When The Talk off its fourth season last month, Julie Chen helped to juice ratings by exposing a long-gossiped-about secret — that she had had plastic surgery to change her ”Asian eyes.” The 43-year-old host talked candidly about how she ultimately acceded to a ”big-time agent” who urged her to make her eyes look bigger. ”Members of my family wanted to disown me if I got it done,” said Chen. ”I struggle with ‘Wow. Did I give in to the Man and do this?”’ It wasn’t the only difficult revelation from a host that week: Aisha Tyler discussed her heartbreaking infertility problems, and Sheryl Underwood talked about a violent incident between her parents. It turned out to be the highest-rated — not to mention the most compelling — week in The Talk’s three-year history. And more important, it’s a week of programming that never would have happened if daytime hadn’t (finally) become so diverse.
Whereas prime-time shows still struggle in their efforts to cast minorities in high-profile roles (we long for the day when legends like Diahann Carroll won’t have to take the Emmy stage to remind voters that it’s been a long time since they honored a black series lead), daytime TV, in stark contrast, is now more diverse than ever. Five of the 10 most popular shows in daytime so far this fall (Live! With Kelly and Michael, Today, The View, The Talk, and The Chew) are multiethnic, while an additional four in the top 25 (Kathie Lee & Hoda, Steve Harvey, The Wendy Williams Show, and The Trisha Goddard Show) are headlined by persons of color (and, well, Kathie Lee Gifford). At the same time, Queen Latifah and Cedric the Entertainer have enjoyed strong debuts this fall with an eponymous talk show and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, respectively, and Oscar winner Mo’Nique (Precious) has reportedly entered talks with ABC about developing her own chatfest for next season. And let’s not forget the huge strides made by daytime dramas, which have always been better than their prime-time counterparts at giving their fans diverse characters to love.
The decision to become more relevant has certainly paid off in viewership: More African-Americans than ever are tuning in to daytime. The syndicated show Live!, for example, reports a 6 percent increase in black women between the ages of 25 and 54 since Michael Strahan settled in opposite Kelly Ripa in 2012, while CBS’ The Talk enjoyed an 8 percent jump in that same demographic with the welcome presence of Tyler and Underwood, who both joined the show in its second season in 2011.
Ask any executive to address the diversity trend and the answers will sound both rehearsed and more than a tad predictable: The lineup should reflect society! Audiences want to see themselves on TV! But the reasons for the new moves in daytime aren’t simply about achieving racial parity. ”Kudos to the people who are catching up to reflect culture properly,” says Holly Jacobs, an executive vice president at Sony Pictures Television, which produces The Queen Latifah Show. ”But talent is the ruler of how decisions are made.” Daytime is more personality-driven than prime time, so execs aren’t paying lip service when they say they want celebrities who reach the broadest swath of people. Witness the legacy of Oprah Winfrey — who attracted wide audiences by the sheer force of her personality — and the enduring success of Maury Povich, who, at the ripe old age of 74, remains the most popular talk-show host in African-American homes with his 22-year-old series Maury. ”We are never just looking to fill a quota,” says Angelica McDaniel, head of CBS Daytime. ”It’s a skill set that’s required to reengage, to entertain, to inform. It transcends race.” Still, getting past race has clearly helped to more accurately represent it.