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Summit is Stage in Long Campaign

Oct 18, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

For the co-chairs of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ upcoming “Television’s Challenges in Black, White and Multi-Color” summit, organizing the Oct. 23 event is just another stage in their long commitment to promoting diversity in the industry. They believe they are contributing not just their effort but their philosophy and goals.

It’s not just service to the industry, they say. It’s personal.

“The academy should be the voice of the television industry,” said Vince Gutierrez, co-chair with Marcy De Veaux of the event and ATAS’ Diversity Committee. “Too often the issue of diversity has been put on the back burner; then groups outside the industry such as the NAACP bring pressure, so maybe it becomes a hot issue again. Why should it come to that? Let’s let the academy take the first step to get a blueprint going.”

Ms. De Veaux agreed. “I make my money in PR, but my passion is inclusion,” she said. “I remember the first time I came to an academy event. There was a casting director sitting next to me, an executive behind me and a makeup person on my other side, and I was talking to them! I thought, `It’s all right here. I should be part of this industry.’

“I want people of color to spend time on the academy campus. I want them to ask themselves, `How do I fit in?’ with a feeling that they can,” Ms. De Veaux said.

Honorary chair of the event is Leslie Moonves, the co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom, who has been offering counsel and support.

“In constructing this day-long forum of dialogue and discussion, the television academy is leading the way in addressing some of the challenges that come with creating programming for an increasingly diverse television audience,” Mr. Moonves said.

“Just as important, they are taking the opportunity to celebrate the cultural diversity that is already among us and the contribution that these individuals make every day in television,” he said.

It was about a year ago that ATAS chairman and CEO Dick Askin asked Mr. Gutierrez and Ms. De Veaux to co-chair a diversity committee. One of the first tasks, they all agreed, was to bring the issue of expanding the academy’s racial and cultural profile to the forefront and to do so through a summit.

“One of my main goals is not just to find a way for the industry to be more inclusive of diversity but the academy as well,” said Mr. Gutierrez, who has a 40-year career as a post-production sound editor and has written episodes of drama series “Highway to Heaven” and “Little House on the Prairie.”

“We need to represent the social landscape we have today,” he said. “That’s a key element I want to emerge from the summit-an attitude that says we have not done as good a job as we can. We’re going to change that, and it starts today.”

Mr. Gutierrez said the summit could become an annual event. For now, though, he and the other co-chairs are focusing on this one.

“It’s all about exposure,” said Ms. De Veaux, who has her own firm, DVG Communications. “People of color have a lack of exposure. If I can do something to expose people to the availability of what’s there and do it in a way that’s friendly and comfortable, then it’s worth all the effort.

“We know that work and opportunities in our industry come from relationships,” she added. “People hire people they know and feel comfortable being with. If you’re not exposed to the places where the industry is, then you won’t have much of a chance.

“Just the other day I received a call from a woman I had met while on a committee at the academy. She was looking for PR for something she’s involved with, and they wanted to speak with me. That’s how it happens, and it should happen through the academy.”

The academy, they feel, can be the focal point. Mr. Gutierrez said the diversity committee has teamed with the Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild to be involved in the summit as well, giving the guilds an opportunity to promote their diversity efforts broadly within the industry.

Mr. Gutierrez said he’s excited the summit will be open to those outside the industry as well. “Educators need to be doing a better job of teaching about the industry, its nuts and bolts as well as its potential for their students. Because what is on the TV screen does not adequately represent the spectrum of society, some students may think TV does not hold a place for them. As much as we have to get a dialogue about diversity going in our house, we have to get information to theirs,” he said.

Media coverage will also help, Ms. De Veaux said.

“The summit will be a way for people to see the academy in a different light and, hopefully, want to be part of it,” she said.

There have been previous events such as panels focusing on diversity, though nothing as comprehensive or goal-oriented as this. Ms. De Veaux said the instructive and inspiring nature of these earlier events influenced her planning of the summit.

One such panel brought together women who head broadcast and cable networks.

“They talked about what it was like for women pursuing their careers and running a network,” she said. “But also what it was like to go home after running that network all day and have your 5-year-old run up to you and want Mommy’s time.

“It was phenomenal just for the information about the industry,” she said, “but also because I sat there thinking that I was listening to different voices speaking about the industry. We want that from our summit as well-different voices.”

The effort they have made planning the event, they said, has been occasionally exhausting, but, Mr. Gutierrez said, “We all have to give a little back.”

“You get your reward when you get up in the morning,” Ms. De Veaux said.