Multicultural group examines challenges of programming a network that looks like America
Despite honorable intentions and a plethora of industry initiatives, the numbers stubbornly refuse to budge. Or so it seems every year when statistics on the employment of minorities and women in television and film are released by the guilds.
The diversity stats for writers, directors and actors are generally meager. Similarly detailed reports on the executive ranks at major studios, networks, production companies and talent agencies would probably be just as disheartening, if not more so.
Social scientists always point to institutional factors that make it hard for minorities and women to gain ground in some industries. So much of the hiring process in showbiz is about who you know. If most of the people doing the hiring are white men, human nature dictates that jobs will flow more easily to candidates they know, which will tend to be candidates who are most like them.
That said, there is no question that the entertainment workforce, like the nation overall, is becoming more multicultural. A microcosm of this change is illustrated by the execs who run key programming departments at Fox Broadcasting Co. They represent a mix of African-American, Latino, Asian-American, white, gay, straight, male and female perspectives that hold sway over the programs that land on Fox’s air.
Just as the fall season rollout and pilot development got under way in September, eight Fox senior VPs gathered for a roundtable discussion about the thorny issues raised by striving for diversity on all sides of the camera. The question of why primetime TV doesn’t look more like 21st century America stirs raw passions — witness the recent outcry over the lack of minority women troupers on “Saturday Night Live.”
“Diversity to us is a strategy, not an ideal,” says Nicole Bernard, senior VP of the Audience Strategy unit, who is African-American. “It’s about the practice of accepting and understanding how the country is changing in order to grow your business. The goal for us is (to attract) more viewers. I don’t care what they look like, I just want more.”
The focus across the 20th Century Fox lot during the past few years on embracing diversity as a business mandate has been galvanizing, the execs say. (Audience Strategy is a Fox Group-level department that stretches across TV and film.)
The Fox network for the past three years has hosted an annual forum for its creative partners, dubbed Seizing Opportunities, to present detailed research on the changing nature of the viewing audience. The message sent to showrunners and others is that American families are fast becoming more multiracial and transcultural. Fox’s corporate view is that it’s an economic imperative for programs to reflect this if the network is to be relevant to millennial and post-millennial demographics.
The watchword is creating new avenues of “engagement” with viewers, which is the focus of Bernard’s department.
“This is not a conversation about diversity and how you’d better do the right thing, which gets so tiring,” Bernard says. “A large part of what we have to do is dispel the perceptions that if a show is this, it can’t be that, or if it’s that, it won’t be successful. A lot of it is making people question learned behavior.”
One eye-opening data point that registered with attendees at the most recent session in October was the fact that nearly one-third of the TV households in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest market, are Hispanic.
“I saw a huge change in the writers I was working with after they attended that forum,” says Suzanna Makkos, senior VP and head of comedy development, who is white. “The mindset became, ‘This will help me find a hit show.’ ”
First and foremost, the execs stress, diversity is about expanding the horizons of storytelling by giving the audience something fresh, no matter what the cultural milieu. That means putting a premium on efforts to seek out fresh talent, and to make a concerted effort to increase the pool of experienced showrunners, directors and producers. Because the real measure of diversity, the execs note, cannot be laid on the shoulders of casting late in the development process.
“Casting is the most immediate way to reflect diversity, but after we started that forum, it wasn’t just me on the other end of the phone any more,” explains Tess Sanchez, senior VP of casting, who is Latina. “It became a broader picture of producers, casting directors and our studio counterparts.”
Fox has let it be known to scribes that there’s a demand for very specific cultural perspectives in shows, with the recognition that African-Americans are not a monolithic population, nor are Latinos or Asian-Americans or myriad other groups.
“A lot of times historically you would look to retrofit a show after (development),” says Terence Carter, senior VP and head of drama development, who is African-American. “But we were missing the opportunities for different ways of telling stories.”
The Mindy Kaling comedy “The Mindy Project” is a prime example, with the Indian-American heritage of its creator and star. So is the midseason drama “Gang Related,” which chronicles a Latino police officer’s rise in the elite squad that takes on a gang he knows from his youth.
The pilot script, by feature writer Chris Morgan (“Fast & Furious”), initially came in with the character being a Caucasian who was raised by a Latino family. That seemed an unnecessary stretch, and Morgan was pleasantly surprised when Carter asked him to make the character Latino.
“He was like, ‘I can do that?’ says Carter. “His expectation was that the network would not want a Latino lead. He felt really liberated, and we ended up with a phenomenal actor for the role (Ramon Rodriguez).”
Sensitivity to stereotypes is important, but there’s danger in being too cautious. Writers often decide that characters who are criminals or morally bankrupt have to be white in order to avoid negative connotations.
Sanchez had a similar experience with a producer who assured her that they would never consider a Latina actress for a character who happened to be promiscuous. “He told me ‘We don’t want to send that message.’ I said ‘It’s OK, plenty of people are promiscuous.’ ”
They key is to make sure that there’s a range of images presented across the network.
“The human experience is complex, and we want complexity in the way that we represent people,” says Shana C. Waterman, senior VP of event series and multiplatform programming, who is African-American. “There’s sensitivity if you only see that group of people in one light. But hopefully we are evolving to a place where everybody can be a piece of everything, because that’s what’s real.”
James Oh, senior VP of current programming, knows first-hand what it means to see a cultural breakthrough in primetime. He was a young adult before the first glimpses of Korean-Americans began to appear in entertainment programs.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t realize that I wasn’t seeing similar faces to mine on TV,” he says. “But when you see it for the first time, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ There’s that revelation that it is refreshing to see yourself reflected onscreen.”
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” the promising freshman comedy starring Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher, is a point of pride for the Fox team. The ensemble cast is appropriately diverse for a show set in a Brooklyn police precinct. What’s more, it features two Latina co-stars (Stephanie Beatriz and Melissa Fumero), and neither of them play characters who are feisty or sassy — something the actresses pointed out to Makkos.
Execs emphasize that it takes a village, and a collaborative approach, to understand how and where the network might appeal to new viewers. The diversity among the executive team that reports to Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly is in itself a plus.
“I’ll never know what it’s like to be an African-American, but I’m surrounded by people who do,” says Barbara De Santis, senior VP of broadcast standards and practices. “Sometimes I’m more sensitive to a certain joke than they are.”
As a lesbian, De Santis often has a different take on gay-themed material than her colleagues do. The range of backgrounds at the table makes for a robust give-and-take around the conference room. De Santis’ background as an Army veteran and Army brat in her childhood allowed her to offer some pointers to producers of Fox’s military-set sitcom “Enlisted.”
Adds Bill Bradford, senior VP of digital, who is white and also an Army vet, “The environment here makes it so that people take feedback very well.”
The highest diversity hurdle for programming execs remains the need to expand the talent pool of women and people of color in behind-the-camera roles, notably as showrunners and directors. Experience is usually the deciding factor in these hiring decisions, as exec producers and helmers need to deliver a product on a tight turnaround.
“You want to go to the people who have the most experience especially in the first year of a show,” Makkos says. The hiring of directors in particular is frustrating, because “you’re looking down the list of available people, and it just keeps shrinking.”
Bernard sees it as a chicken-and-egg dilemma that is an industrywide concern. Fox has challenged its execs to scout hard for budding talent and to be open to taking chances with people who may not have long resumes but demonstrate promise.
“It’s a cyclical situation that has to be broken,” she says. “There is a substantial pool of talented females and minorities to choose from, but it’s also the combination of experience and going with what you know. If you always hire X because you’re comfortable with X, then it’s always going to look the same. It’s going to take an offshoot here and offshoot there to break the cycle.”