Why Does Everyone Know Who Lena Dunham Is But Shonda Rhimes Barely Registers A Blip?
First a disclaimer: I am not a regular viewer of Girls or Scandal. I watched the first season of Scandal but it got to be a little too much for my tastes. Girls seems designed, content-wise, to specifically repel me.
With that out of the way, I think it’s odd that we get so much media attention directed towards Lena Dunham, the creator of Girls, and hardly any coverage of Shonda Rhimes. Dunham has created a successful show on HBO, a pay-tv channel. By comparison, Rhimes is the lead creator behind three very successful hit shows on network television – Scandal, Private Practice, and Grey’s Anatomy.
Take a look at this chart from Google Trends. Rhimes barely registers.
I think this might be slightly less glaring if Rhimes’ body of work was mostly Private Practice and Grey’s Anatomy, which are more traditional programs. But while Scandal is sort of a procedural, it has at its heart an interracial affair between an accomplished black woman and the white President of the United States. That feels far more outside of the traditional TV box than a story about New York-based hipsters (as I’d describe them, at least).
Let’s look at the ratings. As Deadline.com notes here, Girls got about 3.8 million viewers in its first season – about the same as Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Veep, which hasn’t received nearly the same amount of hype. And that’s on the same network.
In the most recent ratings I could find, Scandal had 8 million viewers (good enough to be the #2 show in its time slot), while Grey’s Anatomy had 8 million as well.
So Scandal has twice the audience, for what I’d argue is a more unconventional premise.
Also, there are not many minorities running network TV shows, let alone black women with shows that have multi-ethnic casts.
Yet, it’s Dunham who is on the cover of Rolling Stone this week, for a show that has been criticized for its dearth of minority characters even though it’s set in America’s most multiethnic city.
Part of this is how the elitist-minded media prefers to cover their own (they have more in common with Dunham and her characters than they do with Rhimes and hers, particularly Olivia Pope), never mind that the raw numbers favor Rhimes.
It’s also possible that one show is of higher quality than the other, but since when has the quality of entertainment ever had that much of an effect on media coverage? A lot of crap television gets coverage from the rest of the media.
In my opinion, this is at least part of the elite media disregarding the impact of minority media. You see it when Tyler Perry releases a movie and it makes a huge amount of money by appealing to a middle class minority audience, yet other, less successful white filmmakers get a lot more coverage. And I HATE Tyler Perry’s movies (honestly, For Colored Girls is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen in my life and I saw Freddy Got Fingered.)
As I wrote a few months ago, we also saw this in the media coverage of the election, where the mainstream press had no idea what Obama was doing appealing to audiences on urban radio and in Latino media, yet that helped him to appeal to those key constituencies in a manner that helped him to win re-election.
I don’t think a lot of this is done out of obvious malice, but a more subtle form of myopia. If “everyone” you know is talking about Girls, you think it’s important enough to cover no matter the underlying reality.
What’s the overall point? I think the media needs to get out of its comfort zones on these things. Yes, you guys cover Dunham because she has the HBO/New York/college thing going on, but your audience, — at least a significant and growing portion of it — doesn’t share that world view and experience. They’re watching other things that they are either more interested in or have more in common with (despite my feelings about Scandal, it has clearly shown that there’s a segment of America that wants to see professional minorities like them and not just the usual pimp or prostitute caricatures – or the now-tired black police chief).
Your potential audience is bigger than you think, but it’s also more diverse than you are assuming.