CBS has six new programs starring six white male actors in the fall. So when CBS entertainment president Glenn Geller took the stage at the Television Critics Association’s press tour in Beverly Hills on Wednesday morning, it wasn’t surprising that the very first question — and the second, third and fourth — was about the network’s commitment to diversity. “What message does it send,” a reporter asked pointed, “that the leads of your shows in the fall are all heterosexual white men?”
“I’m really glad this question came up first because we’re very mindful at CBS about the importance of diversity and inclusion and I’m glad we’re having this conversation first,” Geller said. “We need to do better and we know it. In terms of leads, we are definitely less diverse this year than last year, and like I said, we need to do better. But in terms of overall diversity in our new shows, we were actually more diverse this year than last year, and I think that that’s our commitment to diversity. It is ongoing.”
Before the panel, CBS pointed out a flurry of diverse additions to shows next year, such as former Rush Hour actor Justin Hires joining MacGyver, Vanessa Ferlito joining NCIS: New Orleans, Adam Rodriguez coming on board Criminal Minds, and Aisha Tyler becoming a series regular on Criminal Minds.
“We showed you some photos of 16 new series regulars, 11 of them are diverse,” Geller continued. “I know they’re not leads, but 11 are diverse and that is our commitment to diversity and those just aren’t words. That is real action … I wouldn’t say we’re mitigating anything. Those 16 roles were added because the showrunners were adding roles. I think the fact that 11 of them were cast diversely shows our commitment … And I understand certainly the inclination to look at the screen and just look at leads and say, ‘Well, what’s going on? Why are you less diverse?’ But I do think that when we’re talking about diversity and inclusion, we have to also look behind the camera and there we are doing very well. Our writers are more diverse than last year, our directors — and we’re not finished booking every slot but we’re on track. We continue to put additional resources and financial support into our CBS Diversity Institute and that covers many different parts of diversity for us. That’s our showcase, and it’s kind of the gold standard, I think, in the industry. Many people are cast from it. It includes our writers’ program, it includes our directors’ program … I think you have to look in front of the camera and behind the camera. And I understand we need to do better with leads.”
But that wasn’t anywhere near good enough for the room, which launched into multiple follow ups pressing the executive, with one critic pointing out this is a question that comes up at every TCA conference and other networks have made rapid progress to fix their lack of diversity: “You guys have had this problem for years. You’ve had years to fix this.”
“Look, I’m acknowledging we need to do better,” Geller repeated. “In terms of directors, and this is a place I would love to talk about, we’ve been getting better and better every single year about diversity among our director ranks and we have series where over half the directors are diverse. But I hear you, I really do, and I understand that we need to do better. I do want to point out though, that in the ensemble casting, we are more diverse this year than last year, and that is forward progress.”
Overall, Geller said “we need to do better” seven times during the grilling, said “we have to do better” once, and said “we’ve been getting better” three times.
EW first pointed out In May that the network’s six fall shows had uniformly white male leads. New legal drama Bull stars Michael Weatherly in the title role; a reboot of 1980s action-hour MacGyver features Lucas Till and George Eads; medical drama Pure Genius stars Augustus Prew as a billionaire genius and Dermot Mulroney as a maverick surgeon; comedy The Great Indoors stars Joel McHale as an adventure reporter; Man with a Plan stars Matt LeBlanc in family comedy; and Kevin Can Wait stars Kevin James as a retired cop.
There is some diversity planned for 2017. The network’s new midseason legal drama Doubt starring Katherine Heigl features transgender actress and rights advocate Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black) in a costarring role. Another midseason drama, Training Day, includes actor Justin Cornwell, who is black, as a co-lead. Veteran actor Bill Paxton costars in that series, filling the role Denzel Washington had in the original film.
Geller was also asked about LGBT inclusion. “I think things are definitely shifting and in terms of LGBT representation,” Geller added. “We have more LGBT characters on this coming year than ever before. We have in our newer series especially, on Bull, on The Great Indoors, in the second year of Code Black. Vanessa Ferlito who we cast in NCIS: New Orleans, her character is lesbian and they’re doing a storyline a little later in the fall where the audience will understand that and see that. And Laverne Cox, in Doubt, which will be on later this season, is a historic role. She’s going to be the first transgender actress ever to play a series regular character. That is huge.”