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I asked about race on reality shows at the TV critics press tour. It didn't go well

<em>The Bachelor</em> producers Jason Ehrlich, Claire Freeland and Bennett Graebner answered questions at the TV Critics Association's winter press tour.
PictureGroup
/
Disney
The Bachelor producers Jason Ehrlich, Claire Freeland and Bennett Graebner answered questions at the TV Critics Association's winter press tour.

Just when you think the TV industry has learned an important lesson, something can happen to remind you that – in some corners of the business – progress is fleeting as chalk marks in a rainstorm.

Consider my recent experience quizzing producers from ABC's franchise The Bachelor/The Bachelorette during a press conference at the TV Critics Association's winter press tour.

I saw a rare opportunity to spark a meaningful conversation about race, with one question: Why does the show find it so difficult to handle race issues?

For years, I've covered how the dating competition has had few Black leads. Alumni Rachel Lindsay and Matt James have criticized how the show handled race during their seasons and a race-based controversy during James' season in 2021 led to the departure of longtime host Chris Harrison.

Producer Claire Freeland, who hadn't worked on those earlier editions of the show, spoke about what the program was trying to do now. But that wasn't answering the question, I insisted. Why has the show struggled on these issues in the past — particularly when Black people are the stars — and what might they have learned moving forward?

Neither Freeland nor fellow Bachelor producers Jason Ehrlich or Bennett Graebner said anything for about eight seconds. "I guess we have our answer," I noted; as the questioning moved on, some critics marveled at a silence that seemed to speak volumes.

Trade publications like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter did stories on their reaction and the producers tried to clean up the situation by talking to some reporters after the press conference. But that exchange reinforced my hunch that the show's producers have never found a way to grapple with how white-centered the show is, how difficult that centering makes it for people of color who appear on the program and how that failure leaves them unable to respond well when problems involving racial issues arise.

John Landgraf, chairman of FX Content & FX Productions, speaks at the 2024 Winter TCA press tour.
Frank Micelotta / PictureGroup/FX
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PictureGroup/FX
John Landgraf, chairman of FX Content & FX Productions, speaks at the 2024 Winter TCA press tour.

Or even when someone just asks about race.

For me, it's also part of a larger issue, where TV programmers have a tough time acknowledging problematic messages in their product – let alone eliminating them. It's a flashback to the bad old days many years ago, when TV casts and production staffs were even less diverse, and obvious questions about race brought the same, stunned silences.

And that's not all I learned during the press tour. Here are a few takeaways about TV that surfaced over my time in Los Angeles.

The apex of Peak TV may have passed, but there are still too many series on television

FX chairman John Landgraf's executive sessions at the press tour have emerged as a sort of State of Union for the TV industry, where the famously data-driven executive rolls out facts and figures to assess the trends ahead.

The good news for an industry drowning in content: Last year, the number of original series fell by 14% to 516 shows.

The bad news is that it still feels like too many series for most consumers to keep track of or for the industry to keep financing.

Speaking at a TCA session back in 2015, Landgraf described a phenomenon that became known as "Peak TV" to describe a situation where viewers were overwhelmed by the massive numbers of shows available – then at a measly 400 or so. His fear was that the industry was building a bubble that would burst in a rush, as programmers were forced to cancel masses of series unable to find audiences.

Instead, TV platforms have eased back their portfolios after reaching a historic high of 600 series in 2022. They've slowed production, canceled some shows, and even pulled completed programs off streaming services completely for tax benefits – as Wall Street investors demand online platforms show practical plans to turn a profit and the impact of last year's strikes in Hollywood plays out.

Still, as Landgraf admitted to me after his press conference, 516 shows are probably too many. Ensuring that great shows still find an audience – and the overall field remains diverse and open to creative voices of all types – is the tension that will continue to challenge executives like him for quite a while.

Even the people who make TV aren't sure where the industry is headed

If anything else jumped out during my discussions with TV executives, it's how unsettled people are by an unpredictable post-strike environment, tightening economic conditions (including layoffs at many media companies), and continuing uncertainty about what makes a series a hit.

Midlevel streaming services like Peacock and Paramount+ are feeling the squeeze, as big players like Disney+ and Netflix get bigger and smaller, boutique competitors focus tightly on their target audiences (small wonder, then, that the Wall Street Journal recently reportedthe two streamers have talked about joining forces or even a merger, days after Disney, Fox and Warner Bros. Discovery announced plans to team up on a sports streaming platform).

Meanwhile, the same media companies that yanked their prime library series from Netflix to keep it from dominating the future of TV have now begun licensing shows back to them – allowing programs like NBC's This Is Us, HBO's Six Feet Under and ABC's Lost. It feels like everyone is heading back to the future, repeating some of the same mistakes they made the first time.

Does this lead Landgraf, who warned years ago about the danger of ceding too much space to Netflix, to feel like the gigantic service won the streaming wars?

"I have always worried about Netflix's appetite [but] I wouldn't say that ... the streaming wars are over," he told critics, touting the online success of the company that owns FX, Disney. "I think every market functions better when it's not dominated by a single entity that then dictates the terms."

This means consumers can expect the fragmentation and uncertainty to remain – which might not be bad.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.