‘Dr. Ken’s’ Cancellation Could Mean Dark Times For Asian Americans in Television



Little did we know when Margaret Cho’s “All American Girl” debuted on ABC in September 1994 that we’d have to wait more than 20 years to get another Asian American family sitcom.  

It wasn’t for lack of effort. Since 1999, I’d been part of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC), which met annually with the top four television networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox) analyzing their hiring data and pushing them to cast Asian Pacific Islanders in more prominent roles.

In fact, since that time, they had greenlit only one series where an Asian American actor had been listed first in the credits (“Cashmere Mafia” starring Lucy Liu). So in the Fall of 2011, as co-chair of the APAMC, I told each of the Presidents and their VPs that I’d give them three years to air shows where we were the stars. And if they had a problem with the notion of an Asian face being the visual for their billboards, they’d better come to grips with that now because just being included in ensemble shows was no longer cutting it.

At the 2015 APAMC meeting with ABC: Guy Aoki (9th from left) and future ABC President Channing Dungey (10th from left).

“The Mindy Project” starring Mindy Kaling followed in 2012. In 2014, John Cho starred as the romantic lead in ABC’s “Selfie”.  Then in February 2015, the sun beamed as the clouds parted and angels sang: The Huangs finally broke through on “Fresh Off The Boat”. There was Emmy buzz for Constance Wu. “FOTB” became so successful that a mere eight months later, the same network premiered “Dr. Ken” starring Ken Jeong fronting another Asian American family, the Parks.

Fall 2015 was magical. Priyanka Chopra starred in the conspiracy drama “Quantico”, making it probably the first time in history Asian Americans had toplined as many as three series on the same network. On AMC, Daniel Wu starred in “Into the Badlands”.  On Netflix, Aziz Ansari headlined “Master Of None” (last year, he and producer Alan Yang even won the Emmy for best writing in a comedy series). And on the CW, Filipino American actor Vincent Rodriguez III was the love interest of the (Emmy-nominated) “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”.

On top of that, Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennet were listed second and third in the credits of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” on (you know it) ABC and Lucy Liu co-starred in “Elementary” on CBS.

We were now living in the best year of television for Asian Americans. EVER. And all of those shows were renewed!

But as we got closer to the upfronts in mid-May, where the networks announce next season’s schedule, it became clear that four of those ABC shows — all of which had tumbled in the ratings — were in danger of being cancelled: “Fresh Off The Boat”, “Dr. Ken”, “Quantico”, and “S.H.I.E.L.D”. So I asked Nielsen, the company that generates the ratings, to furnish me with numbers so I could make a statistical case for why each deserved to continue.

In a letter to ABC President Channing Dungey and her executives early Tuesday, I noted that in some measures, black households watched “FOTB” in greater proportion than Asian households! “Dr. Ken” beat 7 hour long shows in the 8:00 hour! “S.H.I.E.L.D.” increased its 18-49 audience (the group advertisers prefer over uh, older people) by a whopping 119% in 7 days of delayed viewing (Live+7). “Quantico” over-indexed with Asian American viewers. They’re 25% more lightly to watch the show in Live+Same Day, 18-49, and their median income is 41.9% higher than the average viewer, who makes $66,400!

At a September 2015 pre-screening of “Dr. Ken” at the Center for Democracy, Ken Jeong and Guy Aoki.

But Wednesday afternoon when “Dr. Ken’s lead-in, Tim Allen’s “Last Man Standing”, was unexpectedly cancelled (ABC’s highest-rated Live+7 show to be canned), I grew worried about Jeong’s sitcom. Yesterday afternoon, ABC announced it was ending that series too.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, “sources note producers did not even pitch a third season to the network.” A producer on the show had told me it was a good sign ABC hadn’t asked them of their plans for another season as it had at the end of the first one. Unfortunately, I think some wires got crossed: In a May 1st letter to ABC President Channing Dungey, I asked her to meet with the producers to hear their ideas. Guess it never happened.

The extended family of “Dr. Ken.” Top row: Ken Jeong, Suzy Nakamura and Krista Marie Yu. Bottom row: Albert Tsai, Clyde Kusatsu, Jeanne Sakata, Alexis Rhee, and Dana Lee.

“S.H.I.E.LD.” was renewed, but ABC sources told The Hollywood Reporter that “FOTB” only had a “50/50” chance of returning! What?! How could we be losing the important Asian American shows that quickly?

Is this the end of the dream?  

Despite the snarky character Ken Jeong tends to play, there was a lot of heart in “Dr. Ken”.  It was great to see an Asian American family where both parents were American-born, where gay couples were encouraged to work through their differences and gay marriage was celebrated. In the first season when Dr. Park got down on his knees to re-propose to his wife (Suzy Nakamura), he suddenly burst into tears. I was shocked and deeply moved. The recent episode addressing breast cancer (which his real life wife Tran had) was also well done. As an executive producer, Jeong also cast Asian American men as romantic interests and delved into cultural issues.

As I wrote Dungey, “The odds of one network airing not one but two Asian American family shows simultaneously are astronomical.” I didn’t want us to lose ground. But now we have. And NBC declined to pick up Kourtney Kang’s family sitcom about growing up half Korean/half white.   

As we went to press, the fates of “FOTB” and “Quantico” haven’t been announced. We’ll know for sure Tuesday if not sooner. Keep hope alive?…

Guy Aoki is the Founding President of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) the first all-volunteer, non-profit organization solely dedicated to monitoring the mass media and advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans.  For almost 25 years, he wrote the “Into the Next Stage” media column for the Rafu Shimpo and for 17 years wrote syndicated radio shows for Dick Clark.

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