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CBS’ Glenn Geller: ‘We Need to Do Better’ on Diversity

CBS’ Television Critics Association presentation opened Wednesday with a vigorous discussion of the network’s track record on diversity in the casts of its new shows and among its roster of showrunners.

With CBS’ roster of new fall shows featuring only white male leads, CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller flatly acknowledged: “We need to do better and we know it.” He asserted that CBS’ overall acting ensembles have greater diversity than last season and diversity among writers and directors is on the rise. He also detailed CBS’ behind the scenes effort to scout and foster new talent through its CBS Diversity Institute, among other initiatives.

“I certainly understand the inclination to look at the screen and say ‘What’s going on?’ But I do think when we look at diversity and inclusion, we also have to look behind the camera. Our writers are more diverse than last year, our directors…We’re on track to be more diverse than last year, and we continue to put more resources and financial support into our CBS Diversity Institute,” he said.

Geller grew a little defensive as the questioning on CBS’ commitment to reflecting the multiculturalism of modern America persisted. Before he took questions from the journalists at the Beverly Hilton he ran through a lineup of 16 new series regulars added to various CBS shows — 11 of which are actors of color. That was read by the room as an effort to help offset the grilling to come.

“Those 16 roles were added because we had to add those roles,” he said. “I think the fact 11 of them were cast diversely speaks to our commitment. We’re not trying to make up for something.”

Geller pointed to Justin Cornwell, co-star of the midseason drama “Training Day,” as an African-American actor in a prominent role. He noted that CBS is taking a second pass at the comedy pilot “Superior Donuts,” toplined by African-American comedian Jermaine Fowler. “We’re repiloting Jermaine Fowler because we want him on our air,” he said.

Moreover, Laverne Cox will achieve a milestone for network TV in the coming season as the first transgender actress to play a transgender series regular in the legal drama “Doubt.”

Geller was also pressed on the fact that the showrunners of CBS’ new fall series are all white men. He responded that the focus in the development process was finding the best projects.

“Sometimes our showrunners are diverse, sometimes they’re not diverse,” he said. “We picked up the best shows from the pilots we made.”

But in the same breath, Geller offered a mea culpa, amid the broader industry focus on diversity and inclusion in entertainment. “I hear you, I really do, and I understand that we need to do better,” he reiterated.

After the panel, Geller continued to be dogged by diversity questions. He resisted the call to make a specific numerical commitment to casting diverse leads in the future, saying that “our goal is always to get more diverse.” He also expressed some exasperation in how the network’s performance is evaluated.

“I think it’s not exactly the full picture when you just pull out certain statistics — when you say ‘Well, your showrunners are this, or your directors are this.’ Overall, we are getting more diverse. And that includes our writing staffs who work for these showrunners,” he said in the post-panel scrum.

The diversity issue dominated the 15-minute Q&A session on stage. But a few other topics were raised:

  • Geller expressed confidence that the Warner Bros. TV comedy “The Big Bang Theory” will be renewed beyond its upcoming 10th season. “We are very confident that everyone wants ‘Big Bang’ past year 10,” he said. “I know Warner Bros. will make those deals.”
  • There’s no word yet on the fate of summer drama “BrainDead,” which has struggled to draw an audience. CBS already renewed its other summer drama “Zoo.”
  • Although “Supergirl” has relocated to CW for season two after airing on CBS last year, the door is still open at the Eye to fantasy fare. “If we heard the right superhero pitch, we would absolutely consider it,” he said.

Daniel Holloway contributed to this report.

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