The changing face of American TV

Shonda Rhimes' success has created opportunities for other minority artists. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

When the Emmy nominations were announced last week, the selection that garnered the most attention was Laverne Cox as outstanding guest actress in a comedy series, for her performance on Netflix's Orange Is the New Black.

The reason? Cox is the first transgender person ever nominated for an Emmy. (In interviews, Cox is asking to be called "the first openly transgender" performer - she says she knows of a transgender actress who won an Emmy but has never outed herself.)

Rightly or wrongly, the Emmy nominations have become a barometer for one of television's most frustrating issues: diversity in prime time.

Last year, for instance, Scandal's Kerry Washington was hailed as the first African American in 18 years to be nominated for outstanding lead actress on a drama. She didn't win - in 65 years, no black actress has prevailed in that category - but the popular enthusiasm for her performance as stylish Washington fixer Olivia Pope is credited with a recent boost in opportunities for actors of color in prime time.

There are seven African Americans (including a repeating Washington) nominated for acting awards at this year's Emmys, which NBC will televise on Aug. 25. That's the most since 1977, the year that Roots dominated the ceremony.

And the momentum seems to be building.

"The fact that Shonda Rhimes [the African American creator of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal] and Kerry Washington have been so successful has opened up things for this fall, which will be almost unprecedented in terms of shows with minority leads," says Karen M. Turner, an associate professor of journalism at Temple University.

ABC alone will broadcast three sitcoms about ethnic families: Black-ish with Anthony Anderson, Fresh Off the Boat with Eddie Huang, and Cristela, starring Cristela Alonzo.

The network's president of entertainment, Paul Lee, told a conclave of television critics this week that shows with exclusively white casts "feel dated . . . . You need the people telling the stories to truly reflect America as it is."

"I'm particularly excited about the images of black women," Turner says. "This summer, we have Halle Berry playing an astronaut in Extant. In the fall, Viola Davis is doing a new Shonda Rhimes show, How to Get Away With Murder, in which she plays a law professor. State of Affairs will have Alfre Woodard as a black woman president."

That may strike you as unexceptional, but for the television industry it represents a quantum shift.

"For many years, there may have been a tendency when casting an authority figure or expert in any field, it would default to a white male," says Craig Robinson, executive vice president and chief diversity officer for NBCUniversal.

"Casting directors and producers," he continues, "are becoming more open to the idea that characters that before would definitely have been white males don't necessarily have to be a white male."

Seeing minorities in positive power positions on television has a societal impact.

"To suggest that it's just entertainment is simply not true," says Dana Mastro, a professor of communications at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Exposure to these characters has an effect on real-world perceptions. They influence how we see people, how we see the world, who we're afraid of. It matters."

Progress in prime time has been fitful.

"If the goal is to show us on the screen a reflection of the true American scene, then there are no Native Americans," says Adam Moore, national director of equal employment opportunity and diversity for SAG-AFTRA, the entertainment-industry union. "There's one Asian, virtually no women over the age of 40, and people with disabilities do not exist."

Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group, are the most grossly underrepresented in prime time.

Although they make up more than 17 percent of the population, Hispanics constituted only 5 percent of the regular characters on broadcast series, according to a report GLAAD conducted on the just completed TV season.

People with disabilities are even more marginalized. Though the U.S. Census estimates that 12 percent of noninstitutionalized citizens are living with a disability, they make up only 1 percent of the prime-time population.

Members of the LGBT community will have a strong showing at the Emmys this year - comparatively speaking (always a necessary caveat when discussing diversity on TV).

"In addition to the first transgender actress nominated for her performance, there were a number of out performers nominated for their roles as straight characters and gay characters," says Matt Kane, GLAAD's director of entertainment media. "Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, and Joe Mantello for The Normal Heart. Parsons was also nominated for Big Bang Theory. Sarah Paulson on American Horror Story, Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson on Modern Family."

Cam and Mitchell (Ferguson's character) on Modern Family parent one of a number of same-sex families on TV, seen on shows including Glee, Grey's Anatomy, and The Fosters.

The industry is clearly focused on improving its track record.

Says Tiffany Smith-Anoa'i, vice president of diversity and communications at CBS, "Every network has a team of people devoted to raising the level of awareness for actors and writers. We're the bridge to producers and showrunners: 'I'd like to introduce you to this group of talents you may not be aware of.' "

The paradigm will improve as the people behind the cameras, the ones responsible for creating these shows, become more heterogeneous. But TV has never been a medium quick to adapt.

"What happens in Hollywood is you tend to recycle the writers who have had success," says Michael Lombardo, the president of programming at HBO. "That generally means middle-aged white guys, and they write about what they've experienced. It's easier to use them than take a bet on a fresh voice. It's a fear-based business."

But now networks and studios are having change thrust upon them by rapidly shifting demographics.

"Diversity is no longer a lofty goal," says Lombardo. "Where it used to be viewed as something you did for the higher good, it's now a business imperative."

NBC's Robinson concurs. "People want to consume content that has some relevance to their life," he says, "and the more we as an industry are able to depict that, the more people will want to consume that."

As Charlie Jordan Bookins, the senior vice president of original programming at BET, puts it: "If you reflect the audience and respect the audience, they will come."