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The 'Shifting' TV News Landscape: Will It Be Good For Diversity?


We'd like to take a moment now to talk about an issue we visited a few times on this program - diversity in the media. Diane Sawyer recently announced that she's stepping down as anchor of "ABC World News." [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The introduction to this story should have made the distinction that we were focusing on diversity at the major three television networks: ABC, CBS and NBC.Additionally, in the original conversation, host Michel Martin clarified that some broadcast evening news programs are anchored by women, including Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour and Megyn Kelly of Fox News. That clarification was inadvertently cut out during the production process.]


DIANE SAWYER: You may have heard some exciting news from right here at home at ABC, at the end of the summer, I'm going to be moving to a new role at the network - full-time, flat out of reporting I love, from around the world and in-depth specials on the stories the matter so much to all of our lives.

MARTIN: The change at ABC means that David Muir, who currently hosts "ABC World News Weekend," will step in as anchor during the week. And "Good Morning America" co-host George Stephanopoulos will take on a new role as the face the network - for example, steering election night coverage. And while these kinds of changes happen periodically in a business that places a lot of physical and personal demands on people, it's also reviving the debate about the importance of diversity in television, especially television news because after Sawyer's departure, all the broadcast network nightly news programs will be led, once again, by white males. So we're going to talk about this with Eric Deggans. He's NPR's television critic and he's with us now in our studios in Washington, D.C. Eric, it's nice to have you back with us.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So before we talk about the news programs, I want to talk about something else that has recently happened. Some recent developments on ABC's daytime program, "The View," long time host Sherri Shepherd announced that she will leave the program after serving as a co-host for seven years and then after that another host, Jenny McCarthy - the actress announced that she'll be leaving. She even tweeted about saying if Sherry goes then I go too. And I just wanted to ask what do you think this all means?

DEGGANS: Well, it's interesting to see that all these changes, including the rumored departure of Bill Geddie, the longtime executive producer of the show, right after Barbara Walters leaves - I think, if you read the tea leaves as long as I have in television, once Barbara was gone, it seems as if ABC is making the kind of changes they wanted to make. And I think there was a sense that they wanted to blow up the panel, make it more interesting. Jenny McCarthy has always had a hard time fitting in there. And now that Barbara is gone, perhaps ABC has a freer hand to remake the show the way they want to.

MARTIN: Back to the Diane Sawyer announcement, the question that I have to ask is, what does it mean that there were - a couple of years ago, both Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer were anchoring evening news programs, and now it's back to where it was, you know...

DEGGANS: Where it was before...

MARTIN: ...Before?

DEGGANS: Yeah. I think a couple of things are going on. Number one, we have seen the importance of the evening news diminished. The sense that they have taken all of the big marquee things that the evening news anchor used to do - like leading election coverage and breaking news coverage and giving them to George Stephanopoulos, who's the morning anchor - I think that's significant. David Muir will have a lesser role than somebody like Peter Jennings because it will be much harder for him to be the face of the network. Also, though, what we've seen is this lack of a pipeline for female journalists. Who could come in and anchor a network evening newscasts at ABC? What woman is positioned to contest with David Muir for that job? Where's the pipeline for female talent? Where's the pipeline for people of color in the network news game? And let's create one if there isn't.

MARTIN: Well, why is that, though?

DEGGANS: I think it's a specific choice. For example, I just came out of newspapers, and the newspaper where I used to work, The Tampa Bay Times, women are in key leadership roles throughout the organization now. It's something that's happened over the last 20 years. Are we seeing this kind of pipeline built in the network news game? Who's the executive producers of these shows? Are women being able to ascend to those jobs? And when you have people in a job who can picture a woman anchoring, then maybe they'll allow them to anchor. I just can't believe that in 2014, there's not enough female talent out there to fill the ranks of these network news anchoring jobs. And the fact that there isn't tells me that there's something else going on beyond the numbers game or chance or they just can't find the right people. They're not trying to find the right people.

MARTIN: But you also said that George Stephanopoulos being named chief anchor, and he is the anchor of the morning show as well as the Sunday morning public affairs program.


MARTIN: What does that suggest, that they consider really morning to be driving...

DEGGANS: Morning is the...

MARTIN: ...Coverage?

DEGGANS: ...Most important day part for network news because it makes the most money. Generally...

