The heads of entertainment at ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC put aside network rivalries and took some time away from pilot season to talk about diversity in primetime as part of Thursday’s daylong conference hosted by the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
The confab at the Universal Hilton opened with the keynote panel featuring Paul Lee, president of ABC Entertainment Group, CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler, Fox Broadcasting COO Joe Earley and NBC Entertainment prexy Jennifer Salke.
During the session moderated by NHMC president and CEO Alex Nogales, the network chiefs stressed the importance of striving for diversity in TV programming and detailed their respective efforts to include Latinos in all aspects of the biz.
Tassler said diversity programs, such as those provided through the NHMC, are essential when it comes to helping to foster young writers.
“Getting those new voices the emphasis on cultivating the new talent in the diversity programs that we have…is the way to really incubate those new voices,” she said.
Tassler also stressed the need to “really putting the pressure on colleges and universities to create writing programs that speak to developing talent, diversity talent.”
Nogales spoke to the effectiveness of such programs and shared that 28 of the 111 students who have gone through the NHMC’s writing programs are now working writers in the industry.
Based on his experiences at Fox, Earley said he believes getting more diverse groups of people involved from all sides of a project is the way to create more sustainable diversity on TV. “We have to get closer to the source,” Earley said. “The diversity has to get closer to the genesis in order for it to really become systemic.”
Earley also explained how Fox has intensified its focus on diversity behind the camera, including writing staff and directors.
“If you are going to be creating a story that is diverse…we really feel that in order to be organic you have to have a diverse group of people creating (the project),” he said.
Lee cited Shonda Rhimes’ hit drama series “Scandal” as an example of a successful program that incorporates diversity, saying, “We’re immensely proud with what we’ve done with ‘Scandal,’ particularly in terms of diversity.”
In addition to “Scandal” star Kerry Washington, Lee also said ABC’s inclusion of figures such as “Modern Family” actress Sofia Vergara speaks to the network’s attention to its viewers.
“It completely reflects the fact that if you do not reflect the face of America you will not get the ratings,” Lee explained. “Anyone who says you cannot have a Latino lead or an African-American lead is now proven wrong. We’ve all proven that that actually drives audiences. It’s good for business as well as being the right thing to do.”
Salke said NBC insists on diverse casting and makes a point of stressing it with producers, even when some resist.
“They realize that it sounds ridiculous that they’re not going to insist on diverse faces in their cast. I think it’s changing, but we want all this stuff to happen faster,” Salke said.
After Nogales expressed his general disdain for commercials, Earley and the other panelist reminded him that reaching out to advertisers is an effective way of supporting shows that represent diversity.
Earley encouraged attendees to stand behind the programs they support by using every resource available.
“What I would love to see is when you like a program, when a program has either a showrunner or a writer or a talent that you believe is creating or providing a positive portrayal, that you martial your forces to ensure the success of that show,” Earley said. “To watch it, to tweet about it, to contact the advertisers who are in that show.”
The panel concluded with the execs offering advice to those looking to break into the biz. The tips include the importance of seeking internships and mentor relationships. Tassler cited the need to be open to opportunities and to hard work. She noted that the road to a career is “not always a direct path.”
Lee directed his advice specifically to the Hispanic community.
“I would so encourage this community, which is the fastest growing community in the U.S. and which is going to change the face of this nation over the next 20 years, to find your voice on our networks,” Lee said. “You have four people here who are encouraging you to get up and speak.”