Despite CBS programming chiefs on Thursday touting strides with diversity in front of and behind the camera of their scripted series, they continued to come under fire by the TCA press corps for mismanaging inclusivity on the network’s reality programs like Big Brother and Survivor.
One press member today specifically called out the situation of Kemi, an African-American woman on Big Brother, who in the wake of being eliminated from the show claimed series producers tried to goad her into playing the part of a sassy black woman. The reporter also reminded CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl and SVP Programming Thom Sherman about Survivor contestant Julia Carter’s 4,600-word essay on her experience during Season 38, which entailed a racial slur being used on the first day and the backlash she received after discussing exclusion in the first four episodes.
“There is a significant difference between diversity and inclusion. Casting a few Black faces each season simply isn’t enough. Include them in the story. Stop giving them stereotypical edits that perpetuate the same stereotypes that many of us come on the show to combat,” Carter wrote.
Said Sherman about the Big Brother incident: “A producer, we learned, in an attempt to get a soundbite, overstepped. That producer was reprimanded and received unconscious bias training, as well as other producers on the show [did]. We don’t want that to happen again.”
Kahl added that “all of our producers receive unconscious bias training” and said the vast number of contestants “are quite happy on how they’re represented” coming off CBS reality shows. “Thousands of hours are cut down to 42 minutes an episode,” he said. “We can’t show everything that happens on the show, and producers strive to show a good representation of what happens.”
Blasted NPR TV critic Eric Deggans to the CBS brass onstage this morning: “We’re telling you, you have a problem with your reality shows. Why don’t you just acknowledge that instead of spinning that?”
Said Sherman, “On Big Brother, half our cast this year is diverse, and the last three winners there have been people of color.”
At the top of the session, before being sweated by the press corps, Sherman trumpeted the network’s progress with diversity, saying “clearly we’re looking different on air…and behind the scenes.” He touted such stats as 53% of CBS’ writers are women or people of color, while that demo makes up 50% of the network’s directors.
“We know this work must continue,” said Sherman, “as we evolve creatively and commercially.”
The backlash against CBS at TCA was at its loudest during the 2016 press tour, when the network showcased a slate of six new comedies — all starring white men. Kahl and Sherman also received plenty of criticism at the summer 2017 tour, when S.W.A.T. was the only new show with a minority lead, and the six shows being presented lacked a female leading role.
Throughout all of this, CBS has worked to ramp up its diversity initiatives with an annual casting directors symposium. The network also hosts a comedy sketch showcase for aspiring minority performers, artists and writers from the LGBTQ community.