Diversity in Primetime: A Work in Progress

Nearly 15 years after the broadcast networks promised to create more ethnic and gender balance, the numbers still show a gap between audience and industry makeup
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The annual Directors Guild Awards ceremony is always a tony affair. It isn’t televised, so it’s looser than most awards shows. This year, the Jan. 26 event ran four-and-a-half hours as Steven Soderbergh got a standing ovation for a surprise Behind the Candelabra win and host Jane Lynch fired off several good lines.

Shonda Rhimes used her DGA moment for something else entirely, which also drew an ovation: diversity. The Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy creator was onstage to receive a diversity award from the guild, but her speech took aim at the honor’s very existence.

“We’re a little pissed off because there still needs to be an award,” said Rhimes, who was saluted along with producing partner Betsy Beers. “Like, there’s such a lack of people hiring women and minorities that when someone does it on a regular basis, they are given an award. It’s not because of a lack of talent. It’s because of a lack of access. People hire who they know. If it’s been a white boys club for 70 years, that’s a lot of white boys hiring one another.”

No matter who works behind the scenes, though, one thing is clear: television is not being broadcast to a nation of white boys. In June 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that the nation’s racial minority population had grown to 37% of the total—up from 30% in 2000. Appealing to that increasing audience is not just a tweak to media companies’ strategies. It’s a business necessity.

“When you talk about diversity, it’s not a black thing, it’s not a white thing—it’s a green thing,” said Adam Moore, national director, equal employment opportunities and diversity, SAG-AFTRA. “Slowly but surely [the broadcast networks are] realizing the dollars and the eyeballs are coming from an incredibly diverse population. And folks are tired of watching the same-old, same-old— whether we’re talking about age or gender or ethnicity or LGBT or disability. Audiences are savvier and are less willing to put up with things that they find to be unrealistic or not reflective of the world around them.”

The statistics don’t yet reflect that appetite, however, at least according to GLAAD’s annual “Where We Are on TV” study, which looks at principal characters expected to appear in network primetime in the forthcoming fall season. The study found the percentage of racially or ethnically diverse characters on-screen has held steady, at either 22% or 23%, in each of the last four years, well below the actual population level.

Nevertheless, the tallies are far higher than the levels in 1999, when the Big Four presented fall lineups that featured zero principal characters of color. The NAACP responded at the time with threats of advertiser boycotts and civil suits, compelling the networks to create diversity departments within their organizations. The initial mandates for those departments were unclear, especially in an industry where show creators—and the fiefdoms they rule—wield significant power.

“Ultimately the executive producers want to be the final word on casting for their shows, and want to be the final word on who’s in the writers rooms,” said Eric Deggans, NPR TV critic and author of the 2012 book Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation. “How can the vice president of diversity have influence? I think it took a while for that to work itself out.”

Making a Change

Recognizing the clout of writers in TV, diversity execs have emphasized writers programs as vital tools, with each network operating more than one.

“It doesn’t really matter if you only have diverse storytellers in terms of the people who are on camera,” Moore said. “You also need to have diverse stories for them to tell.”

The Writers Guild of America, West tracks diversity among TV writers through studies released every two years covering broadcast and cable. The WGA’s 2013 TV Staffing Brief found that 15.6% of staff writers in the 2011- 12 season were people of color, up from 7.5% during the 1999-2000 season. Women made up 30.5% of writing staffs in 2011-12, up from 25% in 1999-2000. The WGA also found that in 2011-12, 18.6% of all executive producers were women and 7.8% were people of color. The GLAAD study, meanwhile, found that in the current television season, 3.3% of all characters were identified as LGBT.

Kevin Reilly, Fox entertainment chairman, was asked about diversity at the TCA press tour in January and identified both bright spots and challenges. “Look, I’m sorry we even have to have the discussion in 2014,” he said. “But I can tell you, our senior executive ranks are more diverse than any other broadcast network in town. And I can also tell you that right now, if you look at the complexion of our on-air casts, they’re more diverse than we’ve ever had before and I think they’re finally reflecting society.” He then added that the network still has “some work to do” behind the scenes.

Here is a closer look at the work in progress across the broadcast landscape in the area of diversity both on- and off-screen:

ABC

According to the WGA, ABC ranked second among the Big Four in 2011-12 in writers of color (15.8% of total staff writers) and first in female writers (34.4%). On-screen, according to GLAAD, the network ranked third in characters of color (22%), but tied with Fox for first in LGBT characters (5.4%)

“My department is charged with using diversity as a tool to make our content better,” said Tim McNeal, VP, creative talent development strategies at Disney-ABC Television Group. “We focus on the television business first with the writer and then build it out from there.”

