Amid a year of the entertainment industry — and the nation as a whole — reckoning with the way it approaches issue of racial representation and gender parity, ViacomCBS is kicking off its annual inclusion week with an eye toward tackling those issues head on.
This year it will do so as an enlarged company following the merger of Viacom and CBS, and in a newly virtual environment due to the ongoing pandemic. The company’s inclusion week is a continuation of a similar event that first took place in the U.K. three years ago.
“This year, our goals are to continue this cadence of intentionality around demonstrate through our employees, our commitment to championing a culture that’s diverse, inclusive, and that actually creates a sense of belonging for them,” Marva Smalls, ViacomCBS’ global head of inclusion, told Variety.
“We also see it as a way of establishing a competitive landscape as a company that’s willing to not only have a steady drumbeat, but also especially now in the zeitgeist of a moment, to really build a tool kit for managers and employees alike, to become even smarter and well-versed and more informed in this space,” she added.
In discussing how the merger between Viacom and CBS impacts inclusion efforts, Smalls notes that the individual companies were “at different levels of readiness” in approaching issues of diversity, but that ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish is committed to fostering a culture of inclusion at the combined entity.
The week includes over 50 virtual sessions, including a keynote from Dr. Robing DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” as well as a conversation between Ford Foundation president Darren Walker and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund head Sherrilyn Ifill about social justice in the U.S. Other speakers include Time’s Up CEO Tina Tchen, professor Ibram X. Kendi, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, LL Cool J, plus new CBS chief George Cheeks. Bakish last week engaged in a talk with Tyler Perry, and will also speak in other sessions during the week.
On the CBS side, the network and studio have been the center of a number of high-profile allegations of misconduct in past years — most recently, accusations of workplace toxicity and sexism against “Magnum P.I.” and “MacGyver” showrunner Peter Lenkov, which resulted in the producer’s ouster, and in 2018, the firing of “NCIS: New Orleans” producer Brad Kern following investigations into racially charged comments and verbal harassment against women.
CBS has since created initiatives to foster more diversity, including with a 25% allocation of future script development budgets to projects created by or co-created by BIPOC, and ensure that CBS writers’ rooms staffs are at least 40% BIPOC.
And amid conversations around how on-screen storylines centering on law enforcement influences the public perception of the police, CBS TV Studios has signed an exclusive agreement with with law enforcement and public safety advisory group 21CP Solutions to consult with the writing staffs of CBS crime procedurals and legal dramas.
“I think what we continue to learn is that our intentionality — we have to continue to be diligent and disciplined and focused, and letting those partners with whom we engage, with whom we partner with to build out what our content looks like across platforms, that we expect for them to show up and adopt the values that we have,” said Smalls, when asked about the challenges in addressing the issues at CBS.
That approach ranges from being mindful of any potential implicit bias that might make its way into children’s content on Nickelodeon to CBS’ new partnership with the NAACP, announced in July, to develop and produce scripted, unscripted and documentary content for its linear and streaming platforms.
“We are learning now that we can leave nothing to chance,” she added.