Diversity Not Lost on Hit ABC Drama

Sep 11, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Dinah Eng

If you think that white male showrunners haven’t a clue about the importance of diversity in television, try talking to Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the executive producers of ABC’s hit drama “Lost.”

While their first meeting involved a mistaken assumption about race, it also led to a partnership that has created the kind of diverse cast and writers’ room that every show should aspire to have.

When veteran writer Cuse first agreed to meet Lindelof, he thought the then-unknown writer was an African American. Cuse, who was running “Nash Bridges,” knew only that he liked the spec script Lindelof’s agents had sent him.

“Damon is a common name among blacks, and I had somehow gotten the impression from his agents that he was black,” Cuse recalled over lunch on the Disney Studios lot. “I was surprised when he came in for the meeting that he was white. Carlton’s a common black name as well, so sometimes people who haven’t met me think I’m black.”

Cuse’s own story points up the complexity of diversity, and how race can’t be discussed in only black and white terms. Just as Asian Americans may trace their ancestry to countries in the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent or the Middle East, Caucasians have diverse roots and experiences as well.

Cuse was born in Mexico City, and his paternal grandparents were Russian immigrants. His dad, an engineer, married the daughter of a small-town Minnesota doctor. Lindelof, born in Teaneck, N.J., has a Jewish mother who teaches elementary school in Spanish Harlem, and a father of Scandinavian descent who was a bank executive.

You don’t have to be a person of color to believe in diversity, but in a culture where white males hold the majority of decision-making positions, there is a difference between being a passive believer and a committed activist.

Lindelof said his partners at Disney have shown that kind of commitment.

“Studios have to give showrunners incentives,” Lindelof said. “Disney and ABC are the greatest at promoting diversity because they’ll pay the salaries of diverse writers and directors. I’ll do anything to get the budget down.”

He praised ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson for holding a closed-door breakfast meeting with all ABC showrunners in the spring of 2005 to specifically ask for ideas on how to increase diversity hiring on shows.

“We said it’d be amazing if you could extend [salary incentives] to writers’ assistants, because when staff is hired, showrunners are more likely to go with someone we know,” Lindelof said.

McPherson did just that. Now, in addition to its annual fellowship programs, ABC budgets funding to help minority candidates get their first jobs by paying the salaries of promising writers’ assistants, writers, and directors for interested showrunners.

Writers’ assistants are hired for one year with these “breakage funds.” Writers are placed as staff writers on shows for an average of 14 weeks, and directors are hired to direct one episode. If a showrunner wants to continue working with the candidates, they are then hired and paid out of the showrunner’s budget.

Cuse noted that showrunners have to make themselves more accessible to diverse job candidates as well. He said that Lindelof and he lecture in the ABC Writing Fellowship Program, and that after lecturing for a class at the CBS Diversity Institute, he hired a Korean-American writer out of the group for “Lost.”

The more showrunners are interested in other cultures, the more likely different story ideas will get on air. Cuse, a fan of Hong Kong martial arts films, created the 1998 show “Martial Law,” which starred Sammo Hung, the first Chinese lead actor in a prime-time series, and African American actor Arsenio Hall. Today, Cuse is proud that the characters on “Lost” represent a world of different voices.

“The show is not American-centric,” Cuse said. “We are aware of differences, and that there are certain types of stereotypes and judgments that go on because of our culture and race. We allow our characters to comment on that. But we try to make sure our characters are all human beings, with strengths and flaws.”

All too often, TV writers will say they’re in the business of storytelling, and if a story lends itself to adding diverse elements, they’ll make every effort to do so. But most will also say their job is entertainment, not changing the world.

Sorry, but in a world where entertainment increasingly shapes what we think and believe, that argument is a cop-out. Believing that the shows we watch (or create) have no impact on society’s consciousness is like trying to lose weight while eating candy, ice cream and cookies with every meal.

We forget that diversity is about true inclusion. Having a diverse writing staff, or a diverse cast, does not mean counting the women and minorities, minus the number of white males in the room. White males count as much as anyone else. The problem comes when white men are the only ones who count.

“How do we increase the pool of people who are funneling in?” Lindelof said. “Part of it is attaching our names to the pro-diversity effort. I’m really proud that our writing staff is half male and half female. We have an Asian American writer, and an African American writer. Of the three new characters we added to the cast this year, two are Hispanic, and one is a white female. Part of a showrunner’s job is to diversify your staff as much as you can. “

With that kind of attitude, what once was lost may yet be found. Dinah Eng is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who writes a syndicated column for Gannett News Service.