This article was originally published on June 16, 2017.
There’s been enough discussion about diversity in the TV industry — it’s time for action.
That was the central theme a headline panel at Realscreen West earlier this month in Santa Monica. The panel was moderated by D’Angela Proctor, SVP programming and production for TV One and featuring Carlos King, EP, founder, Kingdom Reign Entertainment; Adam Reed, president, Thinkfactory Media; Jonathan Sinclair, EVP programming and development, OWN Oprah Winfrey Network; and Rachel Tung, VP, development, MTV + VH1.
Central to the discussion was what can be done to ensure there is more diverse talent behind the scenes, as well as in front of the camera.
“I’m really tired of these panels,” Proctor lamented off the bat. Her intention, she said, was to end the discussion by coming up with action items that everyone in the room could commit to going forward.
Here are four takeaways from the session:
Audiences want to see themselves
When asked why it’s important to showcase diversity on screen as well as behind the camera, Kingdom’s King provided a succinct answer: We live in a diverse world.
King said the term “diversity” refers to all shapes and forms. “What I try to accomplish is to show people of color in a diverse light,” he said.
King, who has produced high-profile programs such as The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Hollywood Divas and Love & Hip Hop, said he works daily to “level the playing field” by showing women of all forms. “There are moments that may not be so lovely, but that’s life.”
Behind the scenes, King added that it’s important that when you’re working with a diverse cast, that they see a reflection of themselves in the crew.
OWN’s Sinclair expanded on the point, noting that viewers are looking for a heightened and more authentic version of themselves onscreen. On the Oprah Winfrey Show, producers are conscious of showcasing a diverse audience at all times, even if the shot is only that of a quick cutaway of an audience member laughing.
Thinkfactory’s Reed reflected on the series Preached, which airs on go90 and Rated Red. The show follows a young, white and unconventional Evangelical Christian pastor named Matt Chewing as he tries to bring a community closer to Jesus. Chewing’s best friend Eddie is black, and Thinkfactory had to decide how to cover race-related issues that were top-of-mind for the pair, while still airing the show on a “red state” millennial-focused network.
In the end, said Reed, they chose to tell an honest story.
“I think a show dictates who you hire, and the story dictates who you follow,” he said. “I hope that people in a position of power, whether it’s the producers or the network you’re working.”
King noted that, as producers, you can’t ignore what’s happening in the world. In The Real Housewives of Atlanta, for example, the wives go to Africa to have an experience and give back to disenfranchised people. This last season, the cast members were shot going to Flint to help with the water crisis, and raising money to feed the homeless in Atlanta.
Go beyond what you know
Proctor noted that early on in her career, she only sold shows to people she knew, which happened to be execs from female-skewing networks such as TV One and BET. This prompted a conversation on how buyers can foster relationships with people outside their network.
The panel agreed that conferences such as Realscreen West provide a gateway for people to get a meeting with networks outside their go-to sphere.
Tung emphasized that when it comes to MTV and VH1′s strategy to broaden its production scope, all impressions from producers are about leaving a calling card for your tastes and how you approach a show. While sometimes we may not buy a show that you’re pitching, she said, the network may remember you for a future project.
King gave Proctor credit for expanding his network, as when he first approached her for a show, while she had confidence in his ideas, King lacked infrastructure. While King was the designated storyteller and leader, the result was a “wonderful” relationship that spawned three seasons and another show.
Sinclair added that it is the responsibility of senior producers to help the young talent in the field when it comes to diversity, and not their great characters slip into a cliché.
“I think the stuff that worked five to 10 years ago, or even five to 10 minutes ago, isn’t going to work going forward,” he said. “You have to help the young talent in the field understand not to go there, and reveal the layers.”
Avoid low hanging fruit
Audiences are becoming very savvy, said Sinclair.
“The shit that feels produced is shit they won’t watch. They don’t need to feel the producing, but it’s all produced. If it’s too heavy, the time is running out so you need to have to go deeper.”
As part of this effort to “go deeper”, Sinclair showcased a trailer from OWN’s newest series. Released, produced by Lucky 8 TV, features intimate, first-person narratives of formerly incarcerated men and women as they walk out of prison doors for the first time to restart their lives.
Sinclair said that a breakdown shows that 50% of the OWN audience has a connection to the mass incarceration issue. What’s more, he thought it was a poignant program to preview as it shows how you can address the issues your audience is wrestling with while continuing to tell good stories,
“Don’t go for the low hanging fruit,” said Tung, regarding getting to these deeper stories. “You need to go the distance.”
Ultimately, said Proctor, the industry needs to do better.
“We can always be committed to diversity and inclusion and belonging, as Ava DuVernay likes to say. I urge everyone here to take the extra step to be mindful about diversity and inclusion and make better decisions.”