In living color
As Fox News reels from scandal, Fox Network’s rising fall season is looking ‘Pitch’-perfect
Ginny Baker looks her catcher squarely in the eye.
She drags her leg across the pitcher’s mound and prepares to fire one over home plate.
A lot is at stake in this game. Baker is the first woman to break the Major League Baseball gender barrier. At Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres, a team that has never won a World Series, there are way more women at the stadium than at a typical MLB game.
Grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and small girls hold up handmade signs in support of Baker. Never before has a woman suited up for professional baseball — except, of course, during World War II, when the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League played in skirts, and was fictionalized in 1992’s well-executed A League of Their Own. In that film, there’s a quick, haunting scene in which a fly ball rolls into foul territory. A black woman picks it up, throws it straight and hard toward Geena Davis’ character Dottie. The moment acknowledges that while the creation of the AAGPB was major for white women, black women, with rare exception, were not ever allowed to play pro baseball, even in the Negro League era.
But Baker is black. She’s a great pitcher. And she’s doing in 2016 for women what Jackie Robinson did in 1947 for black people.
Here’s the thing, though: Baker isn’t a reality — yet.
This is a scene from new dramatic series from Fox Broadcasting Co. — Pitch. Starring Kylie Bunbury, Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Ali Larter, it’s one of the most anticipated new shows of the fall 2016 season. Fox — the commercial broadcast television network which is owned by the Fox Entertainment Group, and which, like Fox News Channel, is a subsidiary of Twenty-First Century Fox — is throwing itself back to the future. Fox Broadcasting, which was launched in 1986, has been here before, in the mid-‘9os, when black audiences congregated before chunky Trintrons and Magnavoxes for Martin, Living Single and New York Undercover, all of which featured black and multicultural casts, storylines, and music that was relatable to a black and multicultural viewership. Fox doesn’t believe it ever completely lost that audience; unscripted programming like American Idol, which appealed to a cross-section of viewership and eventually had a rotating cast of diverse judges, helped sustain it before they went back to black.
For its part, in the ’90s when NBC’s ratings (after riding The Cosby Show wave of the 1980s) were through the roof, the network featured The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96), but was most famous for its very popular, very white “Must See TV” lineup that over the decade featured iconic shows such as Seinfeld, Mad About You, Wings, Frasier and six white Friends who lived in a distinctly undiverse New York City. These shows were almost 100 percent white, even including guest stars, with few, notable exceptions. ABC spent the early ’90s winning the 18- to 49-year-old demographic with its TGIF comedy block that included shows such as Full House, Perfect Strangers and the long-running Family Matters, a series about a black working-class Chicago family. And one of CBS’ biggest 1990s hits was the highly honored Northern Exposure, a series about a New York City physician who practices in the small town of Cicely, Alaska — its diversity came from the native Alaskan characters on the show.
Fox News, also a subsidiary of Twenty-First Century Fox, was launched in 1996 by Rupert Murdoch with former Republican campaign operative (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush) and NBC executive Roger Ailes. Fox News was meant to function as an option to the then-thriving CNN. Last month, Ailes left Fox News under a cloud of scandal. Back in 2000, it was already turning into a stridently conservative “fear factory.”
Baker wasn’t black until Bunbury walked into the casting room.
“When we first auditioned — mainly white actresses — we realized how difficult a part this was,” said Rick Singer, executive producer of Pitch. “There were definitely points at which we weren’t sure we were going to find her. It turned into this sort of Scarlett O’Hara-type search. And then Kylie walked in the door. There was something about the way she carried herself. She walked in with the air of an athlete. We sat straight up in our chairs and prayed she was a good actress.”
She is a good actress — and she comes with a bonus. Bunbury has years of competitive soccer, basketball and running track under her belt. Her dad is Guyanese-born Canadian Alex Bunbury, a decorated professional soccer player in the Canadian men’s soccer team. Her brother is Teal Bunbury, a forward and winger in MLS. The show creators changed the character into a black woman and built a black family around her. Ginny’s dad, a former minor leaguer who never quite got to the majors, is portrayed by Boston’s own Michael Beach (Sons of Anarchy, The Game, The 100). Mo McRae (Murder In The First) plays Blip, an All-Star outfielder.
“Being able to look to these characters and watch them navigate these complex scenarios as they find success at greater levels is going to be good for people,” McRae said recently. “As a father to an African-American daughter … I’m so proud and excited about the idea of her getting to see such a positive image.”
Making Baker black also helped get MLB way on board. “Early on [series creator], Dan Fogelman went to the commissioner’s office and pitched him the idea of the show,” said Pitch executive producer Kevin Falls, who also was a co-executive producer for both Sports Night and The West Wing. The MLB is plagued by a lack of black interest in the sport. “They liked the idea of it, liked the inclusion of it. They liked, conceptually, the idea of a woman playing major league baseball.”
And the MLB is hopeful the show’s progressive take will help to reignite black interest in the sport: This is the first scripted drama with which the MLB has been officially in business. “Pitch is a chance to elevate MLB’s visibility and presence,” said Billy Bean, MLB’s vice president of social responsibility and inclusion. “There is an evolution … We have a new commissioner who understands that we need to listen to what speaks to our consumer. Historically, baseball was slow to change in many ways because we [were] America’s national pastime. If we’re going to move forward, and grow our sport and grow our audience … Commissioner Manfred is at the top of the list that understands we have to expand our thought process.” Commissioner Rob Manfred and his team do read scripts for authenticity. “To work in alignment with the show,” said Bean, “and to make it as believable as possible.” The series is being shot in and around several actual stadiums, and will feature real MLB players.
