Kerry Washington in "Scandal" (ABC/Eric Mccandless)

ABC's recent ratings success says diversity is good business

Poised to win its first May sweeps week in over a decade, the network is doing something right -- if not white


Neil Drumming
May 20, 2014 11:02PM (UTC)

This morning Deadline Hollywood predicted that ABC would win its first May sweep in 14 years. Regardless of whether you believe the entire Nielsen system to be an entirely outdated rating method, sweeps continue to be used by networks to set local advertising rates and are therefore considered an important barometer of broadcast network performance. According to Deadline, ABC's top performers include "Modern Family," "Grey's Anatomy," and the now infamous Michael Jackson hologram that headlined this most recent "Billboard Music Awards." If you're wondering where "Scandal" is in all this, the Shonda Rhimes ratings juggernaut apparently ended before this sweeps period began and thereby didn't factor into this celebratory moment for the network. Still, a cursory glance at ABC's forthcoming fall schedule reveals the influence of its success with "Scandal" as well as with its hit sitcom, "Modern Family."

This year, the magic words for the Disney-owned studio are "diversity" and "Shonda Rhimes" -- a Venn diagram of both affirms infinite crossovers. Rhimes' next hour-long show, a vehicle for award-winning actress Viola Davis, airs this fall on the network and, judging from the trailer, will provide all the melodramatic, salacious, shock and whiz-bang that has rocketed "Scandal" to the forefront of the zeitgeist. (It doesn't hurt that the cast is multiethnic; oh, how times have changed for the better.) The somber drama "An American Crime" and sitcoms like  "Crisela," "Fresh Off the Boat" and "Black-ish" not only boast diverse casts, but actually seem to utilize ethnic and racial identity and the conflicts that develop around these constantly evolving concepts as the core source material for their respective stories. If nothing else, ABC's fall lineup will provide plenty of fodder for conversation and debate at a time when the topic of race in America seems to be bubbling over rather than simmering down.

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Ultimately, of course, ABC is not a force for championing diversity. As a moneymaking enterprise, the network's greatest concern is securing eyeballs and proving the existence of those eyeballs -- and their accompanying consumer bodies -- to advertisers. ABC's current victory in the ratings demonstrates its ability to do so by varying the cultural, sexual and racial images on its programs. In the end, no matter how many altruistic thinkers scream for a need for a diversity, it is viewers and purchasers who make the difference. Diversity will only take hold if it makes good business sense.


Neil Drumming

Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.

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