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2006 saw a jump from 17 to 24 Asian faces cast in regular roles on prime time television shows. With shows like Heroes, Lost, and Grey's Anatomy, is diversity becoming more mainstream?
Each year, the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC) does a report on the status of Asian Pacific American actors that are represented in television. Specifically, they take the four major networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX -- and they grade them according to quantity. Most years, the report basically tells us what we already know -- there aren't very many Asians on TV. Last year specifically, the Asian American Justice Center reported that even though Asians make up five percent of the population in the US, only 2.6 of the character regulars on television were Asian. And, although those number might seem dismal, they were even worse the year before. And the year before that.
While Asian Americans have had great successes in areas such as science, medicine, and engineering, they still have yet to make a mark in film and television. And being a part of the media is so important in terms of truly integrating ourselves into the fabric of American culture.
"While it's true that 40% of the doctors coming out of medical school are of Asian descent, [they] don't really exist in the minds of many people unless [they're] on ER," says Slanted Screen director Jeff Adachi. "Political power is often defined by the reach one has to shape one's image or the perceptions of other people. If Asian Americans are excluded from popular culture and media, then we are excluded from society and access to it.
Hence the frustration. Hence the criticism and scrutiny.
This year though, APAMC reported that the numbers of APA actors cast in starring roles has jumped from 17 in the 2005/6 season to 24 in the 2006/7 season. Though president Karen K. Nagasaki was hesitant to celebrate in the official statement -- namely because the number of writers and producers of Asian descent actually plummeted 27 percent -- the numbers seemed to represent a noticable change.
The most high-profile addition came with the show Heroes and its stars Masi Oka and Sendhil Ramamurthy. Arguably the biggest new hit of the TV season, Heroes had everyone in a frenzy about saving the cheerleader (and the world), and Masi Oka became an unlikely (but welcome and beloved) celebrity in his own right. Nominated for a Golden Globe, he's become part of public discourse because of the show, and his appeal shows that the public will embrace an appealing character, even if he doesn't speak English.
In terms of Asian American representation, having the Masi Okas and Sendhil Ramamurthys on a popular show leads to more opportunities for other minority actors in the spotlight. In this case, Oka's character Hiro has a friend in Japan: Ando, played by James Kyson Lee. Meanwhile, Hiro has a subplot involving his father, so they bring in George Takei. It's a testament to the producers and creators that they design these characters who are specifically from India and Japan, which enables combinations and possibilities that have rarely been explored on mainstream television before.
Diversity. It's a similar tactic employed by Lost, another ensemble cast where characters from different types of environments and backgrounds are forced to work together.
Will this trend continue? Are networks starting to realize that diversity can be profitable and make for interesting, unique stories? Or are they just repeating a formula that they realize has been successful in the past?
Lost fans may be discouraged to see the show focusing more on the Kate-Sawyer-Jack story while cutting out other actors' (including but not exclusive to Naveen Andrews, Daniel Dae Kim, and Yunjin Kim) screentime in attempts to secure ratings. But something like Heroes is a different show, and a potentially different kind of development.
Even if it is just a formula, it's nice to see the formula give opportunities to minority actors who may not have had this type of venue to express themselves a mere five years ago. What's impactful is that there's a new generation watching these shows as if this diversity is the norm. These characters each have families and friends, and all of the sudden, Asian Americans are bursting into the public consciousness. It'll be interesting to see where this takes us.
While the Heroes, Losts, and Grey's Anatomies are examples of prominent Asian American roles in the media, what's also notable is the increasing number of Asian faces on TV, even if they aren't the main stars. With a study that only takes regular featured characters in prime time shows into consideration, there may be a part of the greater picture that is overlooked.
Flipping around the channels, Asian faces did seem to pop up a lot, often in subtle ways. One could argue that Grey's Anatomy especially does a great job with diversity when it comes to the individual stories of patients that these cast members interact with. Asian faces and mixed race couples galore. Meanwhile, on another show, the "hot doctor" a woman tries to pick up in a bar happens to be an Asian male. Little details like that. Might not shatter any glass doors, but it's notable.
And in terms of television, one thing we've noticed here at APA is that each time we see another Asian face on TV, it gets less and less exciting.
Oddly enough, that's progress.
Here are some of the people who have been acting in prime time television in 2006.
Sandra Oh - Grey's Anatomy
Lost - Naveen Andrews, Daniel Dae Kim, Yunjin Kim
Bobby Lee - Mad TV
Ravi Kapoor - Crossing Jordan
Parminder Nagra - ER
BD Wong - Law and Order: SVU
Grace Park - Battlestar Galactica
Keiko Agena - Gilmore Girls
Emily Kuroda - Gilmore Girls
Kristin Kreuk - Smallville
Mindy Kaling - The Office (also a writer/producer)
Michaela Conlin - Bones
Maulik Pancholy - Weeds (also on 30 Rock)
Navi Rawat - Numb3rs
Brenda Song - The Suite Life of Zach and Cody
Archie Kao - CSI
New this year:
Sendhil Ramamurthy - Heroes
Masi Oka - Heroes
Alec Mapa - Half and Half (also guested on 3 episodes of Desperate Housewives)
Ming-na - Vanished
Gwendoline Yeo - Desperate Housewives
Maulik Pancholy - 30 Rock
Suzy Nakamura - Help Me Help You
Samantha Leigh Quan - Three Moons Over Milford
Will Yun Lee - Thief
Lindsay Price - Pepper Dennis
Brian George - Saved
Moon Bloodgood - DayBreak
Ivan Shaw - Book of Daniel
Smith Cho - Emily's Reason's Why Not
Michelle Ongkingco - Gilmore Girls
Tzi Ma - 24
Camille Chen- Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Lakshmi Manchi- Las Vegas
Lauren Tom - Men in Trees
Eric Byler's My Life DisOriented on PBS
World Cookbook Award winner Padma Lakshmi hosts Bravo's Top Chef 2
Kelly Hu in In Case of Emergency
John Cho, Sheetal Sheth and Lynne Chen in The Singles Table
This year's APA coverage of Asian Americans and TV:
Update (February 15, 2007):
Some more actors who had been inadvertantly omitted from this list.
Rekha Sharma - Battlestar Galactica
Sulekha Mathew - Men in Trees
Anjul Nigam - Grey's Anatomy
Date Posted: 1/12/2007