Bringing minorities into the fold

Jun 4, 2001  •  Post A Comment

A multiethnic coalition recently awarded NBC the highest marks among the major networks for diversity-an effort spearheaded by KNBC-TV General Manager Paula Madison, who doubles as NBC’s vice president of diversity.
Ms. Madison, along with the help of an NBC Diversity Council, said one of NBC’s priorities will be outreach into the Native American community and boosting those numbers within the network.
Last month at the coalition’s press conference, Sonny Skyhawk, president of American Indians in Television said, “We as a people happen to be the first inhabitants in this hemisphere and, unfortunately, the last to be recognized by the networks.”
After Ms. Madison took the diversity job in February 2000, she spoke with Mr. Skyhawk. “I asked him, “How do we grow the numbers?”’ she said. When Ms. Madison said she would visit the community, Mr. Skyhawk was stunned. He replied, “You’d go there?”
The final result was a trip to two Indian reservations last year in South Dakota-Wounded Knee and Rosebud-and visits to a college on each reservation. (There are 31 colleges and universities on reservations throughout the country.)
“We wanted to develop a relationship so when the time came, we could establish a relationship with the tribal colleges and universities,” Ms. Madison said.
Starting in summer 2002, NBC plans to offer internships at the two colleges she visited. Unlike most NBC internships, these would be paid and provide housing and transportation because, Ms. Madison said, reservations have such a depressed economy. One or two students from both reservations will then be assigned to work at an NBC-owned station in such cities as Chicago, Los Angeles or Dallas.
“We met some students in public access TV settings,” Ms. Madison said. “A good percentage of students are mothers. The challenge really is to expose them to mainstream stations and opportunities. They don’t usually get the opportunity because of the distance they are from where these things are usually offered.”
The tribal colleges were set up to keep Native American talent on reservations, educate them and keep them working for the reservation.
Ms. Madison said she is careful to respect the original intentions of those colleges but admits, “Philosophically, what we’re proposing is not in keeping to the reason these colleges were formed.
“This is our attempt to develop a relationship in the Native American community,” she said.
Ms. Madison said NBC also invited the American Indian Center-a Native American organization in New York-to have its annual talent showcase at Performance Space NBC, a showcase the network uses to find new talent.
While there is still a lot of work to be done at NBC, Ms. Madison said ensemble programs such as “ER,” “Third Watch,” “Undercover” and the new comedy “Scrubs” portray diverse worlds. She said “Crossing Jordan,” a drama about a female medical examiner, includes Miguel Ferrer as her boss and an African American co-worker played by Nahershala Karim-Ali.
Ms. Madison said NBC developed a sitcom around Latina comic Deb Gutierrez, but the show did not make the fall lineup because it needed “a lot more work.”
NBC has also made strides behind the scenes, Ms. Madison said. Paula Thomas Graham, an African American Harvard lawyer and author, was promoted to chief operating officer and president of CNBC from president of CNBC.com.
Ms. Madison said parent company General Electric’s minority “senior management mentor program” is “very active.” Minorities in management positions, including Ms. Madison, all have mentors in the company who are in higher ranks. Ms. Graham was also part of the corporate mentoring program.
“People identified for doing an excellent job early on get promoted,” Ms. Madison said. “When they get promoted, it’s not a surprise, because at the point of evaluation they discuss their next goal in the company.”