Diverse Voices: Economy an Equal-Opportunity Offender

Apr 12, 2009  •  Post A Comment

The economy has become an equal-opportunity offender, cutting budgets and personnel across industries nationwide.
When it comes to TV, that has meant fewer advertising dollars and tighter programming development. When it comes to the recession’s effect on diversity in Hollywood, well … people would rather not talk about it.
Diversity advocates all wonder whether the recession will be used as an excuse to cut minority training programs and limit networking opportunities with hiring executives.
“I am pleased that we’ve been able to actively continue our diversity efforts, and have started a couple of new programs,” said Kim Myers, director of diversity at the Writers Guild of America. “But I’m concerned overall. This is a time when diversity may not be seen as a core cost of doing business.”
Calls to CBS, ABC, the Screen Actors Guild and others were either not returned or executives declined to comment. At the Producers Guild of America, diversity committee chairman George Sunga said, “So far, we’ve been able to do things without spending a lot of money, and we’ll sustain that.”
Therein lies the answer to the question. As long as diversity efforts don’t cost a lot of money, people are happy to sustain them.
Ron Taylor, VP of diversity development for the Fox Entertainment Group, noted, “The downturn has prevented us from funding some new initiatives with deserving organizations, but fortunately we’ve been able to continue a steady level of ongoing support for our established programs and organizations.”
The one bright light in talking about the economy’s effect on diversity in Hollywood comes from Paula Madison, executive VP of diversity for NBC Universal and a company officer for GE, who said plans are under way in her shop to increase support for diversity initiatives.
“Our 2009 budget for diversity commitments has increased,” Madison said. “One of the things that [NBC Universal President and CEO] Jeff Zucker wanted was to ensure that diversity is not cut because of this economy.”
Madison cites a long list of initiatives, ranging from director fellowships to paid high school internships, but the initiative that stands head and shoulders above the rest is NBC’s writers program.
NBC gives showrunners money to hire an entry-level diverse writer whom they’ve never worked with, funding the positions for up to three years. As a writer moves up to become a story editor and executive story editor, the amount the network contributes remains the same, with the show paying the balance of the salary increase.
“Our broadcast TV shows all participate, and it’s broadened to late night and cable TV shows as well,” Madison said.
If a show is canceled, the network tries to find the writer opportunities elsewhere so that the talent is not lost.
Where other networks have diversity programs that involve competitions, training and shadowing, NBC has put its money where the future lies—in hiring and retaining a multicultural workforce that can create shows everyone will relate to and watch.
It is this kind of commitment that the industry needs in order to truly create equal opportunity in hiring. To broaden viewership, sooner or later, television is going to have to become less white and more diverse.
It’s ironic that reality shows do a better job of reflecting a diverse America than scripted primetime shows, something that has given that genre relevancy and water-cooler cache.
As Myers at the WGA notes, whether the industry is ready or not, younger viewers see the world as multiracial and demand that in their entertainment.
“The norm now is we have a multiracial president who has selected a diverse group of people to help him run the country,” Myers said. “As difficult and as painful as these economic times are, there’s something invigorating about the spirit of the country now.”
Clearly it’s time for art to imitate real life.
Dinah Eng is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

One Comment

  1. Hi Dinah,
    Thank you for including me in your article. We are ready to begin our 5th diversity workshop called, the Producers Workshop – The Strength of Diversity. This program affects 20 to 23 participants from our industry who have an idea for one of genres we feature in the workshop: TV Comedy; TV Drama; Reality; and Feature Motion Pictures. For the most part, they are faces of color or female who need help to turn their idea into a viable project. The workshop starts May 5th thru June 27th with mentoring sessions twice a week. Marshall Herskovitz will mentor in Motion Pictures; Damon Lindelof for TV Drama; Ali LeRoi for TV Comedy and Luis Barreto for Reality.If you are interested, I think you might want to attend one of these sessions. I guarantee that it will be a revelation. It still is for me. Give me a call at 323-467-7220 if this is something you would like to witness.
    Dinah,continued success to you,

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