Four years ago, none of the 26 new prime-time shows on the Big 4 broadcast networks featured a minority actor in a starring or leading role, spurring minority advocacy groups to form the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition and demand change from the networks.
Fast-forward to 2003.
The new season kicked off with NBC’s “Whoopi” and Fox’s “Luis” on the schedule and “The Tracy Morgan Show” (NBC) and “The Ortegas” (Fox) waiting in the wings for midseason. All four shows have minority actors in leading roles.
They join existing shows “George Lopez” (ABC), “The Bernie Mac Show” (Fox), “My Wife and Kids” (ABC) and “Wanda at Large” (Fox) as on-air proof of the progress the Big 4 networks have made in the three years since they each signed an agreement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition committing to improve diversity on screen and off.
“The times are changing, but they are changing at a slow rate,” said Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “But it is a faster rate than … seven years ago.”
Mr. Nogales said that seven years ago he couldn’t get a CEO of a major media company to return his calls. “What we have now that we have never had before is we have access to the top people at each one of the four networks, and we have complete access to the [minority employment] numbers,” he said.
Advocacy groups say the broadcast nets have learned that diversity helps the bottom line.
“I think it was an epiphany,” said Karen Narasaki, chair of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition. “We’ve been saying all along it’s not about what’s morally right, it’s good business. The success of `George Lopez’ and `My Wife and Kids’ and `Wanda’ shows it’s good business. It’s not about putting a few token faces there.”
Mr. Nogales said he believes the 2000 U.S. Census made networks stand up and take notice. Latinos became the largest minority group in the United States, at 13 percent of the population, estimated to have $650 billion in annual spending power.
“Those kinds of numbers called for very specific action, because if they don’t want our business someone else is going to get it,” he said.
The NAACP, the National Latino Council and the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition all issued progress reports on diversity in the past two weeks. While all three reports praised the networks for steps they have taken to improve diversity, each had different areas where the groups feel efforts need to be stepped up.
The NAACP report called for hiring more African Americans as writers, producers, directors and executives.
The National Latino Media Council’s biggest complaint was that Latinos are proportionally the least-represented minority on television, filling only 6 percent of all TV acting roles.
The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition criticized the networks for the complete absence of Asians in leading roles on TV shows, and gave two of the four networks an “F” in the category of on-air prime-time actors. Native Americans are also virtually nonexistent in regular roles.
“Early on, when we first started this initiative, a lot of network executives really saw it in terms of black and white,” Ms. Narasaki said. “They really didn’t get that diversity meant Asians, Latinos and Native Americans. They were very upset when they were doing better with African Americans and we said they weren’t done.”
She said networks have to find ways to reach out to those communities and build a pipeline for talent to be brought in to the network.
All of the networks have set up minority showcases for actors as well as writer and director programs to find new talent. But what it really comes down to is networking.
“One of the things that is overriding about the Hollywood business is relationships,” said Josie Thomas, senior VP of diversity at CBS. “We’re working to enhance the relationship within the creative community and minority community. Networking is an important part of the business, and we find our showrunners are more than happy to meet new talent.”
CBS encourages its showrunners to attend diversity showcases and to reach out to minority directors at events it has sponsored with the Directors Guild of America, she said.
NBC, the first network to sign a diversity pact, sent letters to all of its showrunners, executive producers and casting directors last year explaining that the network wants to see minority representation in its shows, said Michael Jack, VP of diversity for NBC Television and president and general manager of WRC-TV in Washington.
“We want them to be partners with us in creating a more diverse slate,” he said.
NBC also has a minority writer on the staff of every sitcom and drama it airs. While studios traditionally pay the salaries of their shows’ writing staffs, NBC makes sure this happens by paying the salary of a minority writer on each show, Mr. Jack said.
Fox received the highest praise among the networks from all three reports. Misty Wilson, senior VP of diversity development for Fox Entertainment Group, credits the network’s success to the fact that her division is involved in the creative process every step of the way, from development to current programming.
“The driving force continues to be the fact that we have become a part of the process,” Ms. Wilson said. “It’s very organic. It’s a way of doing business for us at Fox.”
The goal of Fox’s writing and directing initiatives isn’t just to find TV talent, she said. Linda Mendoza was a director who came to the network’s attention at a DGA mixer that Fox sponsored. That led to the opportunity to direct episodes of “MadTV,” “Bernie Mac” and “Grounded for Life.” She recently made her feature directing debut with “Chasing Papi.”
“Instead of one director of color coming in and being employed for one episode, you now have a director of color who now has the opportunity to cross over from our network to studios to film and even into cable,” Ms. Wilson said.
Carmen Smith, VP of talent development at ABC, said employability is the goal of its writing initiative. “Out of my seven [writing] fellows that were selected last year, six are staffed on [TV] shows,” Ms. Smith said.