Diversity execs strive to make color adjustment

Underrepresented faces look to for demo expansion

To meet criticism that the nation according to American primetime TV doesn’t paint the same demographic picture as the U.S. census, network execs are literally getting their act together and taking it on the road.

Late this summer, ABC’s point exec on diversity issues, Carmen J. Smith, made her second trip to the Ojibwe Nation in Minnesota to spread the word to leaders of the Mille Lacs Band about an ABC grant/scholarship program.

“I travel all over the country,” says Smith, VP of talent development programs at the ABC Entertainment Group.

“Initiatives like these are part of a business strategy to develop new talent wherever we find it.”

And Mille Lacs’ leaders say they didn’t feel glad-handed by the Alphabet web’s country sojourns.

“It’s a serious attempt on their part to find ways to include our members in the media,” says Rick Anderson, associate director of corporate relations for the band.

Under the terms of the program, the student at the Nay Ah Shing High School who comes up with the winning show idea/concept wins a $20,000 grant and the guidance of a mentor executive for a year. If the idea passes muster, it’ll end up in the net’s development mill.

“The networks have made progress with respect to Native Americans,” Anderson continues. “But they have a long way to go.”

Native voices

American Indians barely register in statistics compiled by the Screen Actors Guild that were released in late August. The ethnic group represented just 0.2% of roles cast (or 659 parts) among the four majors and two mini-nets in the 2000-01 season. In the 2000 census, American Indians comprised 0.7 % of the total U.S. population.

ABC was recently singled out in a report from the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People for poor performance on the diversity issue in front of and behind the camera. While ABC prexy Alex Wallau was congratulated for taking “notable steps,” the network’s lack of progress since August 1999 talks with NAACP officials was termed “untenable.”

The NAACP has said that a nationwide boycott of one of the networks is a distinct possibility if things, in their view, don’t improve.

“Whether the paucity of minority executives … is because of nepotism, or cronyism, as some claim, or racial discrimination, the results are the same,” the report says.

Execs at NBC meanwhile have been making a few road trips since a coalition of ethnic advocacy groups had a summit with TV execs two years ago. This summer, among other things, Peacock honchos attended confabs of American Indian, African- American, Asian-American and Latino journalist orgs after the Writers Guild of America alerted them that up to a third of primetime drama scribes were former ink-stained wretches of the Fifth Estate.

“We don’t expect a yield (of writer-producers) this year,” says Paula Madison, senior veep of diversity (and prexy and G.M. of L.A. affil KNBC), “but based on the response we got there’ll be a major payoff in the next few years.”

While NBC was lauded in the NAACP report for its new outreach programs (including a pledge to buy $10 million worth of goods and services annually from minority-owned businesses), the report said the web’s efforts at diversifying its actor, director, producer and writer pools were disappointing.

While the NAACP report finds some bright spots (Fox’s 2000-01 sked had 41% of its lead and recurring roles played by people of color), other groups are keeping up the pressure on the nets to do more.

Changes ahead

There may have been a couple of recent major developments when it comes to Latino talent (John Leguizamo’s deal with CBS, comic George Lopez’s sitcom pact with ABC) but “(the Latino presence on TV is) ridiculously low given our population and growth, and given the increasing number of Latino actors that are out there,” said Marta Garcia, co-founder of the National Hispanic Media Coalition in a recent interview in the New York Daily News.

In general, critics add, the quality of roles offered Latinos is poor.

“For every lawyer played by Hector Elizondo there are a thousand domestics,” says Gabriel Reyes, president of Reyes Entertainment, a PR and marketing firm. “I don’t know what the hold up is. I think there are too few decision-makers who understand the real world.”

Despite the sometimes rough tone of the dialogue, CBS diversity senior veep Josie Thomas says there are no hard feelings.

“I appreciate the relationship we’ve developed with the advocacy groups. There are some under-represented groups and we need to do better.”

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