as African-American shows drew in massive audiences, data shows that the major networks were content with serving only this minority audience for over a half century, while severely underrepresenting other ethnic groups.
A programming manager with a major women’s network, who serves as a gatekeeper for much of the channels’ original content discussed efforts to create a more diverse lineup.
“I have seen more projects than I’d care to admit starring people of color get shut down or passed on because the majority white team thought that the audience was not big enough.”
The lack of diversity may not fall solely on the shoulders of networks. Patty Sralla, a screenwriter and director suggests that the real issue is the lack of diversity amongst TV writers.
Patty said, “The challenge is that there aren’t enough diverse writers with the opportunity to work on TV shows. Patty went on to question, “How do you get in the [writers] room? How do you change the minds of producers?”
“If I had to guess, I would say that about 30% of the scripts that we receive have people of color as leading characters or are telling stories from a person of colors’ point of view.” said Mychael, which seemed to echo Patty’s assumption.
Ultimately, it’s the networks responsibility to find and develop content that resonates with audiences and some are doing a much better job than others.
CBS, which data shows was an early trailblazer in diversity programming appears to not have had a minority led show since 2000 when Cosby ended — a spinoff of NBC’s classic The Cosby Show. CBS had seen enormous success with diversity programming in the 50s and 70s with series like I Love Lucy, which featured a Cuban leading man, The Jeffersons, which was the longest running African-American TV series for nearly 30 years and Good Times that focused on a black family living in the projects of Chicago and ran for an impressive six seasons. Despite all of this, the network has only premiered four series total with minority leading actors since 1951.
By comparison, both NBC and Fox have each premiered three series with a minority lead or ethnically centered show since 2000, and ABC has surpassed all of the major Networks by releasing nine minority led series during this time.
The TV executive for the women’s network believes there is still much to be desired when it comes to creating television content that reflects the variety of people that we have on earth, but the television industry is moving forward. “Whether it be racial, LGBTQ+ or people with disabilities, it’s becoming more and more common to see diversity on TV”.
This may be true, networks overall are more diverse than ever with the Asian-American hit series, Fresh Off The Boat and prime-time Latin series, Telenovela. Some long-time TV viewers like Angler however, don’t see enough change; when asked if he felt that different races were evenly represented on television James said “Absolutely not. Have you ever seen a Native American television show? No. And you probably never will.”