NPR media critic urges honest talk about race

Eric Deggans sees current network TV as ‘a great moment for diversity’


By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer

Although diverse casting is now seen in current TV shows such as Black-ish and Scandal, it’s all about profitability for network execs and key programmers, explains Eric Deggans, National Public Radio’s (NPR) first full-time media critic.

Television “is all about business. They are trying to make money. You make the argument that this is the right thing to do, but that is not going to go very far. You got to show people that they can build careers on this stuff,” Deggans pointed out during an MSR one-on-one interview. He was in town last month for scheduled appearances.

Eric Deggans Photo by Charles Hallman
Eric Deggans
Photo by Charles Hallman

According to Nielsen’s same-day ratings through October 26, How to Get Away with Murder (ABC), Gotham (Fox] and Black-ish (ABC) are first, second and fourth respectively among this season’s new television shows — all received full-season orders from their networks. All feature Blacks as main characters.

“A show like Black-ish being successful behind Modern Family [also on ABC], a show with two great gay characters and two great Latino characters and a lot of diversity in the cast, and it’s doing well, and it feeds into the best sitcom hit with a Black family that we’ve had since The Cosby Show,” continued Deggans.

Murder and Scandal are both “doing really well in the ratings right now. We have never had two network TV dramas starring Black women on at the same time, never in the history of television. This is a great moment for diversity, because not only are the shows diverse, but also they’re creatively successful and viewers are watching it. I really hope that we get to next season and we see even more diversity.”

It could easily be noted that producer-creator Shonda Rhimes “owns” Thursday nights on ABC as she has three hit series airing consecutively. “What’s interesting about this moment isKERRY WASHINGTON that I think Shonda Rhimes has figured out [the] clone that works. All three of those shows are getting strong ratings, and also they are mainstream phenomenons.

“Everybody knows what Scandal is — everybody heard about How to Get Away With Murder and about Viola Davis. Everybody’s heard of Grey’s Anatomy. Shonda figured out a way to base shows around characters of color that have a mainstream appeal.”

“All of the premium channels and the upper-tier standard cable channels, the shows they are creating have little or no people of color in them,” observed Deggans, adding that there are some exceptions, such as a show on TV Land starring Cedric the Entertainer, and WE tv has the Braxton family and Mary Mary in reality series. These channels “have figured out that African American viewers, especially Black women, are a great way to diversify their viewership.

“Black women saved OWN [Oprah Winfrey’s channel] — they don’t want to talk about that much because they don’t want White viewers to think they’re a Black channel,” Deggans continued. “But every show that has been a massive hit for them has been a massive hit for Black women. There are cable [channels] explicitly catering to Black viewers, especially Black women.”

When he critiques a show, “First and foremost I am trying to see if they are telling a unique story. I’m trying to see if they’re showing me characters that I haven’t seen before or if they are showing me characters that I think I know in a different way. I also look to see if it justifies the time I spent with this work — is the artistic work worth my time.

“I’m trying to see if it looks like America — if it is a show set in New York or Chicago, or set in L.A. or D.C. — does it look like those towns look,” he said.

Deggans also is author of Race-Baiter (2012), in which he examines how media, especially in news programs, plays on “old prejudices and deep-rooted fears.” He believes that race cannot be ignored but it’s rarely honestly discussed.

“At the heart of a lot of issues that we fight about politically, institutional racism and institutional prejudices is at the heart of the question. So when we fight about affirmative action, welfare, immigration, reproductive rights, the heart of every one of those fights is the question of whether an institution treats somebody differently because they are a person of color, because they are an immigrant or because they are a woman, because they are part of a marginalized group in our society.

“The real question is does institutional racism, prejudices and bias exist, and if it does exist, how do we deal with it — in housing, education [and] employment. The bottom line is that we are getting more diverse as a nation and we have to figure out how to deal with that. We haven’t figured out how to talk to each other about these issues yet.”

Deggans said NPR hired him to regularly offer such insights for listeners. “I think more people should know that. They hired a Black guy to do this job when nobody else has done that. Maybe in the past, but nobody is doing it now but me.

“They didn’t hire a Black person; they hired a Black person who has a long history of covering race and media issues and wrote a book about it. I don’t think enough is made of the fact that they [NPR] made that choice and what it says about how they see the future of television and the future of society.

“I feel like I have a lot of freedom on NPR, and they have been very encouraging about having me. They got the entire package when they hired me,” said Deggans. “Right now as far as I know, there is no other Black male who is the primary TV critic at a national news outlet — no one but me.”

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