Diversity gains are in eye of the beholder

Networks, orgs see different views of progress

Assessing the advancement of diversity goals in the three years since CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox publicly pledged improvement is a bit like watching the movie “Rashomon”: The story changes with the observer.

“We believe very little progress is being made,” says Ron Hasson, president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. Hasson claims the networks and studios won’t release statistics to track progress in the hiring of minorities.

Then there’s the network side.

“We’ve made incremental progress and incremental strides,” declares Mitsy Wilson, senior vice president for diversity development at the Fox Group. Unlike the other networks, Fox has established a diversity policy for all the units in its entertainment group, including the film studio.

Wilson bridles at the suggestion Fox makes no numbers available. She notes that 19 of 22 Fox series have writers or producers of color. And 17 have at least one director of color, and together they account for 100 series episodes this season.

She also says Fox meets every six months with the partners in the Media Coalition (besides the NAACP, the coalition includes groups representing Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders and American Indians). “We provide them with written data showing that progress is taking place.”

Last year, the NAACP established its Hollywood bureau in an effort to track the industry’s progress. This came after the rights org in 1999 backed off a TV boycott threat but demanded that the industry create more positions both in front of and behind the camera for minority candidates.

“A boycott’s always been a possibility with us provided the needed steps aren’t taken,” says Kweisi Mfume, head of the national NAACP. The group plans to issue an update report in May, “Out of Focus, Out of Synch Vol. 2.” “The report will highlight what the industry did as opposed to what the industry said it was going to do and also what the industry just plain didn’t do,” Mfume says.

“Hollywood will tell you, look what we’ve done for you: Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won an Oscar in the same year,” says Hasson. “Great! But that’s two people out of thousands. Plus Oscars don’t create jobs. We don’t want lip service or empty and soft symbols of progress, we want tangible results.”

While many organizations play a wait-and-see game for making employment inroads in mainstream entertainment, perspectives differ on available opportunities. Some bilingual Latinos, such as Veronica Alvarez, marketing director at Fox Sports Intl., are taking advantage of the global marketplace.

“There’s an enormous market for Latinos both internationally and right here in America,” she says. “What’s great is that there are more jobs where you can stay in your element, speaking your native language.”

In addition to Fox, Disney has and is creating Spanish-language programming. There are also the large networks such as Univision and NBC-owned Telemundo that are ripe for talent recruitment.

On the perhiphery, non-profit organizations like five-year-old Latino Public Broadcasting are making waves. “There are network shows like ‘George Lopez’ and ‘Greetings From Tucson’ so we’re making some progress,” says Lourdes Ortega, spokeswoman for the group. “While the mainstream is slowly creeping along, LPB is actively funding up-and-coming filmmakers using PBS, which has been a portal for a lot of Latino programming.”

Besides the diversity units at the networks, Workplace Hollywood was an organization created in the wake of the NAACP demands. The nonprofit was formed in May 2000 and got nearly $6 million from an offshoot of DreamWorks and other charitable organizations to serve as a clearinghouse for minority talent.

The group, which today has employees from other major studios on its board, seeks to help individuals from historically under-represented groups. In addition to those minorities who are part of the media coalition, it includes women, gays and the disabled.

(The network diversity units also encompass women, gays and the disabled. Casting such a wide net is one reason a number of the groups in the Media Coalition, especially the NAACP, feel marginalized. It’s also a reason the term “minority” has virtually disappeared from the lexicon, since women are a majority of the population.)

Workplace Hollywood’s Miles Bernal, director of staffing, sums up the group’s aim: “Is it about time diverse people got a fair shake? Yes. Can we guarantee a job? No. Can we give diverse candidates the flexibility to compete? Certainly.”

Since November, Workplace Hollywood has placed nearly 50 applicants at companies such as E! Entertainment, Ticketmaster, Fox and Warner Bros. However, most of the positions were either entry level or temporary.

Tracey Edmonds, prexy and chief executive of Edmonds Entertainment Group, is on the Producers Guild of America’s diversity committee and believes that while individual minorities have made strides, there’s little decision-making power for them.

Says Edmonds, who produced the “Soul Food” franchise for the large and small screen: “By and large white people are still deciding if, how and when minorities get hired.”

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