MARTIN: But the numbers aren't the biggest, though. That still has to be said. The network evening news programs still have bigger numbers, you know, overall.

DEGGANS: They have bigger total audiences, but when you look at the core demographic that they charge advertising for, for example, "Good Morning America" draws a little more people aged 25 to 54 than the evening news does. So aggregate audiences - evening news does better - but in terms of the moneymaking potential - and it's not just that it's demographically they have more numbers. Advertisers want to be in that show more. You know, they feel like they're reaching their ideal consumer. They're reaching women who are making the purchasing decisions for their households, often. And so I think it's not just that it's more of that demographic. It's a more desirable type of that demographic as well.

MARTIN: But what's the diversity picture there? I mean, women are famous for being morning news anchors and having a big impact as morning news anchors.

DEGGANS: Exactly, and so that's the one bright spot is that if the power position in network news shifts to the morning, then women have a better chance of getting in on that action because there are women in the morning shows who are more than qualified to be the face of a network news division if there develops - Savannah Guthrie on NBC's "Today Show" has a hard news background. Certainly if she wanted that job, she could contend for it. So that's the one bright spot, is that by shifting the center of power to the morning, at least women will have a shot to play in that game a little more than maybe they do now.

MARTIN: We're talking about diversity and television with NPR's television critic Eric Deggans. So let's talk a little about elsewhere on the down, not a news program but one that's generating a lot of interest and some fairly heated response. It's a program...


MARTIN: ...Called "Tyrant" which premiered last week on the cable network FX. It's a show about a California doctor who is the son of a dictator of a fictional Middle Eastern country. And I have a short clip from the first episode where the son, Bassam, sees his father for the first time in about 20 years. And in this clip, the father, the dictator, talks about protests in the country.


NASSER FARIS: (As Khaled Al Fayeed) After everything I've given the people, they're still not satisfied. They say they want freedom. Freedom to do what? Kill each other?

MARTIN: This is a show that's getting a lot of attention 'cause a number of advocacy groups that represent people of Muslim or Middle Eastern backgrounds say they are outraged about this. They think it's racist. I do want to mention that there is one group, The Muslim Public Affairs Counsel, that says that they were involved with the production. But, Eric, what about it?

DEGGANS: There's a sense when you watch the show that the more Americanized characters are considered the more virtuous characters. And the problem is that many of the characters who are Arab or Muslim on the show are bloodthirsty. The first time you encounter an Arab character, you see the brother of the lead character, you know, raping a woman. I think they really have a point. It could have been so great. It could have been a very nuanced depiction of, what do you do when you have a tyrant who's bloodthirsty, but maybe he's holding together a country where everybody else is blood thirsty too and everybody's got, you know, blood on their hands? And how do you deal with this? But instead, you have this Americanized son who left the country. And then he comes back, and he has all these ideas about free speech and a new way of doing things. And he's presented as the virtuous guy who will stop his bloodthirsty relatives from pillaging the country that they've run for 20 years. And I would not blame an advocacy group for looking at that and saying, that's just not fair depiction of Arab life or of Muslim life.

MARTIN: Is there any response from FX about this?

DEGGANS: They did set up a screening for some representatives of these advocacy groups, and I interviewed a representative of one of them who said he walked out of the screening when he saw the second rape scene involving this brother in the pilot. I mean, you know, the guy assaults a woman not once, but twice. There's also a scene where that same character cuts off someone's finger. So I think the only hope is that as they move forward, or even if somebody else decides to do something like this - the idea is promising, but you have to be careful to not create these stereotypes. And unfortunately, they have created a show that is just filled with them instead of taking the opportunity to subvert them. And when you subvert stereotypes in a TV show, that's when it's interesting because you don't know what to expect. You can't look at a character and predict how they're going to act. and that's why I don't understand why more TV shows don't do that anyway.

MARTIN: Eric Deggans is NPR's television critic. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Eric, thanks so much for joining us.

DEGGANS: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 1, 2014 at 11:00 PM CDT
The introduction to this story should have made the distinction that we were focusing on diversity at the major three television networks: ABC, CBS and NBC. Additionally, in the original conversation, host Michel Martin clarified that some broadcast evening news programs are anchored by women, including Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour and Megyn Kelly of Fox News. That clarification was inadvertently cut out during the production process.