WHY THIS MATTERS: Networks are working hard to be more diverse with their series, and CBS’s fall rookies show the network is serious.
It was a much-different look for CBS’s primetime when the network showed off new programs at the TCA Summer Press Tour last month. CBS has made a point of increasing diversity on both sides of the camera, and shows such as the series Happy Together, God Friended Me and The Neighborhood all have African-Americans in the lead role, while drama Magnum P.I. features a Latino actor as the show’s namesake.
Contrast CBS’s summer TCA sessions with those two years before, when then-entertainment president Glenn Geller fielded a barrage of pointed queries from reporters asking why the network was so darn white. Geller pointed to minority cast additions and directors, but acknowledged that CBS needed to do more in terms of cast leads and showrunners. “We need to do better and we know it,” Geller said.
To be sure, it’s a difficult time for CBS. Leslie Moonves, chairman and CEO of CBS Corp., stepped down after reports of sexual wrongdoing. Jeff Fager, longtime executive producer of 60 Minutes, exited after threatening a CBS News reporter who was looking into allegations of harassment against Fager.
Outreach Pays Off
But the steps CBS has made in diversifying its prime are a source of pride. “Between our writers’ and directors’ programs, and actors’ showcase, we’re absolutely starting to see benefits from all that right now,” CBS entertainment president Kelly Kahl said.
Kahl said the diversity gains did not happen overnight. A couple of months after Geller was pilloried at TCA, CBS debuted a drama diversity casting initiative. Part of the CBS Diversity Institute, the program aims to reach untapped talent around the country, including areas “with limited access to industry professionals,” and steer them to a screen test in Los Angeles. The initiative targets underrepresented groups and individuals, CBS said.
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i, CBS executive VP of entertainment diversity, inclusion & communications, said the writers, directors and actors programs offer “access to the pipeline” for minority aspirants. “We were intentional and we were very forthright,” she said. “Almost every pilot was inclusive from the jump this particular season.”
The percentage of inclusive series regulars on CBS’s scripted shows is up 6% this year, according to the network, and 19% over the last five years. (Inclusive counts women, people of color, LGBTQ actors and those with disabilities.) Inclusive writers are up 5% this year, and 9% over the last five years. SWAT, God Friended Me, The Neighborhood and The Red Line all have at least 50% people of color in their writers’ room.
Fully 43% of all CBS scripted episodes are directed by women or people of color, with God Friended Me leading with 85% and The Neighborhood at 67%.
The critics have noted the network’s diversity drive. “I think they are making efforts to have more diversity,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette TV critic Rob Owen said.
Having more minority producers, Kahl noted, means more minority writers and producers get hired. He mentions Aaron Thomas, executive producer on SWAT, coming out of the diversity writers’ program, then hiring others out of the program. “We try to bake it into every step of the process,” Kahl said. “When we hear a pitch or read a script, we’re thinking about inclusion in front of and behind the camera.”
CBS debuts Magnum P.I., starring Jay Hernandez, on Sept. 24. God Friended Me, about an atheist who gets a social-media friend request from God, premieres Sept. 30. Brandon Micheal Hall stars. The Neighborhood, about an outgoing white family who moves into a traditionally African-American neighborhood in Los Angeles, debuts Oct. 1. Cedric the Entertainer has the lead. Happy Together, about an accountant and his wife who have a wildly famous pop star move into their house, starts Oct. 1. Damon Wayans plays the accountant.
Will Viewers Show Up?
Of course, the new series need substantial viewership to stay on the air and inspire a subsequent wave of minority talent to come on board. CBS had won the season-long total-viewers crown for nine years running, but it was NBC that took both adults 18-49 and total viewers from September 2017 to September 2018. “The real success is when we turn those shows into hits,” Kahl said.
That is more of an if than a when. “The $100,000 question is whether viewers will tune in,” Owen said.
CBS isn’t yet where it should be in terms of diversity in primetime, Kahl admitted. “We’re not patting ourselves on the back,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”