Latest NAACP prexy will use awards to draw in youth and aid behind-the-scenes talent

TIP SHEET
What: 37th Annual NAACP Image Awards
When: Saturday (airs March 3 at 8 p.m. on Fox)
Where: The Shrine Auditorium
Host: Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Shepherded through its first 97 years primarily by political and religious leaders, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People recently turned over its presidency to a veteran corporate executive.

Bruce S. Gordon, a longtime Verizon exec with roots reaching back 35 years in the telecommunications biz, was selected to the post by unanimous org vote last June.

Given the NAACP’s recent history, the 60-year-old Gordon’s extensive management background certainly factored into his selection.

Kweisi Mfume, the former House rep and current Senate hopeful Gordon succeeds, resigned the presidency abruptly in December 2004 amid reports that his inappropriate relationships with NAACP staffers led to widespread mismanagement at the org’s D.C. headquarters.

Further back, the man Mfume replaced, the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, was forced to step down from his post in 1995 amid allegations of sexual harassment and mismanagement.

Gordon’s biz background also jibes with the org’s evolving struggle for equality, which is no longer just about civil rights: One of his key goals as org president will be to gain more traction for minority-owned businesses in the corporate world, he explains.

“The focus is civil rights. That is what we have done and will continue to do,” Gordon says. “But there will be more of a focus than there has been previously on economic rights and economic justice. That allows advancement in other aspects of civil rights.”

And as far as Gordon is concerned, there’s no business like show business. “We want to make sure we’re in the middle of the entertainment action,” he says.

Under Gordon’s watch, the NAACP’s annual showbiz kudofest, the Image Awards — which kick of their 37th incarnation Saturday at the Shrine Auditorium and air taped-delayed March 3 on Fox — should remain an important part of the org’s agenda.

For one thing, Gordon sees the Image Awards as crucial to one of his primary directives — making a 97-year-old org more appealing to a younger constituency.

“We need to attract and engage a little younger demographic than is currently represented in our membership base,” he explains. “And I think (the Image Awards) will serve us well in the future.”

Of course, Image’s traditional core mission — the positive portrayal of minorities in film, TV, music and literature — remains of paramount concern. “I think the entertainment industry has come a long way from ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy,’ but it has a very long way yet to go,” Gordon says.

But Gordon also wants to explore Image’s potential to advance the progress of those working behind the scenes. For the first time, Image will include nonperformers this year, honoring helmers of TV dramas and comedies, as well as theatrical features. “I still don’t feel there are enough people of color in front-office jobs,” Gordon says. “They are still not staffing with as many writers, producers and directors as they should.”

Gordon will try to sustain momentum gained by Mfume, who delivered a wake-up call to the TV industry in 1999, pointing out that none of the season’s 23 pilots featured main characters of color — a calling out that seems to have made an impact.

For example, according to the Writers Guild of America, the share of TV work among minority scribes increased 3% from 1998 to 2004, while opportunities for minority film writers remained flat.

Still, 3% is just 3%. “Promises were made, but there’s still not enough diversity,” Gordon notes.

For their part, African-American helmers see their inclusion into the Image Awards as a step in the right direction in terms of their industry profile.

“We’re hearing producers say, ‘Why haven’t we hired a director of color? Because we don’t know any.’ And one of the things this does is showcase 15 African-American directors who are working in the Hollywood system and are recognized as quality directors,” says Millicent Shelton, Image-nominated this year for her work on Fox’s “The Bernie Mac Show.”

“Personally, I’m more than honored,” adds Paris Barclay, Image-nominated for directing an episode of CBS’s “Cold Case.”

In terms of the show itself, Image’s corporate support remains strong: Auto giant DaimlerChrysler will again be a principle sponsor. FedEx is a second-tier sponsor, as is Gordon’s former employer, Verizon.

Despite Image’s 3.0 household rating/5 share last year — the second lowest perf since moving to Fox a decade ago — Gordon seems satisfied that the broadcast is hitting its intended targets. “Our ratings are very good,” he says. “We are delighted with the quality of the (broadcast), and we’ve had plenty of good feedback from people in the entertainment industry.”

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