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Kerry Washington Effect: How TV Ditched Stereotypes to Make History

Image: Kerry Washington

Kerry Washington arrives at the Oscars on March 2 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Jordan Strauss / Invision via AP file

As Olivia Pope likes to remind us, she has “handled” many high-profile and life-altering situations on “Scandal.” But now, everybody’s favorite fictional fixer, played by Emmy-nominated actress Kerry Washington, has taken care of something else: the lingering void in the TV landscape for more characters like her.

For the first time in TV history, four African-American actresses have landed dynamic starring roles on broadcast network shows at the same time — all of them either Oscar winners or nominees.

Some are calling it the Kerry Washington Effect.

On Fox's “Red Band Society,” Octavia Spencer will play a no-nonsense nurse in charge of a pediatric ward where sick children live, while Taraji P. Henson plays a paroled drug dealer and mother on “Empire.” ABC has cast Viola Davis as a tough, mysterious criminal defense professor in “How to Get Away With Murder.” On NBC’s “State of Affairs,” Alfre Woodard is playing president of the United States, a ground-breaking role that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.

"I can tell you that it’s so exciting to hear people say, ‘Madame President,'" Woodard told NBC News in an interview.

Halle Berry, an Oscar winner, will beat them all to the small screen in July, starring in CBS’ series “Extant.” Berry plays an astronaut who returns home to her husband and son after a year-long solo mission.

Image: Academy Award winners and nominees Halle Berry, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Alfre Woodard will light up your TV’s this summer and fall headlining shows on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.
Academy Award winners and nominees Halle Berry, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Alfre Woodard will light up your TV’s this summer and fall headlining shows on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. CBS; ABC; FOX; FOX; Getty Images

Washington's intense portrayal of Olivia Pope, a brilliant strategist having an affair with the married president, has propelled ABC's "Scandal" to ratings success and made her one of Hollywood's most sought-after A-list stars. It would be a challenging feat for a television actress in any era, but it's even more noteworthy in light of the fact that Washington is the first African-American actress to lead a network drama series since 1974.

Washington's popularity has helped drive the point to television executives that audiences will embrace African-Americans as leading ladies, while showing other Hollywood stars where the quality roles are.

“['Scandal' creator] Shonda Rhimes has written such an amazing character in Olivia Pope,” said Spencer, who won an Oscar for "The Help" in 2012. “She isn’t held in certain constraints by the color of her skin. It’s one of the first times we get to see a woman of color not necessarily reduced to playing a character that is a woman of color, and that’s what we all want. We all want to do roles that aren’t defined by color or religion. So, this is a very, very exciting time.”

Just this year, a study by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies concluded that minorities and women are still wildly underrepresented on broadcast and cable television. The research, which focused on the 2011-2012 television season, studied 1,061 shows and revealed that only 5.1 percent of the broadcast lead roles belonged to minorities and 24.5 percent to women.

Rhimes addressed the medium’s dismal record in January when she and executive producer Betsy Beers accepted The Diversity Award from the Director’s Guild of America: “We’re a little pissed off because there still needs to be an award. Like, there’s such a lack of people hiring women and minorities that when someone does it on a regular basis, they are given an award.”

But just five months later, the TV landscape has shifted even for Rhimes, who now owns Thursday nights on ABC. She produces all three dramas that will air that night -- "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal," and "How to Get Away with Murder."

“I think when you put Viola Davis into a role, she’s going to add a whole lot and she’s going to bring something different than Taraji,” Spencer said. “She’s going to bring something different than myself, and than Alfre. And that’s what’s exciting. But I want to see this happen for women of color across the board because it’s hard. It’s hard enough to be seen in this town. I think the playing field is starting to feel as if it’s getting a little bit more level. But we’re not there yet.”

Image: Pictured L-R: Griffin Gluck and Octavia Spencer on Fox’s 'Red Band Society'
Griffin Gluck and Octavia Spencer on Fox’s “Red Band Society." Annette Brown / FOX

As an actor, Woodard says she follows the material that will challenge her in new ways. Her character, Constance Peyton, is the 45th U.S. president, a former California senator with military experience and business acumen.

“I don’t think that anybody that hired any one of us said, ‘You know what? I think African-American women need more representation,'” the Oscar nominee said. “If they thought that, if that was the kind of thinking they had, it would have happened long ago. Frankly, you have a pool of African-American women who are celebrated film actors and the film world perhaps isn’t going fast enough in making sure that they have the work that they deserve to have. Of course, we’re going to go where the thinking people are.”

It is true that ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee wasn’t specifically thinking of adding African-Americans to his line-up. But he did say this week before presenting the most diverse schedule of all to advertisers in New York City that “Scandal” showed him that TV viewers want the world they live in represented on their shows.

To that end, Lee also picked up two comedies starring Anthony Anderson and comedian Cristela Alonzo and another based on the life of Taiwanese-Chinese-American chef Eddie Huang. ABC will also air Oscar-winning director John Ridley's ("12 Years a Slave") highly anticipated exploration of race, "American Crime."

“We wanted to reflect the changing face of America,” Lee said during a press call. “We do think America has changed. We saw that in the election cycle, we see it in everything that’s happening.”

A study about viewing habits released by the Nielsen Company this week shows that African-Americans are 75 percent more likely to be "heavy TV viewers" than other groups and those who are "heavy viewers" watch an average of 917 minutes of TV per day. Additionally, a study released by Nielsen last year predicted that African-American buying power will hit $1.1 trillion this year. Those numbers explain a lot, says media analyst Brad Adgate.

“This whole thing is predicated on ratings,” Adgate said. “Younger viewers are more likely to be of various ethnic groups and more likely to watch shows that pick up on interracial or inter-faith relationships because they identify with that, and these shows tend to bring in younger viewers. This is the real world and this is the workplace and this is how people live, and one of the staples of a television series is that it’s something viewers can identify and relate with.”

Just last year, the film industry experienced a so-called “Black Renaissance,” with a record number of films by and about African-Americans, including the one that took home the Best Picture Academy Award, “12 Years a Slave.”

Lee Daniels, who directed one of those films, “The Butler,” has now co-created “Empire” for Fox. The hip-hop soap opera stars Oscar nominees Terrence Howard and Henson, who also co-starred in "Hustle & Flow."

“The great films of the ‘70s and ‘80s where people were actually able to talk about a subject matter that was raw and real got pulled back,” Daniels said in an interview with NBC News. “America became very conservative. I think that the African-American experience on TV is just part of the conservatism of where America is at as a whole, even though we have an African-American president. I would love to think that some of the films of last year helped pave the way for this shift but I think it’s just a matter of time. Do we simply want to see tentpole movies? Do we simply want to watch the easy TV shows? No!”

Image: Alfre Woodard as President Constance Payton
Alfre Woodard as President Constance Payton in NBC's "State of Affairs." Michael Parmelee / NBC

Daniels, who also directed “Precious,” had not heard that Woodard is playing the president of the United States on NBC. His reaction?

“I can’t take it! That’s hysterical. I love it!”