Diversity in Television: Fostering a Multicultural Dialogue

Oct 18, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By Robert Pietranton

Special to TelevisionWeek

A cross-section of leaders in the entertainment business, politics and academia will converge Oct. 23 on the North Hollywood, Calif., headquarters of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for an industrywide summit meeting designed to explore cultural diversity in television.

Leslie Moonves, co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom, serves as honorary chairperson of the event, called “Television’s Challenges in Black, White and Multi-Color.” Bill Whitaker, national correspondent for CBS News, will serve as master of ceremonies.

Sponsored in part by a grant from TelevisionWeek, the conference will feature a roundtable case-study discussion including top executives from broadcast and cable networks, public television, production companies, advertising and government; and several brainstorming sessions led by ATAS peer group governors and representatives from Hollywood guilds and labor unions.

The event marks the fulfillment of a campaign pledge of sorts by Tribune Entertainment president and CEO Dick Askin, who has just completed his first year as chairman and CEO of the TV academy.

“When I ran for the chairman position, one of the things I highlighted to the board of governors was the concept that we really needed to be much more pro-active as a group on diversity than we had been in the past,” Mr. Askin said. “Over the years, we’ve had a history of supporting diversity, but we needed to take a significant step, make it a priority and set some initiatives for the academy to follow.”

Shortly after taking office in October 2003, Mr. Askin asked Marcy De Veaux, president of TV public relations firm DVG Communications, and Vince Gutierrez, a governor of the academy’s sound editors peer group and president of post-production services firm VRG Enterprises, to serve on an ATAS diversity committee. The goal was to turn years of good intentions into concrete action, he said.

“My charge to them was to do one major initiative in the first year to provide a forum for an all-day examination and discussion of diversity and to create a diversity action plan,” Mr. Askin said. “We spent a lot of time brainstorming, and then Marcy and Vince basically went away, worked with their committee and came back with a plan that became the seminar we’ll hold on Oct. 23.”

That plan included what Ms. De Veaux described as an “ambitious” roundtable discussion, which organizers hope will provide a candid exchange of ideas focused on developing the blueprint for a model television network for the 21st century. At press time, executives scheduled to participate included Mark Pedowitz, president, Touchstone Television, and executive VP, ABC Television Group; David Janollari, entertainment president, The WB; Pat Mitchell, PBS president and CEO; S%ED;TV chairman and co-founder Jeff Valdez; Doug Alligood, senior VP at advertising agency BBDO; and Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.).

Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree Jr. is scheduled to moderate the two-hour roundtable session. The author of “All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education” and the recently named director of Harvard’s new Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, Mr. Ogletree will bring an outsider’s critical perspective to the dialogue, Ms. De Veaux said.

“Professor Ogletree has a way of compelling people to reframe their thinking and come up with new ideas,” she said. “As someone who has a long history of being involved in diversity issues and civil rights, he was our first choice to chair this important discussion, and we are honored to have him.”

For his part, Mr. Ogletree felt both a moral and personal obligation to answer the academy’s call.

“Virtually every major institution in America-be it the military, corporations or universities-has been engaging in an ongoing dialogue about diversity and showing concrete and substantive results from those discussions,” he said. “The people who will be seated at this roundtable are uniquely suited to think about the industry outside the box and imagine new ways to reach broader audiences and to make information more accessible to diverse audiences.

“I am confident we will leave the session with a richer understanding of what it takes to make diversity not just a concept but a reality,” Mr. Ogletree said. “Plus, as a consumer of the TV industry, I have a personal interest in making it available and accessible to a wider audience. Doing this is a labor of love for me in terms of my own personal interests, and I would love to be able to push people toward solutions that are both within reach and within reason.”

Mr. Askin and Ms. De Veaux both echoed Mr. Ogletree’s sentiment that the symposium should serve as the beginning not the end of the academy’s efforts to further expand diversity in television. In addition to inviting its current members to attend the conference, ATAS will also reach out to other professionals working in the TV business.

“I hope that a number of diverse people working in our industry who have not had the chance to participate fully in the TV business will walk away from the campus that day and realize that there is a real opportunity here for them at the academy,” Ms. De Veaux said. “There is an opportunity for people to be involved in a significant way and to be part of the solution as it relates to diversity.”

Outreach to Universities

Organizers also will target the local educational community, extending invitations to professors and students studying television and communications at Southern California universities.

“A couple of years ago I was involved in searching for minority executives to serve on an ATAS diversity committee, and based on the number of potential candidates, I realized that there could be a real issue at the entry level of this business,” Mr. Askin said. “Somehow, we weren’t making the connection with the people we’re really trying to get into the business in the first place.”

“This is important for broadcasters, both on-screen and behind the scenes,” said Touchstone’s Mr. Pedowitz. “The industry can only benefit from the point of view and life experiences that come from embracing diversity. If we fail to do that, we will fail our audience.”

Mr. Ogletree said changing demographics would indicate that future viewers will be coming from a diverse audience. “Broadcasters will certainly benefit from programs and people that reflect the country’s rich diversity,” he said. “It’s a win-win proposition for the industry to look internally and then decide what it is prepared to do externally to improve diversity within the business.”