U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman gave an upbeat assessment Wednesday of efforts by television networks to improve diversity in front of and behind the cameras.
“I am encouraged and optimistic, based on what I heard,” Herman said following a two-hour round-table meeting with network executives, leaders of entertainment guilds and casting agents. “There was a real sharing of ideas and a real commitment to doing things differently.”
Herman said she came away from the meeting, held at the Writers Guild of America West headquarters in Hollywood, with the belief that fall programs will offer more diversity than the current season. She also said execs pledged to do more, such as creating partnerships and mentoring programs to boost minorities’ participation in the entertainment business.
Actress Anne-Marie Johnson, a regular on CBS’ “JAG” and chair of the Screen Actors Guild’s Ethnic Employment Opportunity Committee, said the meeting was productive in that it went beyond platitudes.
“I was quite pleased with the response,” she added. “Sometimes, people got defensive, which is good.”
Paris Barclay, co-chair of the Directors Guild of America’s African-American Advisory Committee, agreed.
“There was a lot of give-and-take and the discussion was very candid,” he said, noting that Herman asked each executive what they were doing to improve diversity.
Herman said the meeting grew out of efforts several years ago by labor unions to seek her department’s aid in pressuring television networks to boost the profile of minorities. She stressed that her role, for the time being, will focus on generating dialogue and solutions rather than cracking down on the networks.
“This was a meeting about encouragement,” Herman said. “It was not about enforcement. To the extent that we can encourage dialogue is a useful role for the secretary of Labor.”
The event drew top executives from the four major networks, including Leslie Moonves, president-CEO of CBS; NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa; ABC Entertainment TV Group chief Lloyd Braun; and Fox TV Entertainment Group chief Sandy Grushow.
It came several months after the four major networks, under pressure from a coalition of minority interest groups, agreed to increase diversity at all levels of their organizations.
In February, the Screen Actors Guild issued a study showing that black characters on primetime TV had become “ghettoized” by being concentrated on sitcoms on Monday and Friday nights and on the UPN and WB networks. CBS and NBC have also named executives this year to serve in newly created vice president of diversity posts.
No film studio executives attended the meeting, even though representatives from each were invited.