Watchdog group calls for more Asian, Pacific Islanders on CBS' 'Magnum, P.I.' reboot

The Media Action Network for Asian Americans is condemning CBS’ upcoming reboot of "Magnum P.I." for featuring too few Asian/Pacific Islanders and is calling on the show’s executive producer, Peter Lenkov, to be replaced.

Lenkov, who is CBS’ most prolific writer-producer, also is the EP on "Hawaii Five-0," another reboot set in the Aloha State that MANAA says has been “white-washed.”

A spokesperson for the network said: “While we respect the work that MANAA does to foster Asian/Pacific Islander (API) inclusion in entertainment, their statement does not accurately reflect the current status of 'Magnum P.I.' or CBS. 'Magnum' has two API series regulars among an inclusive cast. Additionally, one-third of all the directors on 'Magnum' are API,” including Justin Lin, who directed the pilot.

The spokesman also noted that, on all its shows for the 2018-19 season, “69% of our series regulars will be people of color, women, LGBTQ characters and performers with disabilities. Additionally, people of color and women will represent 46% of our writers, and 43% of directed episodes. These numbers have increased from last year and steadily over the last five years. CBS is proud of the advances we have made to create more inclusion on all of our shows, and we are fully committed to continue improving in this area.”

"Magnum P.I.," which stars Jay Hernandez in the role of Thomas Magnum, is one of the few network shows with a leading man of Mexican descent. It co-stars Stephen Hill, who is African-American; Perdita Weeks and Zachary Knighton, who are Caucasian; Tim Kang, a Korean-American; and Amy Hill, an American of Japanese descent.

MANAA president Rob Chan acknowledged that “the show is diverse” but told Deadline that “oftentimes, Asians are left out of the diversity discussion, and for a show that takes place in a locale that is majority Asian, to have the main leads not to be Asian is offensive.”

Citing Hollywood’s “overall lack of opportunities for Asian American actors,” he said: “We generally want a show to reflect the demographics it’s in. The show takes place in Hawaii, which is majority Asian, but if you look at the four stars, there’s no Asians reflected there. In fact, in the trailer, Jay Hernandez refers to four people by name, and none of them are Asian. We feel that time and time again there is a pattern of exclusion. And while some supporting cast may be Asian, they often times do not get as much screen time as the leads.”

Chan acknowledged that he has not seen an episode of the show, which premieres September 24.

MANAA and the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition have had a problem with Lenkov ever since CBS rebooted "Hawaii Five-O" in 2010. MANNA says it has spent “countless hours” in research and conversations with the network about “the offensive way” he cast Asian/Pacific Islander guest stars “mostly as suspects and villains.” According to MANAA, “In its eight seasons (193 episodes), every guest star who tags along with the team to catch the bad guy has been either white or black – except once when she was Asian.”

In December, after CBS bought Lenkov’s pilot script for "Magnum P.I.," Chan wrote a letter to CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl and CBS senior EVP programming Thom Sherman expressing his concern over the network’s plans to revive the show. “When it was on the air in the ‘80s,” Chan told them, “locals joked that it was a series that apparently took place on a previously unknown ninth Hawaiian island that had no Asian people living on it.

“We think it’s imperative,” he told the network execs, “that you hire an Asian/Pacific Islander to star as Thomas Magnum, and that the majority of the cast are Asian/Pacific Islanders. In the history of television, no series set in Hawaii has ever starred an Asian/Pacific Islander, despite the fact that they make up 60% of the state’s population. This would be a great opportunity for your new version of Magnum to be the pioneering show to shatter that racial barrier.”

He also told them that MANAA is “very disappointed that Peter Lenkov will be the showrunner for this potential series. As we have outlined in a previous letter, MANAA, APAMC, and CBS have had to spend a lot of time, energy, and resources to help "Hawaii Five-O" better reflect the population of the 50th state because Lenkov did not demonstrate the best of intentions towards that goal in the first place.”

According to MANAA: “Kahl didn’t respond. Instead, he greenlit 'Magnum P.I.'“

Much of Chan’s letter to Kahl was spent outlining the many problems MANAA and APAMAC had had with Lenkov on "Hawaii Five-O." “Beyond casting Asian/Pacific Islanders Chin Ho Kelly and Kono Kalakaua – characters first established as such in the original 1968-1980 series – he assigned the role of Max Bergman to Masi Oka. However, each succeeding regular Lenkov added were non-APIs: a Caucasian woman, an African American man, and a Latino man. He also kept adding new unofficial Caucasian regulars, who often got more screen time than the API regulars.”

In the fall of 2011, founding MANAA president Guy Aoki and Marilyn Tokuda, who then were co-chairs of the APAMC, had a meeting with several CBS officials to discuss their concerns. During that meeting, Aoki told them that Lenkov had told the producer of "The River" – an ABC show that also shot in Hawaii – that “we’re cleaning up Hawaii. We’re making it look like Beverly Hills.”

Lenkov, however, flatly denies that claim. A spokesman for Lenkov said “he never met a producer from 'The River' and never made that statement.”

Chan wrote that it was only after a conference call in summer 2015 with CBS execs that Aoki “began to see some changes” on "Hawaii Five-O." “Still, at the most recent APAMC meeting with CBS,” Chan said in his letter, “we relayed Guy’s experience of talking to a guest Asian/Pacific Island actor who was told by the driver taking her to the set that he was used to driving in blonde extras from the airport. Extras who didn’t speak. It seemed evident that Lenkov didn’t feel Hawaii looked Caucasian enough.”

Since then, Chan wrote, “not much has changed” on "Hawaii Five-O." “Some of these Asia/Pacific Island actors appeared onscreen for less than a minute, while other API cast regulars “didn’t appear at all.”