McNeal described the Disney-ABC Television writing program as an engine powering all other diversity efforts within the organization. McNeal added that the writing program is an incentive used to attract “all those voices, all those up-and-coming talents who are trying to find their way in.”

The roots of ABC’s centerpiece writing program reach deep into the company’s history, before the 1999 upfront and even prior to the Walt Disney Co.’s purchase of ABC in 1995. It began 25 years ago as a feature film talent development program at Disney. That program eventually took on a diversity element, then grew a TV writing arm that eventually became the focus of the initiative. McNeal touts his writers program as a major launching pad, boasting alums such as Maria Jacquemetton (Mad Men), Jane Espenson (Once Upon a Time), Saladin K. Patterson (Psych), George Mastras (Breaking Bad) and Veena Sud (The Killing).

ABC has other diversity initiatives as well— among them a Latino-specific writing program, several diverse casting initiatives and a workshop run in collaboration with the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center that offers resources to aspiring producers and creative talent. Plans are in the works for a partnership with the Muslim Public Affairs Council and a collaboration with the DGA on a program for female directors. But the greatest energy is put into developing writers.

“They ultimately decide what story lines are going to be done, and they ultimately hire the actors and hire the directors,” McNeal said. “They really run the show. So our job is to empower them and nurture them along.”

CBS

Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i joined CBS public relations in 2000. In February of that year, CBS and Fox became the last two networks to commit on paper to diversity, signing pledges with the NAACP on the same day—nearly one month after NBC became the first to do so.

“I kind of grew up within PR, [and] we were dealing with it,” Smith-Anoa’i said. She would advance to director of communications before deciding, “Wait a minute, this is something that I want to be a part of, because as a diverse woman, I definitely want to see not just myself, but others reflected in television—not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well.”

Now as VP, diversity and communications for CBS Entertainment, a position she has held since 2009, Smith-Anoa’i has spearheaded initiatives on both sides of the camera and in the offices far from them. The CBS Diversity Institute features talent-oriented components aimed at developing writers, directors and actors. In January the institute hosted its ninth annual Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase, which boasts alumni such as Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon and John Milhiser.

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The company also hosts an annual symposium that brings CBS executives and showrunners together with sociologists and representatives from groups such as the NAACP and GLAAD to discuss how diversity can be integrated into creative decisions. “This is usually done right after upfronts, so we have all our new showrunners,” Smith-Anoa’i said. “Fortunately for CBS, we usually have a lot of people who have been here before, because our shows stay on the air for so long.”

According to the WGA, CBS ranked last among the Big Four in writers of color in 2011-12 at 8.1%. It was second with female writers at 32.7%. On screen, 17% of CBS’ primetime characters were people of color, last among the Big Four; 1.9% of characters were LGBT, ahead of NBC but behind ABC and Fox.

Outside the talent realm, CBS in December graduated the first class from its Executive Creative Leadership Experience—a two-year program open to company and subsidiary employees of diverse backgrounds “where they go around to all of the departments usually for 3-4 months,” Smith-Anoa’i said. The program pilot round matriculated three new executives—one in drama development, another in comedy development and another in diversity and communications.

The other major executive program is CBS Entertainment Diversity on Tour, which brings executives from within the company to colleges and universities across the country to expose students who might not otherwise think of TV as a business with opportunities for them.

“There’s a huge sector of entertainment jobs that people don’t know about,” Smith- Anoa’i said. “Obviously everyone isn’t acting on television or writing or directing. There are particular roles right here in our hallways, and we can expose college and university students to those roles.”

FOX

Data from the WGA and GLAAD back up Reilly’s assertions about the “complexion” of his network on screen in comparison to its peers. According to GLAAD, Fox had the largest percentage of minority characters among the Big Four in 2013-14 at 32% and tied with ABC for the largest percentage of LGBT characters at 5.4%. The WGA study showed Fox to have the highest percentage of writers of color at 19.2%—but also the lowest percentage of female writers at 20.5.

Nicole A. Bernard became Fox’s head of diversity in 2011 as part of a reorganization that saw the department’s title changed to audience strategy—of which Bernard is executive VP. The shift in terminology, she said, was more than cosmetic.

