×

Orange is the new black, and diversity is the new TV

Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" broke the mold of television programming in many ways. While they helped introduce streaming networks as a competitor to broadcast, two of its stars are arguing that the platform is leading the way towards more multicultural and LGBT casts on television.

"Netflix is synonymous with diversity," said Tituss Burgess, who plays Titus Andromedon on "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

"Netflix is not beholden to advertising so Netflix can do whatever they want. It's a different story when you rely on a third party to begin to make your decisions. You make your decision based on who's paying for this," Burgess said.

Dascha Polanco
Getty Images
Dascha Polanco

Burgess, alongside "Orange Is the New Black" stars Uzo Aduba and Dascha Polanco and WhoSay editorial director Kirstin Benson, spoke about the topic of diversity on TV on a panel titled "A Diversity Revolution: How Non-Network Shows are Shattering Mainstream Norms" during Advertising Week in New York.

"I think they have more freedom," Polanco told CNBC. "I think they have the freedom to be more creative and take their product, their series to the next level. They already pushed the media on how you view media; why not take a risk?"

The actors have a point. Though this 2015-16 pilot season has featured more diverse casts than ever before, historically networks have shied away from including multicultural casts or featuring LGBT characters. And, advertisers did play a role in that, said Esther "E.T." Franklin, executive vice president head of Starcom MediaVest Group Americas Experience Strategy.

"Historically, there was a pushback," Franklin said bluntly. "Simply, the model did not prove out that multicultural audiences would drive ROI (return on investment)."

Franklin also pointed out that times have changed. While she does agree that streaming networks have it a bit easier to embrace diversity, networks are also open to accepting change.

ABC is being led by the ShondaLand production company hits "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal" and "How to Get Away With Murder." Then, there's rating juggernaut "Empire" from Fox. During its first season, it grew its audience each week, with its finale reaching 16.5 million viewers. The episode's audience was 77 percent larger than its premiere.

"We're in an era when TV is being taxed anyway," Franklin said. "Networks are trying to figure out how to maintain ROI and grow. This is an area they can start to focus again to drive revenue."


Not only are advertisers excited about the fact that consumers are getting excited about television, but Franklin said they're realizing that multicultural shows can reach both a mainstream and a minority audience, the latter of which was never really targeted through advertising before.

It was reflected in this year's 2015-16 upfronts, where many shows featured diverse casts. Even Jimmy Kimmel joked about it at the ABC upfront, saying, "We have more shows featuring minority leads. … We are so diverse that when CBS drives by us, they lock their car doors."

And, U.S. minorities are a fast-growing group. Minority consumers make up more than 120 million Americans according to Nielsen, and the number increase by 2.3 million each year — currently about 38 percent of the country's population. African-Americans alone are expected to have a purchasing power of $1.1 trillion this year. Hispanic consumers are worth $1.5 trillion, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth. When it comes to the LGBT community, Witeck Communications estimated they were worth $884 billion last year.

"Some advertisers are taking a total market strategy and leading with ethnic insights, doing more diligence at the front end of the audience and not just putting a bull's-eye on the target audience," Franklin said. "They're doing research into representation of multiculturalism that exists within that framework."

Burgess said that what it reflects is the changing face of America, and he hopes one day we'll see TV accurately reflect that.

"(TV) should just reflect more of who America is," he said. "It should reflect the darkest and the lightest sides. It should represent all genders and sexual orientations so much so that we no longer blink when we see content about a gay couple or a transgender couple."