IN LIVING COLOR
CBS Has a Diversity Problem, and No Good Plan to Fix It
CBS executives were grilled about a lack of diversity—it’s TV’s whitest network, with no new series starring women—and infuriated reporters with its vague plan of action to fix it.
CBS has a major problem with diversity.
It’s an issue that exploded in a major way earlier this summer when Hawaii Five-O stars Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park announced they were departing the series after seven seasons because the network didn’t meet their demand for pay parity with their white co-stars, Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan.
The conversation volleyed wildly, with Kim writing on Facebook, “the path to equality is rarely easy.” Some critics noted that while Kim and Park have appeared in every episode of the series, they are not technically the leads of the show and therefore it made sense that they didn’t receive the same pay as O’Loughlin and Caan.
CBS itself said it offered “large and significant” salary bumps in order to try to keep the actors—sources say Kim’s offer was within two percent of the leads—but the fact remains it wasn’t sufficient for the actors to be paid financially less, nor has it been enough for the fans, critics, and activists who rallied on their behalf for equality.
At a Television Critics Association press conference Tuesday, CBS executives Kelly Kahl and Thom Sherman faced a firing squad of questions about the problematic state of diversity on its current lineup that focused on more systemic problems than just the Hawaii Five-O controversy.
For the second straight development season, CBS did not pick up a single new show with a female lead. More, the CBS casting department on both coasts is made up entirely of white staffers, making at least two recent examples of characters written as people of color being cast as white actors especially problematic.
Grilled with nearly a dozen questions on the topic of diversity, the executives grew visibly frustrated and almost flippant near the end of the 30-minute session as their vague answers failed to satisfy reporters who wanted to know what the network’s plan is to actionably and specifically address the issue. In short: they have no plan.
“The way I have tended to develop in my career is to have people bring me everything,” said Sherman, fielding the first question on the topic. “When you cast a wide net like that I think you get the kind of shows that you’re talking about. We want our slate to be inclusive, we want it to be diverse, we want all sort of different types of programming.”
NPR’s Eric Deggans refuted the “we cast a wide net” reasoning that’s often employed when development executives want credit for exploring diverse and inclusive options but instead settle for ordering more of the status-quo kind of programming (read: white) because the material was arguably stronger.
That’s unacceptable, Deggans pointed out, in a second consecutive season with zero female leads in the new slate. Other networks like FX have already followed through on pledges to ensure that more people of color and women work behind the scenes, an initiative that has seen results. Isn’t it time for there to be similar, measurable steps at CBS, when two years running there have been no female leads on any of its new fall shows?
“CBS did develop shows with female leads last year,” Kahl said. “We had six pilots with female leads, and the way things turned out those pilots were not felt to be as good as some of the other pilots and series that were picked up.”
(For context, shows that were picked up instead include Kevin James’s Kevin Can Wait—Metacritic score: 39 percent—and Matt LeBlac’s Man With a Plan—Metacritc score: 36 percent.)
“That’s just the cycle of the business and that’s what happens,” said Kahl. “Personally, as I’ve said, this is the way I’ve always developed.”
To its credit, CBS wanted it known that it has made strides in recent years to make diverse hires and cast people of color as leads in its shows. (S.W.A.T., a new fall drama starring Shemar Moore, held a press conference minutes before the executives spoke to reporters.)
Last year after CBS announced its six new fall shows all featuring white male leads, the Los Angeles Times reported it had the whitest primetime schedule on network television. This year, there are two new dramas with people of color in major roles.
“We can debate or have a discussion about the pace of the change, but there is change happening at CBS,” said Sherman. “We have two shows with diverse leads that we didn’t have on the schedule last year. We have a midseason show with a lead character who’s gay. Over the last few years, if you look at the number of diverse series regulars, that’s up almost 60 percent. The number of writers we have from diverse backgrounds is up over the last few years, as is directors. So we are absolutely moving in the right direction.”
Still, reporters wanted to have that debate about the pace of change, especially since this isn’t a new issue for CBS. Once a trailblazer in terms of diversity, it has now been leapfrogged by every major network, and is extremely behind in terms of playing catch up.
“We have a lot of long running shows, so there’s not a lot of shelf space at times for putting this sort of programming on,” said Kahl. “But we have every intention of having a diverse slate.”
The expressed intention to diversify but no specifics on how it would happen became a recurring theme of the press conference. It was especially stark when Variety’s Maureen Ryan pointed out that the network’s casting staff is entirely white.
“I personally don’t think that has anything to do with it,” Kahl said. Asked about it again later, he conceded slightly that it was an issue that needed to be addressed: “They’ve been together for a long time. That’s the department that it’s been. We are cognizant of an issue. We hear you. We are looking to expand the casting departments.”
By the time Salon’s Melanie McFarland brought up two examples of TV pilots that cast white actors in characters written for people of color, including the upcoming new series By the Book, the executives seemed exasperated.
“We can’t speak to what happened with those two shows,” said Kahl. How would he prevent that from happening again? “I don’t know what else to say about that other than we will do it.”
Why is this shrug-the-shoulders reaction frustrating? Why does this matter? CBS has been the most-watched network on TV for 14 of the last 15 years. The stories it tells have a global reach—Sherman bragged that NCIS is the most watched TV show in the world at the top of the session—and the actors and creators hired to tell it are afforded lucrative opportunities, of which Kim and Park were crusading for an equal share.
There should be not just a responsibility to reflect diverse experiences with that platform, but an eagerness and excitement for doing so. Or, at the very least, better answers for journalists obligated and impassioned to take the network to task for its current failings and controversies.