In the month since police killed George Floyd, the United States is finally reckoning in a very real way with how racial inequity is baked in to every level of society. As people take to the streets to protest violence and injustice against Black people, the news media has simultaneously been grappling with how to cover this seismic shift, and its own complicity in prioritizing white voices and audiences above all else. Media has the power to shape narratives, amplify viewpoints and ascribe importance. Every corner of this industry — even entertainment — needs to seriously reexamine its age-old routines and work to create new and more thoughtful ones that actively push against racist instincts.
As a critic at a prominent publication, whose words are more likely to reach the industry they’re covering than most, I’ve personally been reassessing what I write about in order to attack my own latent biases head-on. Hollywood’s tendency to prioritize whiteness makes it very easy for me to go along with its default view of what makes for an “important” show, who counts as a “prestigious” producer, what kinds of stories are more “worthy” of further examination. Not pushing back harder against that status quo is, frankly, an unacceptably lazy instinct on my part. So when asked to submit nominations for this year’s Television Critics Association Awards, an annual exercise for a nationwide group of critics in selecting the best TV of the year, I wanted to be mindful of submitting a more consciously inclusive ballot than I might have in the past. I then clicked over to the page of previous winners to refresh my memory — and found a long, deeply frustrating list of almost entirely white names.
For 35 years, TCA has prided itself on cutting through the wild west of television to highlight the best and brightest the medium has to offer. (I’ve been a member since 2016.) But the times when TCA physically convenes for its biannual press tour always throws its largely white membership into stark relief; clueless questions about race from white reporters to exceedingly patient non-white panelists are all too expected and dismissed. While there’s no demographic information available for the overall body of TCA, it is worth noting that the current president and vice president — Sarah Rodman and Melanie McFarland, respectively — are Black women. Recent years have seen more concerted efforts to diversify the TCA body by ushering in a new generation of journalists, and strengthen the press tour’s ability to hold power players accountable. These are encouraging signs of progress and commitment to change the tenor of TV coverage moving forward. But as far as the history of the organization and its priorities goes, scrolling through the 35-year record of shows, creators and actors that TCA has historically considered the most worthy of recognition, the undeniable truth is that they have been consistently, overwhelmingly white.
Out of 35 Program of the Year winners, only two non-white creators have ever won (Shonda Rhimes for “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2006 and Lee Daniels for “Empire” in 2015). The Individual Achievement in Comedy and Drama categories have only ever seen three non-white winners out of 46 overall (Bernie Mac in 2002, Donald Glover in 2017, and Andre Braugher in 1997 and 1998). The Outstanding Achievement in Comedy has one of the “best” track records with 5 entire non-white wins out of 35 (2 of which went to Bill Cosby for “The Cosby Show,” which won back to back in 1985 and 1986). For Outstanding New Program, which has honored 22 shows over all, Sam Esmail of “Mr. Robot” is the only non-white creator to win, period. Meanwhile, not a single non-white creator has won for Outstanding Achievement in Drama in the category’s 35-year history.
Delving into the list in more detail is similarly depressing. The “Heritage Award,” an already loaded name for a nebulous award honoring older series’ contributions to television as a medium, has exclusively gone to white creators. The only women of color to have won a major TCA Award beyond Rhimes are Oprah Winfrey and Rita Moreno, who both landed Career Achievements. It’s a significant award, but one that nonetheless reflects the expectation that women of color need to put in decades of exemplary work in order to get recognized at all. And while projects about Black people and people of color have won awards, their creative teams still skew overwhelmingly white — including, ridiculously enough, Bill Moyers’ winning 1985 CBS special, “The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America.”
As a member of the TCA, this history of exclusion is both embarrassing and infuriating. There’s no justification for overlooking non-white producers and writers for this long, this consistently. There’s no excuse for only honoring white performers in the Drama category after Andre Braugher’s (well deserved) wins in the late ’90s. There’s no good reason why increasingly diverse nominations (a good thing!) shouldn’t be resulting in increasingly diverse wins (a better thing!). To say otherwise would be saying that non-white talent just hasn’t been as good as white talent, a blatantly false and racist statement that I frankly just don’t have the time to unpack. Hollywood may have given white people more leverage and opportunities over the years, but critics whose job it is to dig deeper should do exactly that when highlighting the actual best of the best.
In the grand scheme of things, no, TCA isn’t exactly the Television Academy. But its traditionally narrow view of what “Good TV” is represents an awful failure that’s indicative of a much larger issue, namely: which shows and talent get more notice, consideration, accolades, and “mainstream” cultural capital to spend. In theory, no one watches or appreciates more television than TV critics. We’re not gatekeepers, but we do have some influence, and white critics in particular should be more mindful and deliberate of how they wield it. We need to stop talking about being better and just be it.