The Television Academy Foundation has unveiled its Diversity and Inclusion Unscripted Internship Program, a new $1 million initiative targeted toward Los Angeles-area college students.
The goal is to provide paid internships that might give young people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds in Southern California an entry into the unscripted TV industry.
The program was launched via personal donations from reality TV execs Cris Abrego, Chairman of the Americas, Banijay, President and CEO, Endemol Shine Holdings; Jim Berger, co-founder and Chairman of High Noon Entertainment and Strategic Advisor, ITV America; Rasha and Stephanie Drachkovitch, co-founders and Co-CEOs of 44 Blue Productions; and Jonathan Murray, co-founder of Bunim/Murray Productions.
Abrego, who was recently elected as chairman of the Television Academy Foundation, announced the new internship on Tuesday. The idea was first pitched by Murray, who is vice chair of the Foundation.
“How do we find these younger people of color who want the opportunity?” Abrego said. “I literally grew up, born and raised, 22 miles from Hollywood, but it might as well have been more than 3,000 miles. [This idea] spoke to exactly what was my story and how I got started. And it made complete sense to me. We truly want to integrate them into this business. Our ultimate goal is employment.”
Abrego credited Murray with first approaching him with the idea of launching an initiative to help improve diversity and representation in unscripted TV.
“I had been frustrated that Bunim-Murray wasn’t more diverse,” Murray said. “One thing about unscripted programming is that, for the most part, our shows, if you look at ‘Survivor,’ ‘The Real World,’ ‘Amazing Race,’ they’re very diversely cast. It’s really important that those casts, when they look back at the people behind the cameras and the line producers and the segment producers, that they see people who look like them. They’re going to be much more comfortable opening up to the camera, if they’re feeling like they have people on that side of the line too, helping to make the show.”
Murray said he and others were making an effort to improve diverse representation in production via job fairs and recruiting at historically Black colleges and universities — “but we just weren’t seeing an increase in the pipeline of applicants of people of color. And so I started studying it and what I realized was most of the interns we had had were middle class kids from private schools, and they had parents who could afford to subsidize them either in an unpaid internship or when they first come out to L.A .
“There was an economic barrier to the kids from families that couldn’t afford to subsidize them that couldn’t afford to pay their rent for those first couple years or get them a car,” he added. “And so I went to Cris and I started talking to him about this.”
Murray and Abrego have known each other for over 20 years, starting with when Abrego landed his first major job in the business logging tapes for Bunim-Murray’s “Road Rules.” Now, as part of his recent appointment as Banijay’s president of the Americas, his oversight includes Bunim-Murray.
‘We’ve always taken a real active role in helping mentor the young people come into our company and help them figure out whether they’re going to go through casting, through production, through post production,” Murray said. “Often they’ll do several of those different jobs the way Cris did, which is what ultimately leads you to becoming a showrunner. With this internship, we want to find those people who could be future showrunners, and these are people who wouldn’t have the connections otherwise.”
Murray and Abrego said the program would also seek to spread the word that unscripted production jobs are a viable career path, since often it’s a lack of awareness that prevents more representation.
“We’ve even talked about saying we’ll go out on the road and talk to the families of potential interns and let them know what’s possible in this industry,” Murray said. “Because some of these families, they look at television and they go ‘I can’t, I think I’d rather have you become an accountant’ or ‘maybe it’s not the best route.’ Part of this is an education thing, letting the people in Southern California know that this is a pathway.”
Abrego noted that the Television Academy Foundation already operates a robust internship program, which made adding an unscripted-centered program easy.
“The Academy has such a great program and I’m so grateful to everyone in the Academy who are part of the screening process, recruitment process, interviewing process, all those different areas to find these top candidates,” he said.
The program was first envisioned by Abrego and Murray in 2017, with two pilot seasons of internships in 2019 and 2020 via a partnership with the California State University Entertainment Alliance.
Applications for the first official year of the Diversity and Inclusion Unscripted Internship will be accepted between April 7 to May 5, 2021, at TelevisionAcademy.com/internship/unscripted. Television Academy members and the Foundation’s board of directors will select the candidates. Students from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Ventura and San Bernardino counties are eligible.
Beyond the Foundation, Abrego’s charitable work also includes setting up a scholarship fund at his alma mater, Mountain View High School in El Monte, Calif. Abrego has given out 21 college scholarships thus far (and 15 have graduated college, with six finishing their undergraduate studies).
(Photo: Left to right, Interns who participated in the Diversity & Inclusion Unscripted Internship pilot program, William Walker, Jr. and Daniel Rivas; Abrego; intern Caroline Buendia; Stephanie Drachkovitch; Murray; interns Deborah Ochei and Humberto Rivas.)