Networks Tout Improved Minority Numbers

Critics question whether diversity programs have brought significant change behind, in front of the cameras

Since 2000, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People threatened the broadcast networks with a boycott if they didn't get more ethnically diverse and quick, four of the major broadcast networks have put extensive diversity programs in place and point to many examples of success.

The craft unions that follow these efforts closely, though, question whether these programs have brought significant change. Both the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Directors' Guild of America (DGA) say gains have been minimal.

According to SAG, 24.2% of all film and TV roles went to African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans in 2002, up from 22.1% in 2001. The 2.1% jump is the largest such boost in the history of SAG, which was started in 1933.

Asians and Pacific Islanders , though, received 2.5% of all roles, the same as in 2001. And Native Americans won fewer than in 2001, only 0.2% of all roles cast vs. 0.37% in 2001.

In June, DGA released a report stating that 82% of the top 40 TV shows (or 860 episodes) in 2002-03 were directed by white men, 11% by women, 5% by African-Americans, 2% by Latinos and 1% by Asian-Americans. The percentages are unchanged over the past two years, DGA says, except African-Americans, up from 3%.

The networks respond that, although statistics may not be bearing it out, their efforts have resulted in more minorities behind the camera and that acting "showcases" over the country have given more minorities roles in network shows.

For example, one of NBC's programs puts a minority writer or producer on every one of its shows. "The idea of that is, if you have more minorities behind the scenes, it will make for more diverse characters and storylines," says spokeswoman Kyle Kaino.

NBC's diversity efforts are headed by Michael Jack, who also runs the Emma Bowen scholarship program, which gives minority students paid internships in positions all over NBC. The network offers a supplier-diversity program, encouraging minority- and woman-owned vendors to submit bids to become NBC suppliers. A Diversity Council comprises executives who report to NBC Chairman Bob Wright.

NBC says that, since 2000, the network has increased its on-air minority representation by 126%, its writer and producer diversity by 76%.

CBS Senior Vice President of Diversity Josie Thomas says her network has given more parts to minority actors since it started running acting showcases, to which it invites agents, managers and casting executives. This summer, CBS launched the Diversity Institute, which adds a formal writer-mentor program and a director initiative, she says.

"The Diversity Institute is a more formalized program that will allow us to keep track so we can be sure we are headed in the right direction," Thomas says.

Disney's ABC, through its two-year-old "seasoned directors" program, has found four persons of color who routinely direct episodes of TV for the network.

"I'm in the talent business so I look at this as a way to get new points of view and new talent in front of us," said Stephen McPherson, president of Disney's Touchstone Television, who worked with DGA to develop the program.

Disney and ABC also run acting showcases, writing fellowships, a talent-development scholarship program, and associates' programs meant to develop promising executives. "When you get 4,000 people applying to your program, it says there are a lot of talented people who need more access," says Carmen Smith, vice president of talent development for ABC, adding, "What we try to do with all of our programs is prepare individuals to be in the business for a while. It's a tough business to get into."

Fox, which arguably has the most diverse slate of shows, has several new shows this fall with predominantly ethnic casts. Both Luis and The Ortegas feature Latino casts; on Skin, Latina Rachel Ticotin plays a Los Angeles judge. Fox also has a long history of airing African-American comedies.

But Fox also works to include ethnic faces in all its casts, including an African-American First Family in 24 and one of the most diverse casts on television in Boston Public.

"Our goal has not been to add content that focused on communities of color but to increase diversity within each of our shows," says Mitsy Wilson, senior vice president of diversity for Fox Entertainment Group.

In the past three years, Fox has drastically increased the number of minorities both behind and in front of the camera, with writers and producers of color on 19 of 22 series last year and ethnic and women directors on 17 of 22.

Says Wilson, "We have tripled the number of episodes that people of color have gotten within the last three years."

UPN, which has always sought to serve African-American and other underserved groups, works with corporate sibling CBS on diversity issues.

The WB says it isn't large enough to have a major program. "We want both our casts and our programs to reflect the populace at large," says spokesman Paul McGuire.