TOPICS > Nation > arts

Will ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ turn the tide for Asian Americans on TV?

February 14, 2015 at 4:48 PM EDT
The new ABC sitcom "Fresh Off the Boat" debuted to winning ratings and marked the first time in 20 years you could watch a network series centered on an Asian-American family. But will the popular sitcom clear the path for more exposure of Asian Americans in pop culture? NewsHour's Mori Rothman reports.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

MORI ROTHMAN: Like millions of Americans, Jeff Yang watched the recent premiere of “Fresh Off the Boat.” Yang is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal online and has written about Asian-American issues and America’s changing demographics for decades.

JEFF YANG: Asian-Americans are disproportionately educated, which means that there’s a growing middle-class and upper-middle class, white-collar population of Asian-Americans, affluent with disposable income.  The kind of demographic that marketers historically have been seeking to reach.

MORI ROTHMAN: According to the 2010 Census, which defines Asians as people originating from dozens of countries, including China, India and the Philippines, Asian Americans account for a small segment of the U.S. — just over 17 million people. But a Nielsen report on the Asian-American consumer says Asians are the fastest growing group in the U.S., having grown 58 percent from 2000 to 2013.

That’s why Yang believes TV lineups are diversifying. Networks made a splash last year by announcing 10 new shows this season with non-white characters or non-white show creators. But Yang is paying special attention to one show, and not just because he studies demographics. He’s watching for his son.

JEFF YANG: I can’t even claim to be a dispassionate observer here, and nor would I want to. You know, my son, of course, is the lead kid. He plays 11-year-old Eddie Huang in “Fresh Off the Boat.”

EDDIE HUANG, FRESH OFF THE BOAT: That’s me, your boy Eddie Huang, check it, 11-years-old…

JEFF YANG: I could never have imagined that it would be my offspring, the next generation who would be at the very center of a moment that I’ve kind of looked forward to for all of my adult life.

MORI ROTHMAN: In case you missed it, the debut of “Fresh Off the Boat” on ABC marked the first time in 20 years you could turn on your TV and watch a network show centered around an Asian-American family.

CONSTANCE WU, FRESH OFF THE BOAT: If you try to suspend our son because of this we will sue everyone in this school.

RANDALL PARK, FRESH OFF THE BOAT: …So fast it will make your head spin. Hey, it’s the American way right?

MORI ROTHMAN: The show is based on the memoir of Eddie Huang, a celebrity chef, restaurateur, and host of the web series Huang’s World on Vice.com.

The sitcom focuses on Eddie’s rough childhood and his parent’s struggles as immigrants trying to achieve the American dream by starting a Western-themed restaurant.

Even seeing one Asian American on TV used to be a rare occurrence until the arrival of actors like George Takei in Star Trek and Bruce Lee in the Green Hornet. But success in the sitcom world has been slow.

JODI LONG, FRESH OFF THE BOAT: Do you know why I encouraged your brother to become a cardiologist?

MARGARET CHO, FRESH OFF THE BOAT: No.

JODI LONG, FRESH OFF THE BOAT: Because I always knew that one day you give me a heart attack. What are you wearing?

MORI ROTHMAN: In 1994, All-American Girl starring Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho became the first network sitcom centered around an Asian-American family. But it was canceled after 21 episodes due to poor reviews and sinking ratings.

JEFF YANG: You know and I know that there’re a lot of things that go into the success of a television show, many reasons why you might imagine that a show might not work. But when you see something as singular as an Asian-American sitcom on television, when it doesn’t work it’s very easy to blame the fact that Americans don’t want to see an Asian.

MORI ROTHMAN: “Fresh Off the Boat” debuted to an audience of nearly eight million, when it followed ABC’s highly rated sitcom, “Modern Family” on a Wednesday night. This week- airing during its regularly scheduled Tuesday night time slot, “Fresh Off the Boat” had two million fewer viewers, but still beat competition like NBC’s long-running sitcom “Parks and Recreation.”

ERIC LIU: On the one hand, that seems like, wow, this is an incredible moment of progress. On the other hand, it underscores ways in which our mass, popular culture is still a lagging indicator, not a leading indicator. It follows a little bit behind what’s actually changing on the ground, in our lives, in our schools, and in our families.

SHARE VIA TEXT