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ABC lays its cards on diversity coalition table

Aug 6, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Twenty-eight of ABC’s top executives met with a dozen members of the diversity coalition July 31 for three hours at the network’s Burbank, Calif., headquarters to discuss the network’s diversity initiatives.
The coalition, formed by various ethnic groups with the goal of ensuring diversity in television, had previously complained that ABC had not been responsive to them. ABC’s show of force was intended by ABC Television President Alex Wallau to be a gesture to the diversity coalition that shows the network is serious about the issue.
“[This] encounter was the first time many of the executives had an encounter with the coalition,” former U.S. Rep. Esteban Torres, chairman of the diversity coalition, told Electronic Media.
“The first two meetings we had with them were very dismal. They didn’t bring anybody out, and we met with two or three people. This was uncanny, really, that Wallau would deliver so many people-and important people. Mr. Alex Wallau said to me that he would deliver his executives from all sectors of the network to sit down with our coalition to have a meeting, and he did that. They listened to us for the first time.”
Mr. Torres said the coalition was told at the meeting that ABC executives realized they have been slow in taking action to increase diversity.
“Now the proof of the pudding is going to be Jan. 1,” Mr. Torres said. “We said, beyond Jan. 1, if we don’t see results we’ll just do heavy battle.”
In addition to Mr. Wallau, ABC’s power roster at the meeting included ABC News President David Westin; ABC Entertainment Co-Chairmen Stu Bloomberg and Lloyd Braun; Carmen Smith, vice president of new talent development and community initiatives; Gene Blythe, executive vice president of casting at ABC Entertainment; Susan Lyne, executive vice president of movies and miniseries for ABC Entertainment; Steve McPherson, president of Touchstone Television; Angela Shapiro, president of ABC Daytime; and Jonathan Barzilay, president of ABC Kids programming. Other ABC executives present were the heads of drama, alternative series and specials and human resources.
One new measure was offered by Mr. Westin, who will create and chair a 10-person diversity commission in the news division that will be in charge of monitoring diversity and will aim to include interviews in news broadcasts with more people of color who are experts in their fields.
“We want to see Latinos who are articulating, analyzing and doing news commentary,” Mr. Torres said. “We never see a Latino as a guest.”
ABC News will put out a quarterly report for each news program. Those reports will include information on the percentage of news pieces that are presented by minority reporters and anchors as well as how many minority experts are used.
“I think the meeting was a significant step in the right direction,” Mr. Wallau told Electronic Media. “We cleared up a lot … and we expressed a determination and focus to improve on the status quo. The meeting was an opportunity for 28 of the executives of the network to hear the coalition and their concerns. I feel strongly that we will address it in the future going forward.”
Mr. Wallau said he has already been on the phone with members from the various coalition ethnic groups to set up smaller meetings this month to address the issues each ethnic group has.
“The coalition is not monolithic-the membership all have different issues in terms of where they are,” Mr. Wallau said. “While it’s complicated, it’s way to meet together with member groups individually and with each [ABC] daypart, because each daypart has different plans to address the issues, given the nature of news vs. daytime and entertainment.”
For many diversity coalition members, this meeting was the first time they saw raw numbers on diversity from within ABC. Across all divisions, from the 2000-01 season to the 2001-02 season ABC increased its on-air African American talent by 35 percent, to 70 people. Asians increased 10 percent, from 10 to 11 people and Latinos increased 7 percent, from 29 to 31 people.
Another new ABC initiative announced July 31 was the ABC Entertainment division’s Casting Project, which begins this month. The program will increase the diversity of the talent pool from which ABC’s casting department draws. Actors of color will sit down and read scripts in front of ABC casting executives, with the possibility of their being signed up as future talent.
ABC Daytime will create a new talent development executive position, which will be filled by a person charged with increasing minorities in daytime. That executive will visit festivals and colleges to recruit minorities and hire more telenovela-style writers to work on ABC soap operas.
ABC Daytime also has a director development program in which two African Americans were recently chosen for on-the-job training to become directors on “All My Children.” ABC Daytime also expanded its one-year training program for stagehands from two people to four.
In ABC’s Entertainment division, “NYPD Blue” has added Latina Rosa Arredando to play a new detective on the show. ABC also appointed Ms. Smith, who heads diversity within ABC Entertainment, to participate in the development process for ABC shows. Her task is to read scripts and come up with ideas on how to diversify the shows from the moment a pilot is picked up.
Ken Narasaki, a member of Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, called the meeting “a very frank dialogue.”
“We were all happy with the changes in the corporate culture that [Mr. Wallau] has brought to the diversity efforts of ABC, but I think we were all really disappointed with the actual numbers of the 2001-02 television season,” Mr. Narasaki said. “We hadn’t really seen the numbers until [July 31]. The numbers weren’t really much improved from last year.”
Mr. Narasaki, is the literary manager for East West Players, the oldest Asian American theater company in the country. East West will submit Asian actors for the new Casting Project.