Though recent protests have led to more minorities on screen, they're still facing closed doors in Hollywood's executive suites.

By EW Staff
Updated October 08, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

“This business is amazingly fair — unless you happen to be Asian, black, Hispanic, gay, or a woman.”

The person behind that quote is an executive at a major entertainment company, and more importantly, one of the few minorities in a position of authority in his business. Understandably, he didn’t want to be identified, because diversity in entertainment is clearly the hottest of hot-button issues in Hollywood right now. So far, most of the debate has centered on racial balance in front of the camera: which shows have minority faces, which shows don’t, etc. But our anonymous exec’s wry assessment goes to the heart of the real issue: The situation in Hollywood’s all-important executive suites is — to appropriate NAACP president Kweisi Mfume’s now-infamous assessment — a ”virtual whitewash.”

The importance of diversity in the entertainment world’s power corridors should be obvious. After all, it bodes ill for a multicultural society when the major decisions affecting what we see on TV, hear in music, and watch in movies are made by a mostly homogenized group. Case in point: The Sept. 21 season premiere of NBC’s Will & Grace originally had a Salvadoran maid being referred to as a ”tamale,” considered a slur by Hispanics. Latino groups quickly condemned the usage. And though the term was dubbed over as ”honey” before the broadcast, the consensus among minority groups is that the issue would never have come up had there been more executives of color working behind the scenes. Ironically, the episode aired during a viewer ”brownout” led by Latino groups protesting minority underrepresentation. ”This is civil rights in the media age. This is our Selma,” says Felix Sanchez, president of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. ”The hiring, promotion, and retention of minorities in executive suites is of critical concern to us.”

Even the networks’ response to the diversity issue is revealing. Stung by overwhelming criticism, the nets have hastily added minority faces to existing casts. Shows such as CBS’ Judging Amy, ABC’s Wasteland, and The WB’s Safe Harbor were modified to incorporate minority characters. But as Rob Lowe, who stars in NBC’s diversity-challenged series The West Wing, bluntly observes, ”I’m not sure how much of a difference it’s going to make to a 12-year-old kid growing up in Watts if they get a black guy to play the third lead on Dharma & Greg.”

Although sprinkling actors of color onto the TV landscape is an easy fix for now, it’s a superficial one. ”We’re not just talking about a few actors, because actors don’t decide what roles they get,” says John White, director of communications for the NAACP. ”We’re talking about the boardroom.”

But here’s the rub: Although Hollywood’s under a great deal of social pressure to accept diversity, from a business standpoint — the only standpoint that matters in this industry — the issue is far less urgent. In television, advertisers want young, upscale white people; hence, networks go after young, upscale white audiences. NBC’s Scott Sassa, the only minority to oversee an entire broadcast network’s programming, has said he has a deep understanding of racial imbalances. But even he points out that his priorities as an executive don’t always allow for a personal viewpoint: ”The goal we have is not necessarily to create the most diverse programming. We want the best programming that people will watch. We work for public companies, and our charge is to make certain that we have the biggest audiences.”

It’s an intriguing dilemma, one that goes a long way toward explaining why even the few minority executives in Hollywood often feel powerless to effect change. “TV’s about selling soap,” says African-American director Leonard R. Garner Jr. (Just Shoot Me, Becker). “It’s not about racial diversity or making sure that people in white communities meet black people.” Adds Lifetime’s Kelly Goode Abugov, one of the few African-American programming execs at any network: “At some point, you kind of don’t know what to do. Hollywood is such a liberal community, it should be the most receptive place for diversity.” With that in mind, here’s an industry-by-industry analysis of the racial balance—or imbalance—in Hollywood’s back rooms:

TELEVISION At first glance, it appears that TV is relatively ahead of the curve compared with the other entertainment industries. In addition to Sassa, people like Lifetime’s Goode Abugov, Discovery Networks president Johnathan Rodgers, USA Networks programming honcho Stephen Chao, and a number of others are in positions of prominence. Minority producers including Yvette Lee Bowser (For Your Love, Living Single), Suzanne de Passe (the Temptations miniseries), and Paris Barclay, who just won his second directing Emmy for NYPD Blue, are also gaining influence in the community. And of course, Oprah Winfrey is a one-woman diversity task force, employing a wide number of minorities on her show and in her production company.

