By Lee Hall
Special to TelevisionWeek
Call it a case of too much talk and not enough action.
The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is switching gears in its efforts to address diversity both in front of and behind the camera and to show its members that promoting diversity carries the potential for great success.
The academy will embark on several initiatives this year, including the presentation of a new Televisionary Award to showcase the work of one person in promoting ethnic, cultural and gender diversity. The inaugural honoree is to be ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson.
Academy members have engaged each other in a dialogue on diversity for a while, but until recently the industry had little to show for it, said Marcy De Veaux, who chairs the organization’s diversity committee.
“For five years we have talked about it among ourselves. We have had a lot of conversations, but not a lot of action,” Ms. De Veaux said. This year, she promised, will be different.
This week’s Televisionary Salon and Awards is designed to give aspiring writers, directors and performers some valuable face time with the people who can open doors for them and break down the industry’s insider tradition.
“We have a lot of history to move out of the way, and a lot of that history is not so pretty,” Ms. De Veaux said.
The idea behind the salon concept is to prod TV insiders to expand their business and social networks and to hear new voices.
“It’s true that the best way to get a job in television is to have someone you know introduce you to somebody who’s hiring. That’s strong networking,” said Donna Michelle Anderson, an independent producer and co-chair of the academy’s diversity committee.
She cited a number of breakout programs over the years, including “The Cosby Show,” “The George Lopez Show” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” all of which, she said, resulted from someone’s determination to take a risk with writing, casting or presentation.
“Those [shows] did not fit into what we traditionally thought of as American culture. But look at what can happen when you give people with vision a chance,” she said.
ABC’s Mr. McPherson said that over and above any moral and ethical rationale, diversity makes good business sense.
“Our goal is to reach as many people as we can. If we are going to do that, we have to look in every place we can to find those diverse voices,” he said.
Mr. McPherson said he thinks the academy is correct in its efforts to tackle the issue by trying to connect television’s “haves” and “have-nots.” “Once you start getting those people into the mix, it will become self-fulfilling, which is good,” he said.
Another academy initiative is a new speaker series that will bring in high-profile personalities from other industries to address issues of diversity. The organization has invited Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who last year credited his televised address to delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Boston with propelling him to national prominence.
The academy plans to publish a directory in December that will list not only people looking for work but also organizations that are actively seeking what Ms. De Veaux termed “diverse creative people for the television industry.”
The road to complete diversity will not be easy, nor is it likely to be a quick trip.
“It is going to take a lot of work, and we will change things over the long term. … This will require constant vigilance and industry cooperation, and we are just starting the process,” said Dick Askin, chairman and CEO of ATAS. “I am hopeful, but not yet confident at this point.”
Ms. Anderson said long-term success of the academy’s effort will depeond on its ability to demonstrate to members that diversity just makes good sense.
“The broader the net you can cast, the broader the potential audience is going to be,” she said. “Where could the loss be in that?”