“That’s one of the first things, from a strategic vantage point, that we wanted to move away from—even the nomenclature ‘diversity,’” she said. “It seemed to connote something of the past, and more of a philanthropic ideal. A business approach, I felt, would resonate better at Fox.”

Bernard describes Fox’s approach as multipronged, focusing on engaging different audiences through creative- and workforcedirected initiatives. On the creative side, the core program is the Fox Writers Intensive (FWI), now in its third year, a competitive program designed to create a talent pipeline for Fox projects. FWI replaced a predecessor program that Bernard said had yielded substantive results landing jobs for writers. But she wanted to do away with what she said was the misconception that the writers entering the program were green—so she engaged partners outside the company to nominate candidates. This year’s list of finalists includes writers referred to the program by several agencies, including WME, Gersh and Summit.

Bernard’s other big initiative has been the Fox Seizing Opportunity Forum, also now in its third year. The most recent, which took place in October, featured Fox executives such as Reilly and FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, and outside voices such as media mogul Russell Simmons and representatives from CAA, WME and UTA. Presentation topics ranged from how diverse talent was incorporated into the Fox series Sleepy Hollow and Gang Related to how multicultural marketing helped build the brands of Vitaminwater and Popchips.

As a woman of color who had been senior VP of standards and practices at Fox prior to her promotion, Bernard didn’t feel that the old diversity program, despite its successes, had succeeded in permeating the company’s culture. Instead, it felt charitable—and the executives of diverse backgrounds that she worked with at Fox were “kick-ass people” not interested in being viewed as beneficiaries of charity.

“I worked for Fox for nine years,” Bernard said. “I felt that another approach would be more resonant.”

NBC

Craig Robinson, NBCUniversal executive VP and chief diversity officer, flew to Sochi, Russia, two weeks ago to be on the ground at the Winter Olympics. He booked the trip last fall.

“I decided a number of months ago, as there continued to be concern about the anti-gay law, it became really clear to me that I needed to be here,” Robinson said. “I needed to be here to represent, but also to see for myself what we were reading and what we were hearing.”

NBC has indicated that Russia’s harsh anti-gay laws will not be ignored in the network’s Olympics coverage—which comes on the heels of Saturday Night Live’s casting of Sasheer Zamata, the show’s first African-American female cast member since Maya Rudolph left the show in 2007. The hire followed a wave of public criticism aimed at the show’s lack of diversity, much of it prompted by cast member Kenan Thompson last fall, blaming the shortfall on the overall poor quality of black comedians.

Late night is an area that has spawned one of the programs of which Robinson is proudest—the Late Night Writers Workshop, launched last year, which focuses on a staffing segment traditionally dominated by white males. But NBC’s largest and longest-running writer’s program is the Diverse Staff Writer Initiative, which counts Mindy Kaling and Donald Glover among its alumni, and through which the network pays to create an additional staff writing position on shows whose writer’s rooms are fully staffed but lacking in diversity.

“It’s natural that people often hire people they know from previous experiences,” Robinson said. “The diverse writers position creates an extra seat at the table, which gives diverse writers a chance to develop their own history while giving showrunners the freedom to try out new voices.”

According to the WGA, 13% of NBC’s primetime writers in 2011-12 were people of color and 31.7% were women, placing it third among the Big Four in both categories.

NBCUniversal administers other writers programs, as well as programs for directors, comedians and actors. On screen, according to GLAAD, NBC ranked second this season among the Big Four in racial and ethnic minority characters at 27%. But only 1% of NBC’s characters were LGBT, ranking the network last.

On the executive side, Robinson points to the executive team assembled by NBC entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, who identifies as gay—including president Jennifer Salke; executive VP, drama development Pearlena Igbokwe; executive VP, comedy Tal Rabinowitz; executive VP, current programming Vernon Sanders; and executive VP, casting Grace Wu—as proof of the way that diversity is ingrained in the company’s culture. As Robinson said Igbokwe once told him, “If somebody’s coming in and pitching a show to us, and that show is an ensemble, and it has eight non-diverse characters, they would have to really not be paying attention.”

The annual Directors Guild Awards ceremony is always a tony affair. It isn’t televised, so it’s looser than most awards shows. This year, the Jan. 26 event ran four-and-a-half hours as Steven Soderbergh got a standing ovation for a surprise Behind the Candelabra win and host Jane Lynch fired off several good lines.

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