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Cable Executive of the Year: Johnson Maps Roads to Diversity

May 18, 2008  •  Post A Comment

For nearly 20 years, Kathy Johnson has been the prime mover for NAMIC, the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications. This year, TelevisionWeek recognizes her devotion and service by naming her its Cable Executive of the Year.
Since joining the cable industry in 1987, Ms. Johnson has been active in striving for diversity and breaking down barriers. She’s been a NAMIC member since 1987, served as both president and secretary of NAMIC Southern California and, after a turn as secretary of the NAMIC national board of directors for three years, became the organization’s president in 2006.
She spoke with TVWeek’s Allison J. Waldman about being named Cable Executive of the Year, her accomplishments past and present and her plans for the future.
TelevisionWeek: How does it feel to be named Cable Executive of the Year by TelevisionWeek?
Kathy Johnson: I was actually quite surprised, but I’m very honored and flattered. I hope that it’s a recognition of the work and the visibility that NAMIC now has in the industry.
TVWeek: Has NAMIC grown and developed as you hoped and planned when you first become involved?
Ms. Johnson: Absolutely. I think it’s going in the direction we want. The board has set a strategic direction that we’ve been following for quite a long time. We’re on track and we’re seeing the results that we’ve wanted to see in terms of the organization’s facilities, its growth, its diversification in terms of its membership and the launch of new programs.
TVWeek: How has cable television changed in the years in which you’ve been involved with the industry?
Ms. Johnson: I’ve been in television since 1987 and it’s not just cable anymore. It’s the launch of new products from cable companies. The offerings have changed things so it’s now become an overall communications industry.
TVWeek: Do you think these changes have been for the better, or have things been lost in the fragmentation of the industry?
Ms. Johnson: I think in order to remain relevant that it’s necessary for the business to evolve and to cover all platforms. It’s important for companies to offer multiple types of services across all the platforms out there. It’s a positive, absolutely.
TVWeek: What’s the current state of diversity in the cable industry today?
Ms. Johnson: In terms of diversity, there’s always room for improvement. I think we’re seeing more faces of color in front of the camera, particularly in cable, but there is still work to be done behind the camera. We need to put more people of color in decision-making roles. We want to make more of them show runners, writers and producers. We try to direct some of those issues in NAMIC through our Creative Summit program, and making people aware of the opportunities that exist in the industry. Opportunities extend beyond being the face on the screen.
TVWeek: What about opportunities for women in terms of diversity?
Ms. Johnson: For women, I would argue that there are probably more opportunities for growth in that area as well. Especially for women of ethnicity.
TVWeek: What do you think about the way television has evolved in the past two decades?
Ms. Johnson: Let me think…. It’s very interesting. The evolution, it has not necessarily been a stable process. When you look back at the 1980s with some of the top-rated shows on television, for instance, “The Cosby Show”—it had an all-black cast. It was on NBC, a major network. Today, look at the major network offerings and you see nothing that features an all-African-American cast. So I think the TV industry has had its ebbs and flows in terms of what’s happened. It’s been cable that has certainly grown and evolved and probably has the greatest body of work featuring diversity versus [what] the broadcast networks are doing today.
TVWeek: Is that across all the networks in your estimation?
Ms. Johnson: Well, if it were not for reality TV, there would be a great difference in the types of programs that people are watching. Reality television has really closed the divide in terms of showing people of various ethnicities on television as well as watching television.
TVWeek: Do you think reality TV has resulted in a more homogenized audience?
Ms. Johnson: I wouldn’t call it homogenized, because a lot of the reality shows feature many people of different ethnicities. I think it’s bringing a lot of different people into the viewing audience.
TVWeek: How have you seen technology affect the cable industry?
Ms. Johnson: It’s opening up opportunities. NAMIC’s role in all of this is making sure that people are prepared to take advantage of those opportunities. We have a group called the Diversity Roundtable that’s comprised of diversity practitioners within our industry, which we formed about five years ago, and they approached us because one of their challenges is in the recruitment side for some of those new-media positions. It also requires a whole different mindset for companies in terms of who they are looking at for those positions. They may want someone with 10 years of experience, but a lot of the people who have the expertise for those positions are probably only 20-somethings. They’re not going to have 10 years of experience, so we have to change the mindsets of employers. I also think getting to people at younger ages to make sure that they’re focusing on the kind of technical education that will prepare them for these types of positions is crucial.
TVWeek: What have you observed in the industry that’s different than you thought it would be?
Ms. Johnson: I think there’s still a significant lack of leading characters or programs that are fully focused on people who are multi-ethnic. There’s an absence of African-Americans even more so than an absence of Hispanics and Asians that are represented on television.
TVWeek: If you had the power to change things, what would you change right now?
Ms. Johnson: I would want to see more people of color in the decision-making roles. I’d like to see them deciding what projects get greenlighted. I’d like them in the position of deciding what gets on the air.
