By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for most of its almost six decades has seen its mandate as one that is “mostly apolitical.” But that is changing, said Dick Askin, chairman and CEO. Mr. Askin, among others, is shepherding the organization into the vanguard of “expanding diversity,” he said.
Toward that end, ATAS is presenting a first-time all-day summit, “Television’s Challenges in Black, White and Multi-Color,” on Saturday, Oct. 23, with a full slate of panels and workshops exploring employment and programming diversity in the medium.
“We’re making a significant initiative with a sizable investment to prioritize the issue of diversity,” Mr. Askin said. “As far as I know, this is the largest initiative of its kind the academy has ever made. It is important that we bring everyone together to discuss ways in which our industry and our programming can better reflect the diverse audience.
“The academy should be in the forefront of getting a dialogue started,” Mr. Askin said. “That’s what I hope comes from this. The issue of diversity has been somewhat dormant for a few years because of the other issues we’re facing as an industry. Let’s put it up front.”
Mr. Askin said his desire to push diversity as an issue originated six years ago when he was elected a governor of the academy. He noticed while helping to form an executive committee that the group was racially homogenous. When an effort was made to change that, it was hard to find viable candidates within the various guild memberships and the industry. He found this “staggering,” he said.
Meryl Marshall-Daniels, the chair of the academy from 1997-2001, agreed and formed an outreach committee to try to attract minority membership. One of the first things Mr. Askin did when he assumed the job a year ago was to revive this idea and broaden its scope as the Diversity Committee. This group, co-chaired by Vince Gutierrez and Marcy De Veaux, is organizing the upcoming summit with Leslie Moonves, Viacom co-president and co-chief operating officer, as honorary chair.
“We need to expand the academy’s membership to ensure it reflects the broad range of the audience and the industry,” said Ms. Marshall-Daniels. “During my years we added the word `diversity’ to the academy’s mission statement-that it would be `dedicated to creativity, innovation, diversity and excellence.’ I’m glad that mission will include this important summit.”
ATAS itself has no educational or access programs geared specifically for women or minority groups. But Mr. Askin and Ms. Marshall-Daniels said a concerted effort is made to ensure that historically black colleges and other centers of cultural diversity are made aware of academy programs such as summer internships for college students and educational outreach, including faculty seminars.
“Our faculty seminars bring professors together with industry professionals to enrich them about current television practices,” Mr. Askin said. “We’ve made it a priority to attract diverse participants to this. We’ve reached out to be sure that the historic black colleges, for example, also know about us and what we do.”
A number of panels and programs during the past six years have explored diversity in television, though none with the expansive goals of the summit.
“We did a panel on the history of Latinos in TV going back to the 1950s,” Ms. Marshall-Daniels said. “We have also worked hard to explore ways in which we could expand the images in our Emmy magazine to ensure the likelihood that the articles and photos are more inclusive there.
“We’ve been conscious to make the presenters at the Creative Arts Emmys and the prime-time telecast more representative of the audience,” she said. “Once you decide to become inclusive and you make it conscious, you realize where you have failed in the past.”
“The academy itself is not immune,” Mr. Askin said. “Basically, let’s say we have a clean slate at this point and move forward with a blueprint for diversity.”