But these are the exceptions, and most of the creative executives come from the cable side, where smaller, newer, niche-oriented organizations can be more liberal in their hiring. At the six broadcast networks, there are roughly 80 people in programming positions of vice president and above. Only 12 are minorities. At The WB, of the 11 upper-level programming jobs, there are no minorities. In fairness, The WB does employ a number of minority producers and airs a significant number of black-themed shows. (“In that sense,” says network spokesman Brad Turell, “we’ve been overachievers amongst an underachieving group of networks.”)

Still, in general, “the decision makers in TV are people who live in Bel Air and Malibu and Brentwood,” says Barclay, who is coexecutive-producing Steven Bochco’s black hospital drama, City of Angels, set to air on CBS this winter. “I don’t think it’s racism. They’re just not sensitive to the fact that America looks different from the America they may be living in.”

FILM “When I was trying to get The Joy Luck Club made,” says producer Chris Lee, “I remember an executive saying ‘But there are no Americans in the picture.’ I said, ‘There are Americans, they just don’t look like you.'” Lee, former president of production at Sony’s TriStar and Columbia studios, also notes that “when I was at [Sony], not only was I the highest-ranking minority, I was the only minority. And the Asian-American community has done a lot better than the African-American and Hispanic communities.”

In short, the diversity track record of the studios is miserable—even worse than television. Other than Time Warner president Richard Parsons, who oversees new Warner Bros. chiefs Barry Meyer and Alan Horn, there are no minorities at the top of the film industry. And there are practically none in the next tier, aside from a few rising stars, like Sony’s Walter Hamada and Disney’s Leo Chu. When asked about its creative execs of color, Fox named one, its president of consumer products, Patricia Wyatt; Universal has none.

The most significant contributions from people of color have come from directors and independent producers, people like Spike Lee, Gregory Nava (Selena, Mi Familia), John Singleton, John Woo, and Asian-American director M. Night Shyamalan, who credits part of the success of his breakthrough feature, The Sixth Sense, to his nontraditional sensibility: “I didn’t just do it for white guys from California. It feels universal.”

But though such players have effected change in their own way, none are directly involved in Hollywood’s well-guarded corporate infrastructure. Says Sony exec VP of postproduction Jim Honore, who is Creole by heritage: “It’s a very insular town. I try my best to even the playing field where I can, but I don’t see the industry breaking ground.”

MUSIC The most inclusive sector of entertainment is the recording industry, where African-American and Hispanic executives wield considerable power, especially in the growing world of independent labels. But the important caveat in music is that the executives of color are generally “segregated” to ethnic music divisions: Black execs run black-music groups, Hispanic execs run Latin-music groups, and the bigger pop divisions are run by…guess who? “I have a problem with that, I really do,” says Antonio “L.A.” Reid, cofounder of LaFace Records, along with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. “I don’t understand why a minority record-promotion guy can’t go and promote records at major mainstream stations. Why does the Latino promote only Latino stations, and the African-American person do only African-American radio? If I worked at an investment bank, the fact that I’m black doesn’t mean I’d be put on all the black accounts.”

And perhaps because whites run the bigger mainstream divisions, when executives are tapped to run labels, the most prominent candidates are white. In fact, despite the relative abundance of minority talent in the recording industry, only one major multi-genre pop label is currently run by a minority: Sylvia Rhone, at Elektra. “There’s no reason why [she] should be the only black person that deals with Busta Rhymes and Metallica,” says Chris Lighty, CEO of hot hip-hop outfit Violator Records and Management.

But with black and Latin acts dominating more and more of the business, it seems inevitable that the minorities who run those divisions should eventually ascend to higher corporate levels. “The industry is largely dominated by guys who have been in the business for so many years,” says Reid. “I think the next generation of executives is so much more open to diversity. I really believe it’s going to change.”

(With additional reporting by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, Bruce Fretts, Laura Morgan, Sean O’Heir, and Jessica Shaw)