CBS execs grilled over diversity
Network executives face questions about shows lacking women and people of color.
CBS may be the reigning broadcast network, with the most total viewers for nine seasons running, but the network’s entertainment president Kelly Kahl and senior executive vice president of programming Thom Sherman quickly found themselves in defense mode at the summer edition of the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Beverly Hills on Tuesday.
During their executive session Kahl and Sherman faced a buzz saw of questions and criticism over the network's continued lack of progress over casting people of color and women in leading and key roles on its comedies and dramas.
Of the network’s six new shows, just one — “SWAT” — features a minority lead, and none features a woman in a leading role.
Although the executives insisted that diversity is an important issue for the network and that they have made strides on that front, they continued to be peppered with queries by reporters who said CBS has consistently shown little in-
terest during the last several years in casting minorities in lead roles.
The tense exchanges marked the second time in two years that CBS has come under fire on its diversity record during the press tour. Even with its new lineup, CBS has the lowest number of minority leads among broadcast networks and is the only broadcast network to not have a series built around a family of color.
“We want our slate to be inclusive. We want it to be diverse,” Sherman said. “We want all sorts of programming. … And we believe that we will get that.”
“With all due respect, we hear that all the time,” said one reporter, who pointed out that other networks, studios and production companies have made concerted efforts in promoting multiculturalism.
Added the reporter, “Isn't it time now for you to really focus on that and say, ‘We won't advance another fall slate that doesn't have a show that stars a woman?’ ”
Sherman said that the network last season had developed six pilots with female leads, but none of the series apparently met the standard to make it to air.
“But that had nothing to do with the female leads,” Sherman said. “They were fantastic. That's just the cycle of business, and that's how it happens sometimes.”
In the same vein, Kahl and Sherman were grilled on the network’s decision to not offer salary parity to two Asian cast members of “Hawaii Five-0,” Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park, who subsequently left the show.
“We made very, very strong attempts to keep them and offered them a lot of money to stick around,” said Kahl, noting that many long-running shows lose cast members and that CBS did not want the actors to leave.
At one point, the executives — who inherited the upcoming fall slate from previous CBS entertainment president Glenn Geller, who stepped down earlier this year — appeared caught offguard when one reporter pointed out that the network's casting departments on both coasts are all white.
“Is that why why you've had trouble casting people of color in leading roles on the CBS network?” the reporter asked.
Kahl praised Peter Golden, executive vice president of talent and casting, and said, “I personally don't think that has anything to do with it. Peter and his team have been together a long time. They're fantastic at what they do.” Kahl later added, “We are cognizant of the issue ... and we will be looking to expand the casting department.”
Asked why a creator of a project that showcased the diversity of America would be inclined to pitch CBS given the network's slow move on that front, Kahl seemed taken aback.
“To be honest with you, I'm not exactly even sure how to address that,” he said. After a pause, he said, “I will say again, I think you've seen a lot of diversity on CBS over the years, going way, way back into our past.”
When pressed on the network’s relative lack of progress when compared with that of other networks, Kahl said he believed CBS is moving in the right direction.
“We have two shows with diverse leads this year that we didn't have on the schedule last year,” he said. “We have a midseason show with a lead character who's gay. And over the last few years, if you look at the number of diverse series regulars, that's up almost 60%. The number of writers we have from diverse backgrounds is up over the last few years, as are directors. We can have a discussion about the pace of the change, but there is change happening at CBS.”
The network’s perceived lack of progress has come under more scrutiny in the shadow of the #Oscars SoWhite controversy that sparked a furor two years ago.
CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0” lost actors Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim.
KELLY KAHL, CBS Entertainment president
THOM SHERMAN, programming executive