CBS Needs Concrete Action, Not Vague Statements, on Diversity

CBS Needs Concrete Action, Not Vague Statements, on Diversity
Francis Specker/CBS

“We need to do better.”

TV executives say that a lot. In 2011, I wrote a story about the paltry representation of women and people of color in writers rooms, and the TV community responded by saying those numbers needed to improve (they have, a little, but only because that around that time, writers’ room stats hit near-historic lows).

In 2014, I reported on the fact that the creators of TV dramas and miniseries at cable and streaming TV outlets were overwhelmingly white and male. Reached for comment back then, HBO said, “We are striving to do better.”

Similar statements from various networks appeared in this 2015 Variety story about the lack of opportunity for white women, men of color and women of color as TV directors.

“We need to do better” is the kind of vague response those of us who cover TV are used to hearing; it’s a form of verbal wallpaper meant to deflect a problem, not indicate that the problem is in the midst of being solved, or at least attacked with vigor.

What makes Glenn Geller’s use of the phrase even more dispiriting on Wednesday was that the president of CBS knew that questions about the whiteness of the network’s lead actors and showrunners were coming. Geller kicked off CBS’ day at the Television Critics Association press tour with a slide show of supporting actors who have been recently added to CBS shows as series regulars. The majority of actors were men and women of color, but if this was the network’s attempt to demonstrate a commitment to inclusivity, it felt desperate, to say the least.

Why have the slide show at all? Because the network wanted to push back on the idea that it is not really committed to inclusion. The problem is, facts are stubborn things.

The lead characters of all of CBS’ new comedies and dramas are heterosexual white men, a fact that has been widely noted in the press. Two months ago, Variety ran a story pointing out that 80% of the showrunners for all new broadcast network programs are male and 90% are white. Among the five broadcast networks, CBS’ track record is the worst: All 10 of its showrunners for new scripted programs are white.

And that is the context in which the press viewed that slide show. Judging from the tenor of the TCA questions and from the fact that Geller’s name was soon trending on Twitter, the attempts to distract from these important issues didn’t work.

Geller, who was making his second appearance before the media at TCA, appeared to be in no hurry to answer the questions he knew were coming; he spent a long time on prepared remarks. When he finally began taking questions from the press, he defended the network’s behind-the-scenes efforts at diversifying the network, and was asked how that idea squared with an all-white array of new showrunners.

“Sometimes our showrunners are diverse, sometimes they’re not diverse,” Geller said. As answers go, it was about as specific as, “We need to do better.”

I harp on this phrase because so often those kinds of statements are not followed by decisive and demonstrable action.

Except when they are.

Geller would have probably had a tough time with the TCA crowd no matter what, but CBS’ day followed FX’s at press tour. On Tuesday, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf laid out the substantial changes his network has made to its hiring practices in the realm of directors — in less than one year.

Not that the problem is fixed — and there are many others that need ongoing attention — but as Landgraf noted in an interview with Variety, “It’s a start.”

It is. And it sends a message about whose stories matter when all six new leads for a network’s fall shows are white guys. As a network that has historically had a large number of white leads and a showrunner list typically dominated by white men, CBS has further to go than most.

It’s not clear, from statements Geller made on the stage and in a scrum later with reporters, that the new president of CBS wants to fully acknowledge that historical context.

“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,’ ” Geller said. According to him, “Our writers are more diverse than last year [and] our directors, and we’re not finished booking every slot, but we’re on track to be more diverse this year than last year.”

Geller would clearly like the media to be telling a different story about his network. But these key areas still need work. And as Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” 

The media onslaught Geller faced was not one week in the making, it has been years in the making, but even when a network’s track record is questionable, FX demonstrated that it’s possible to step up in a major way — if the will to create real change is present.

Cold, hard numbers, as it turns out, have more staying power than a slide show.