Of the total TV audience, 13.5% is now African American and 12.2% is Latino, but you wouldn't know that from channel surfing. Besides "Lost," only "ER," "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: SVU" give minority characters story lines with impact and meaning beyond their ethnicity, said Doug Alligood, senior vice president of special markets for BBDO Worldwide, who monitors viewing habits for advertisers. ABC's "Desperate Housewives," though set in white, upper-class suburbia, has Eva Longoria in a leading role where she is "allowed to play Latina, which is refreshing," he added.
The trick now, as "Lost" has shown, is to acknowledge in your storytelling the realities of an increasingly multicultural world while avoiding a big song-and-dance routine around your characters' diversity.
On "The West Wing" this season, Jimmy Smits, who is of Puerto Rican and Suriname descent, has joined the cast as a three-term Houston congressman running for president.
"We're not making a big deal about it because if you call attention to it in an overt fashion and try to make that what your story is about, I think you do a disservice to the whole idea," Wells said. "Honestly, I think it's more of a problem for those of us over 40. Younger people in this country are not identified by racial identity. The argument before was always that there haven't been successful shows with multicultural casts. But that's not true anymore. The most successful shows are the shows that portray this. It's a marketplace and the product will follow what is successful."
"People do come with baggage, but you don't always have to talk about people's background," Perrineau said. "We don't always have to find the things that keep us separate. If this show continues to explore that idea, and not exploit it, I think we will become a model for future shows. If they don't, we'll wind up looking like every other show."
With its Iraqi romantic hero, for example, "Lost" offers a lesson in gutsy character development; most television executives would reject an Iraqi character of any kind, said Alligood.
"If this show says anything it's that it's got to be about people and not about filling quotas," said Naveen Andrews, who plays Sayid, the sexy, techno-savvy Iraqi Republican Guardsman. "It's about people and soul. It's important to show that people who are not white can be attractive, romantic and heroic. Hollywood always insults the intelligence of the audience, and I fail to see the merit in that. At the risk of sounding like somebody from 1968, I think that to move forward we have to mix or we're not going to make it, man."