In July 1999, NAACP prexy Kweisi Mfume lambasted America’s television networks for programming that was, in his estimation, unresponsive to the needs and aspirations of people of color. Further investigation and protest by the NAACP and similar minority-rights orgs ultimately compelled each network to sign a memo pledging to pursue diversity not only in front of the camera but also behind it, including in the executive suite.
A decade later, have minorities really gained ground on TV? Vicangelo Bulluck, head of the NAACP’s Hollywood branch and exec producer of the annual Image Awards, serves as a liaison between the industry and the NAACP. When asked about progress, he answers, “Absolutely. But have we gotten to where we need to get, and do we feel that people of color are represented appropriately on network television? No.”
Bulluck says he measures progress by employment and then divides those gains into quantitative and qualitative improvements. “So even though the numbers may be better in some instances,” he maintains, “there are probably fewer leads than over the last decade.”
After ticking off several defining but now long-gone shows (including “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “The Cosby Show” and “Family Matters”), he lays down the gauntlet: “Name one show today with an African-American lead.”
It’s a fair point, and yet it would be unfair not to acknowledge how much TV has changed since the heyday of the shows he cites. Today, the tube is flush with ensemble and reality shows, and in both areas — as network diversity officers are keen to point out — African-American and other minority characters are fairly visible.
Ron Taylor, VP of diversity development at Fox, points to “House” (where Omar Epps has a prominent, though not leading, role) and “Bones” (though once again the leads are white). “That’s the last hill to climb,” Taylor acknowledges, “creating shows with more diverse leads.”
Yet he stands firm on claiming gains behind the camera. “There is much more diverse talent behind the scenes than there was 10 years ago,” he says. “The numbers of diverse talent in writing, directing and producing were extremely low at all networks. Those numbers now are greatly increased. And some of the talents ushered in are beginning to emerge in middle and upper creative management. I don’t think there were five such people in the industry when I started in the 1970s, and now, if you include cable, you’re looking at 150 nonwhite creative executives.”
Robert Mendez, senior VP of diversity at Disney-ABC TV Group, cites Shonda Rhimes, creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” as a prime example of the progress made. “She’s a successful showrunner,” Mendez says of Rhimes, “not a successful African-American showrunner. That’s the kind of change that’s happened over the last 10 years.”
He also notes his network’s commitment to minority scribes. “We have a very successful writers program in its 20th year,” he says. “The company has dedicated significant resources to maintaining this program, and we now have a whole generation of diverse writers who are having an impact.”
CBS’ Diversity Institute serves a similar purpose, says Josie Thomas, senior VP for diversity at the Eye. “We have a combination of initiatives, many designed to address behind-the-camera issues,” notes Thomas, who has been involved in her network’s diversity efforts since Mfume’s speech. “Those in our writers initiative get hands-on personal guidance and mentoring by senior-level show executives, which means they have a personal connection in the business. We try to create practical skills and are constantly trying to evolve our outreach.”
Paula Madison, exec VP and chief diversity officer at NBC U, insists that because so much has changed in the past decade, even the measurements of success must be recalibrated. She points to series like “Undercover,” on NBC this fall, in which the leads are biracial.
“When we started this discussion,” she says, “Mfume was concerned about African-Americans. I try to make sure that our content resembles our society, and our society today is very much multiracial. Barack Obama is an African-American in a way most people don’t define the term. So it depends on your perspective.”