Gabrielle Union’s Firing from ‘America’s Got Talent’ Underscores NBC’s Race Problems
The actress was ousted from the reality-competition series amid claims of racist behavior on the part of producers. It’s the latest example of questionable conduct at the network.
Gabrielle Union’s firing from NBC’s hit variety show America’s Got Talent has raised a flurry of questions and concerns about the show, and the culture at NBC.
Union co-hosted the popular show for one season, but her contract was not renewed and the public is left wondering exactly why the actress won’t be coming back to AGT. Union had the largest social media engagement of anyone on the show, and despite show ratings not being as strong as they were in earlier years, her tenure saw an uptick in the show’s online presence. But there’s a firestorm brewing regarding how Union was treated and how NBC has handled potentially explosive incidents surrounding America’s Got Talent.
Union’s ouster from NBC’s hit show has come with troubling allegations of toxic and discriminatory behavior on the part of the show, co-host Simon Cowell, and NBC. According to Variety, there were ongoing complaints from producers about co-host Julianne Hough’s attire and Union’s hair—which was reportedly criticized for being “too black.” And Vulture reports that Union was branded “difficult” after she requested that something be done about Simon Cowell’s smoking before and after tapings, and after she voiced concern over the elimination of 10-year-old African-American contestant Dylan Gilmer. Gilmer reportedly received an extremely positive reaction from audiences during auditions, but was eliminated in favor of a white dance troupe from Texas that the producers allegedly said would be easier for “America to get behind,” which Union saw as coded racism.
After she became visibly upset regarding the Gilmer incident, Cowell reportedly told Union to come to him with any grievances—which she believed to be an attempt to cover up problems in the workplace. But things apparently went from bad to worse following an appearance by former Tonight Show host Jay Leno as a guest judge on the show. During a segment, Leno joked that a painting of Cowell with five dogs “looked like something on the menu of a Korean restaurant,” and Union felt the remark was insensitive to Asian viewers and Asian staff. After the joke was cut from the broadcast, Union stated that she was still concerned as to what NBC would do to be more proactive in preventing staffers from being subject to racist remarks.
A culture of boorishness and discrimination behind the scenes at America’s Got Talent seems to be the latest in a history of poor management involving America’s Got Talent and the wider NBC brand. This debacle comes just two years after Nick Cannon’s dramatic departure from the show back in 2017. NBC and Cannon parted ways after the network reprimanded Cannon for using the N-word in his Showtime comedy special. Cannon, after posting a lengthy Facebook post about the situation, decided to step away from AGT and blasted NBC for attempting to censor him for content that wasn’t even affiliated with their network.
And, to put it charitably, NBC’s recent track record on matters of race, gender and the handling of both in the workplace has not been stellar.
The hiring of former Fox News pundit Megyn Kelly to anchor the third hour of the Today show in 2017 was met with criticism, as Kelly was a polarizing figure during her tenure at Fox News, but also because Today hosts Tamron Hall and Al Roker, both African-American, were already tenured at the network and had been passed over for the role. Hall would depart NBC shortly thereafter, eventually landing at ABC with her own show, while Kelly would subsequently flame out. After a Halloween segment in 2018 during which Kelly defended blackface, saying that it was “OK when I was a kid as long as you were dressing like a character,” the backlash was immediate, and she issued an internal apology to NBC staff via email. Her Today co-host Roker was critical. “While she apologized to her staff, she owes a bigger apology to folks of color around the country because this is a history of going back to the 1830s.” Kelly would offer a second apology on-air, but NBC canceled Megyn Kelly Today and her contract was terminated in early 2019.
Despite a fan push for Hall to return to NBC, the newswoman already signed a deal with ABC-owned Television Stations Group. “I decided to take a leap of faith,” she told PEOPLE. “I knew I would have to trust my gut and that I could be a part of something that would reflect who I am as a person, as a journalist, as a woman.”
The ousting of Matt Lauer following escalating allegations of sexual harassment and assault was another incident where NBC’s standards and practices were called into question. In his new book Catch and Kill, former NBC News staffer Ronan Farrow reported that NBC knew of Lauer’s history, going so far as to allege that Harvey Weinstein leveraged Lauer’s past against the network to attempt to squelch reports of Weinstein’s own impropriety. Former NBC News correspondent Linda Vester also stated that the network had known there were allegations against Lauer. “We all knew Matt was dangerous,” she told Fox News earlier this year. “He had to be avoided at all costs. So for NBC executives to say they didn’t know—I have a hard time with that.” Vester accused former NBC host Tom Brokaw of sexual harassment, and chided the network for a culture of toxicity.
“There’s a problem with abuse of power at NBC News where people like Matt Lauer, people like Tom Brokaw, are enabled day after day by having so much power over women and the careers of women. It distorts them, frankly,” she said.
According to journalist Yashar Ali, Gabrielle Union is “exploring her legal options” in regards to her unceremonious departure from America’s Got Talent. But however this plays out in the long-term, NBC has to take a long, hard look at these incidents and the professional culture it wilfully enables. These aren’t isolated incidents when they occur under the same banner, and with a reputation for being a quintessentially American brand, and a brand that seems to care deeply about maintaining that image, they need to recognize that what it means to be an American brand has shifted. Gabrielle Union deserved better and NBC can do better. What will be its incentive to be better? We’ll have to wait and see, but scrutinizing whether or not NBC has created a culture embracing of women in general and women of color in particular is understandable and necessary. Viewers have to decide for themselves: is NBC a brand America can get behind?