Eight months ago, news broke that Shonda Rhimes was exiting ABC Studios for a new home at Netflix.
Though Rhimes will continue to work on the series she has set up at the network—Grey’s Anatomy, How to Get Away with Murder, For the People, and Station 19 (Scandal ends this year)—Shondaland has moved with her to Netflix. And as if losing one of their top black creatives wasn't enough, ABC might also be in danger of losing Black-ish creator Kenya Barris. According to Variety, “the streaming service recently reached out to Barris to explore the possibility of luring him away from ABC Studios. At Netflix he would join a growing stable of top-tier showrunners including Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, both of whom signed nine-figure deals with the streamer in the past year."
Barris and Rhimes created buzzy, critically-acclaimed series for ABC that not only showed a diversity of black life on television, but also diversity in general when it came to Rhimes’ sprawling dramas. It was a huge loss for Rhimes to leave ABC Studios and now with Barris potentially wanting to exit, it would create a huge hole in the network as far as non-white talent.
Barris may potentially exit due to a clash with ABC heads over the canceled airing of a Black-ish episode. An unaired episode that, according to Variety, "touched on a number of social and political issues, including football players kneeling, was shelved shortly before it was set to air." To hear Barris tell it to Variety, "Given our creative differences, neither ABC nor I were happy with the direction of the episode and mutually agreed not to air it."
If that weren’t enough, ABC also allowed returning series Roseanne to take jabs at the network's own minority-led shows, Black-ish and Fresh off the Boat, in last week's episode. In the episode, Roseanne and Dan (John Goodman), wake up on their couch after falling asleep. "We missed all the shows about black and Asian families," Dan said, referring to Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat. "They're just like us. There's, now you're all caught up," Roseanne responded derisively. The dig at shows that represent realistic depictions of minorities in America wasn't missed by viewers, and it led to social media backlash.
Why would ABC allow Roseanne to take a shot at those shows? Probably because the network's new "heartland strategy" is aimed at catering to white viewers. The president of Disney and ABC’s television group, Ben Sherwood, explained the appeal of Roseanne to The New York Times: “We looked at each other and said, ‘There’s a lot about this country we need to learn a lot more about, here on the coasts. People gather round and they see themselves in this family, [and Roseanne] speaks to a large number of people in the country who don’t see themselves on television very often.”
Channing Dungey, president of ABC Entertainment, agreed with him and said, “We had spent a lot of time looking for diverse voices in terms of people of color and people from different religions and even people with a different perspective on gender. But we had not been thinking nearly enough about economic diversity and some of the other cultural divisions within our own country. That’s been something we’ve been really looking at with eyes open since that time.”
Since their shows began airing on ABC, Rhimes and Barris not only provided diverse stories but also raked in awards. Grey's Anatomy earned actress Sandra Oh nominations for Emmys four years in a row, multiple writing and directing and guest acting nominations, and wins for Loretta Devine and Katherine Heigl. Scandal earned a historic nomination for Kerry Washington. How to Get Away with Murder earned a historic win for Viola Davis.
Black-ish also earned nods for its lead actors Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson, as well as a Best Comedy nomination. These aren't just fan-favorite shows, in other words. ABC proved that when you bet on diverse creators, they can turn in stellar, award-nominated work as well.
Reading between the lines of ABC's new emphasis on "economic diversity," it seems as if the network is gearing its shows toward white audiences again. Whenever networks discuss the "heartland" they seem to mean white people. When Dungey says they "spent a lot of time looking for diverse voices," he makes it seem like that shit's all over now, and it's time for white people to come through. After all, Roseanne has the big ratings they were hoping for.
The Roseanne reboot, with delayed viewing, reached 25 million viewers for its premiere. The reincarnation, which now imagines Roseanne as a Trump voter, has even received praise from President Trump himself, who personally called Roseanne Barr to congratulate her. The ratings dipped a bit in its second week, but the series is still a bonafide hit. Time will tell, however, if ABC's new strategy includes hitting the "heartland" with more nostalgic reboots of working-class shows like Roseanne, or if it will develop new series with other conservative voices like Barr.
Either way, the short-sightedness of grasping for a new audience has left ABC's non-white creators feeling left out in the cold. If Barris leaves, particularly for Netflix, and his shows are successful there along with Rhimes', it will leave ABC wondering how they managed to lose such great talents. The election had many people shook, yes, but ABC is fooling itself if it thinks it needs to chase white working-class Trump voters who weren't even the majority of Trump's base and are also fewer than the majority that voted against Trump.
ABC has enjoyed success for years with wonderful diverse programming. If the network wants to be great again in the wake of Barris and Rhimes, going white again won't be the answer.