How One Casting Director Made Television More Diverse

How One Casting Director Made Television More Diverse
First sight: Keli Lee’s family immigrated to the U.S. when she was 2, and she watched a lot of TV. “Even then, I was aware: This was not reflective of what I see every day,” she says. [Photo: Chloe Aftel]

This fall, ABC launched an unprecedented four prime-time series with nonwhite leads, adding to an already diverse lineup that includes Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, and Scandal. Keli Lee explains how she did it.

The problem

Network TV has long been a notorious whitewash. Lee first joined ABC in 1992, and eventu- ally began asking why its shows weren’t more diverse.The explanation she kept hearing: “It’s the talent pool.” That answer, however, was only partially correct.

The epiphany

It wasn’t the talent pool, she realized. It was the talent system. Producers contacted agents, agents represent experienced actors, and, on TV, all those actors were white. “If there are other people who are out there who want these opportunities,” Lee thought, “I’m in a position to help.”

The execution

In 2001, with support from top Walt Disney and ABC execs, Lee created a showcase for undiscovered actors of all colors to perform for the network’s producers and casting directors–thus changing the system. Before long, the network had a diverse roster of stars.

The result

“We still have work to do,” Lee says. But over time, the showcases’ effect has been felt throughout ABC’s lineup. This year, the network introduces more than new faces: Comedies Black-ish and Cristela are their creators’ first TV shows.FCS