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Why The TV Networks Need More Olivia Popes

4A's Panel Says Adding Diverse Content Could Boost Ratings

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Adding diversity in TV content might be the ticket for networks looking to boost ratings, according to Lisa Torres, president of ZenithOptimedia's multicultural group.

Kerry Washington stars in
Kerry Washington stars in "Scandal"

Ms. Torres and crisis communications executive Judy Smith - she inspired the Olivia Pope character played by Kerry Washington on ABC's "Scandal" - dissected the topic of diversity on TV during a panel moderated by Sallie Mars, senior VP-chief diversity officer at McCann Worldgroup.

Following a short clip of "Scandal," Ms. Mars asked if writers in Hollywood like Shonda Rhimes are changing "the way we watch TV." Ms. Torres said, "They naturally write for a world they see, and for a multicultural audience. It's not deliberate, which makes it authentic."

"It's creating buzz because it's ABC, and it's what NBC has to do now that it's the fifth network behind Univision," she added. "NBC should start to diversify since it needs to get its numbers back up."

But it's not just about adding hiring multicultural actors. "The brilliance of the characters coming out is that they're not wearing their ethnicity straight up," she said. "People know little cultural cues as part of an ingrained persona that just flows out of the show naturally."

Ms. Smith pointed to an example of a "cultural cue" during an episode of "Scandal" when Olivia Pope mentioned blow-drying and suppressing her hair. "It was a small thing, but people went wild. It's not an African-American show."

So why are these characters important to media buyers and marketers? "The composition of an audience can drive what we pick," said Ms. Torres. "If diversity of audience is what I want to look for, that composition will drive which show I pick."

For some agencies, she added, that composition might be a means to break the tie among networks that tout the same ratings figures. When asked if she's seen a bump for advertising on shows popular with multicultural audiences, she said, "not a bump, but a connection."

"Culture is big piece. People want to see themselves or a better version of themselves on a screen," she said. "When they see things tailored to that they're more likely to pick that [product] in a store."

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