Falls adds that there is some risk, being so deeply embedded with the league. “We can’t just go off and tell stories that are controversial or reflect badly on their brands … but I’ve been heartened by the fact that … they let us wade into interesting stories. For instance … [in an upcoming episode] Ginny’s asked to comment on a rape on a college campus — those are topics that they’ve been OK with. It’s an ongoing relationship … and so far it’s been fabulous.”
Compared with years past, the entire fall 2016 television season lineup, across networks and platforms, is really, really black. But Fox is truly chocolate TV compared even with networks which in recent years have been leading the way with shows reflective of the world in which we all exist.
The Shonda Rhimes Effect — casts that look like America — gets realer and realer. Rhimes proved that having colorful casts would scale to a large audience. Her groundbreaking Grey’s Anatomy (ABC) premiered as a midseason replacement in 2005, and more than 10 seasons later, it’s still one of the most diverse shows on television. Though Rhimes herself balks at the word.
“I really hate the word ‘diversity’; it suggests something … other,” Rhimes said last year in an acceptance speech at the Human Rights Campaign Gala in Los Angeles. “As if there’s something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV. I have a different word: normalizing. I’m normalizing TV.”
ABC doubled down with Scandal (led by Kerry Washington) and also How To Get Away With Murder, in which Oscar-nominated Viola Davis earned an Emmy for her role last September, making her the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” Davis said as part of her acceptance speech. Twitter pretty much tilted.
What Rhimes did on ABC has had a far-reaching effect, but particularly on Fox. First, there’s Empire — which co-stars Oscar-nominated actors Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard. The amplified series focuses on the underworld of hip-hop music, and it was the network’s highest-rated series debut in three years with 9.8 million viewers that opening night. What happened next? Empire’s numbers grew. And grew. And grew.
And since its Empire success, the network has been busy green-lighting dramas that center on black families and black life. The network is premiering eight new dramas this year — and many of them are fronted by black actors. Returning this month are Rosewood (Morris Chestnut) and Empire (Henson and Howard). And new series include 24: Legacy (Corey Hawkins), and Lethal Weapon (Damon Wayans). Also, the Queen Latifah-fronted Star is a midseason show.
And Sanaa Lathan stars in Shots Fired. She’s had roles in FX’s Nip/Tuck, and Starz’s Boss, and Shots Fired is a very contemporary series about the aftermath of a racially-charged shooting in a small North Carolina town.
“I don’t want people to think that we just threw this out and we’re exploiting Black Lives,” said Lathan. “We’re not. They’ve been developing this for about five years now. It’s really relevant … It’s a multicultural piece. There are two black leads, this is the world that we live in. People want to see themselves reflected. The melting pot should be reflected when we turn the TV on. Period.” Gina Prince-Bythewood and her husband Reggie Rock Blythewood are the executive producers on Shots Fired. FOX is doing well behind the scenes too.
“I think this year, we’ve staffed about 148 ethnically diverse writers, producers, and directors,” said Terence Carter, executive vice president of drama development and programming at Fox. “On … Pitch, we’re doing 10 episodes … and eight out of the 10 will be directed by a female, and/or a diverse director. Eight out of 10, which is pretty remarkable.” Carter is the only black man in network TV with greenlighting power. Earlier this year, Channing Dungey was named the president of Disney-ABC Television Group, and made history by becoming the first black network president in history.
“Empire really set us on that path the last couple seasons and this season,” said Carter. “Fourteen out of 18 Empire episodes are directed by a female or diverse person. And Star, Lee Daniels’ new Atlanta-based show, has eight out of 13. Those are pretty staggering numbers in an area where a lot of years, you’re well below anything that would be reflective of the country.” Still, he thinks the network can do more. “But I’m incredibly proud. Everybody on this side feels good about the progress we’ve made, and also just the way that our shows look and feel right now.”
Paris Barclay is black — and he’s also the president of the Directors Guild of America. Barclay pulls double duty as a director (he directed the first episode) and as an executive producer for Pitch. For years, he’s been vocal about getting women and people of color behind the camera. “Behind the camera we have more women than men, and they happen to be all highly skilled. And … we’re going to end up with a better show because of this inclusive atmosphere that’s been promoted here.”
This current forestation of blackness at Fox Broadcasting Co. has roots. Reggie Rock Bythewood worked as a supervising producer on the much-loved Fox series New York Undercover (1994-1998). The hourlong show, which arrived the fall after the groundbreaking In Living Color was ending its four-year run, centered around two detectives — one black, one Latino. New York Undercover featured music executive Andre Harrell as an executive producer, and regularly attracted the hottest black music acts of mid-’90s as guest performers.
For the Bythewoods’ new Shots Fired, Fox made the best sense, because they find the network to be edgy and open to provocative content. “They realize diversity is not just like a great humanitarian cause. I think they recognize that it makes good business sense.”
That Fox the broadcasting network is edgy and multicultural in the thick of one of the most divisive elections in U.S. history stands out. Fox the cable news channel — politics aside — has yet to evolve even aesthetically amid critique. But who knows? There is talk of a “wholesale housecleaning” that may happen soonish at Fox News.
Later this month, Bunbury steps out on the pitcher’s mound that is Hollywood. All eyes on her, in her first leading role. Full count. The pressure is on. “We as a nation are going through a big transition,” she said. “There are a lot of glass ceilings that are being shattered …Women are starting to be a lot more vocal and … I think people are becoming a lot more open-minded and more conscious.” She’s a pitcher, but still: home run.