Diversity and each of the networks’ track records of hiring women and minorities on both sides of the camera was the overriding theme of the 16-day Television Critics Assn. press tour, which ended Aug. 11. The number of inquiries from journalists on the subject made it clear that the question of when primetime will really begin to resemble America is far from settled, despite the fact that television has made big strides during the past decade.
In discussing the issue, some networks defended themselves, while others fumbled. FX Networks CEO John Landgraf announced that 51% of directors hired at FX since last year’s Variety report on diversity have been either women or people of color. This marks a significant effort to diversify and improve. (Variety TV critic Maureen Ryan reported last year that the network had the worst diversity record, with 88% of its scripted series helmed by white men.) As Landgraf demonstrated last week, even successful brands can no longer do business as usual in the face of pressure to be more inclusive.
No one at the press tour received more grilling than CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller, as the Eye unveiled a fall slate of new shows led entirely by white, male actors and white showrunners. In Geller’s executive session, seven of the first eight questions were about the network’s diversity record. “We need to do better,” he conceded more than once. Geller’s experience on the hot seat virtually ensures that CBS will take more aggressive steps on diversity in the coming development cycle. The network will break ground with the midseason legal drama “Doubt,” in which African-American actress Laverne Cox will be broadcast TV’s first transgender series regular to play a transgender character.
But diverse casting alone will not keep CBS — or any network — clear of public scrutiny. When the NAACP and a coalition of advocacy groups threatened a boycott of the Big Four in 1999, spawning the creation of networks’ diversity departments, it did so in response to a dearth of people of color in primetime series. Seventeen years later, the conversation is just as much about what happens behind the camera and in meeting rooms.
It’s not enough for women and minorities to be “at the table,” said D’Angela Proctor, president of programming for TV One, which targets an African-American audience, during a panel dedicated to diversity. “They want to order from the menu.” That means more inclusion in the executive suites. “We have to be at the table on every single level,” Proctor said.
One argument for inclusion at all levels is that it leads organically to more representation onscreen — and that a more diverse picture is good for business. CBS, consistently ranked last among broadcasters by GLAAD in onscreen diversity, heads into 2016-17 as the reigning network in total viewers and the 18-49 demo. But its fall freshman class is unlikely to help it with black audiences, among whom it ranks third behind ABC and Fox, or Hispanics, where it trails NBC and ABC, according to Nielsen.
ABC boasts a higher percentage of black, Hispanic, and Asian viewers than any other broadcaster. But the press tour demonstrated that no network is immune to criticism. Channing Dungey — the first African-American to head entertainment for a broadcast network — fielded questions about ABC’s more than decade-long refusal to cast a black man as the lead on “The Bachelor.” “I would very much like to see some changes there,” Dungey said. Her predecessor, Paul Lee, also routinely expressed a desire for change on the show. Indeed, executives are clearly under more pressure than ever before to move beyond talk to action —because the questions aren’t going away.