TVWeek: Tell me about NAMIC’s new program.
Ms. Johnson: Diversity Live is NAMIC’s new digital video network. It’s an online professional networking site that NAMIC is launching in partnership with Motorola within the coming weeks. The network will be fueled by mission-centered, user-generated content from NAMIC members. Each of our 17 chapters will also have channels. Diversity Live facilitates communication within our membership base that increasingly works digitally, communicates digitally and thinks digitally. We have worked with our new student chapter at De Paul University to create an internship program whereby students in the DePaul University College of Communications will earn college credit for creating content for Diversity Live, with the goal of creating greater interest in careers in digital technology and the communications industry.
TVWeek: What advice would you have for someone starting out in the TV industry today?
Ms. Johnson: I would tell them to make sure that they’ve honed their craft. Anyone starting should build a network of people who are going to be his/her champions along the way. I think you have to be up to date and current on technology, the evolution of new platforms, how to create content for those new platforms. Also having an awareness of the viewing audience and the need to make sure that you’re reflecting what is of interest to them.
TVWeek: Where do you see cable and satellite and various other kinds of TV going in the future?
Ms. Johnson: As people’s viewing habits change, the way that they view content is really going to drive the future. Not everyone is going to acquire content as they have in the past on the traditional television screen. Nowadays you can get content on your phone [or] on the Web. I think it’s a matter of how people choose to receive their content that is going to dictate the future.
TVWeek: Has television become fragmented to the point that there’s a channel for every group’s interests and desires?
Ms. Johnson: I wouldn’t say that there’s too much specialization. I think it can still be argued that there aren’t enough channels that perhaps appeal to certain ethnic groups. For instance, for African-Americans there hasn’t been a lot of choice. TVOne has certainly changed that dynamic, but I don’t think we should look at different ethnic groups as being monolithic and that they have varying interests. One of the things that has been great about cable [is] that there’s an ability to generate content on multiple platforms [and] you can appeal to the different interests of individuals.
TVWeek: What are the challenges and obstacles facing emerging digital channels?
Ms. Johnson: The competition for the viewer’s attention and time, because there are so many things that are distractions these days that it’s really about competing for their attention.
TVWeek: How important is the annual NAMIC conference to the cable industry?
Ms. Johnson: The conference is very important in that it addresses not only the issues that are pertinent to people of color, but I think it’s important to any company or any individual who is interested in maximizing their multicultural teams given the demographic shifts, where the business is going, and also looking at the dynamics, the generations. I think it’s very important that companies see the NAMIC Conference as a resource to them to get the most of the multicultural teams. Also, as businesses become more global, it’s very important to be able to manage diversity. When the conference first started in 1986, it was the Urban Markets Conference. It was designed to educate the industry about marketing and programming to ethnic consumers as cable operators were getting franchises in large urban areas. We’ve evolved the conference content now to include sessions that are about leadership development that are targeted to the individual, corporate diversity that is targeted to companies [and] HR diversity practitioners. We’re trying to make sure that they have a more inclusive work environment. We do something on digital technology to make sure that everyone is covered amongst multi-ethnic consumers. Again, how do you market a program to that group on new platforms? This year we’re adding a new track on the ad sales arena.
TVWeek: Why is that?
Ms. Johnson: We had requests from companies to help them with the challenges of finding more diverse candidates to go into the ad sales side of the business.
TVWeek: As a cable executive—the executive of the year—what keeps you up at night?
Ms. Johnson: When you’re in the nonprofit sector, it’s always about money. So far this year it’s been going pretty good despite the economic challenges and situations. We’ve been pretty successful thus far with our program this year.
TVWeek: What do you wish you knew 10 years ago that you know now?
Ms. Johnson: I have been pondering this for the past 24 hours and here’s my response. I don’t have any regrets. I started working full-time for NAMIC nearly 10 years ago and it’s one of the best decisions I have ever made. I love my job and our industry. I also enjoy working with all of the smart, dedicated people—staff, members and board of directors alike—who are so passionate about NAMIC’s mission.
TVWeek: How do you feel about the last 10 years and looking ahead into the future?
Ms. Johnson: We’ve had a pretty good 10 years. We’ve evolved as an organization. We’ve had a great infusion of capacity, building on the money that has helped us to grow our staff with greater infrastructure for NAMIC. We’d like to see more opportunities in ways that we can grow. We will continue to grow and be involved in the industry. I’m pleased with where we are.
TVWeek: Any final thoughts, Cable Executive of the Year?
Ms. Johnson: NAMIC was founded as an organization by a group of African-Americans and we rebranded the organization by changing the M in our name from minority to multi-ethnicity, as a way to recognize that minorities were becoming the majority. We also wanted to be reflective of the fact that all people, regardless of their ethnicity, were welcome to be in the NAMIC organization. Our board of directors is diversified and our membership is as well.

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