NBC first to answer NAACP challenge

Television: Steps to increase diversity include recruitment programs and avoiding `ghettoizing' of shows.

January 05, 2000|By Erin Texeira and David Zurawik | Erin Texeira and David Zurawik,SUN STAFF

Responding to pressure from the NAACP to increase diversity on television programs, NBC executives will announce today they have set up a minority recruitment program and will make efforts to further increase the racial diversity of the company's board members, an NAACP official said yesterday.

The network will be the first of the four major networks -- among ABC, CBS and FOX-TV -- to make policy changes after the civil rights organization's criticism of them last summer.

The announcements, which are scheduled to come at a morning news conference in New York, will detail a package of some 30 agreements between NBC and the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said John C. White, NAACP spokesman.

The goals set no quotas for hiring minority actors or directors, but set up a program for cultivating minority talent -- both on-camera and off.

The agreement sets goals for increasing the amount of money NBC spends promoting shows with minority actors, White said.

The goals also include a reference to integrating minority shows with white programming to avoid what NAACP officials have called "ghettoizing," the grouping of minority shows on nights without white programming.

In addition, there will be a provision to encourage an increased presence on the board of directors of NBC -- which is owned by General Electric Corp. -- of African-Americans, White said.

G.E. now has four minorities on its board, two of whom are African-American, said Kassie Canter, a spokeswoman for NBC.

Bob Wright, NBC president and CEO, and Scott Sassa, president of NBC West Coast, are expected at the news conference.

Formal agreements between the NAACP and the other three networks regarding racial diversity are pending, White said.

"We're extremely close with the others," he said, adding that no dates have been set but they are expected "soon."

The initiatives come after months of often tense negotiating with the networks that began at the NAACP's annual convention in New York last summer when its president, Kweisi Mfume, called the new line-up of network programming a "virtual whitewash."

"You know what we're going to have to do? Turn off the tube," Mfume told convention-goers in July. "We're not going to watch those shows that make us look invisible."

Through the fall and early winter, he met with network executives in New York and Los Angeles to hammer out details. In November, he gave the networks diversity goals and repeatedly threatened a boycott during February sweeps if some agreement were not reached by the end of the year.

Since entering into discussions with the NAACP, Sassa has stressed that an increased minority presence on- and off-screen makes sense for NBC.

Explaining that "the network television business makes most of its money from its owned and operated stations," he said, NBC has "13 owned and operated stations in cities like New York, L.A., Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, Dallas, Birmingham and Raleigh.

"The point is these are all markets that have a higher concentration of minority populations," he said. "It's not only the right thing to do, it makes good business sense."

Sassa said he takes the issue of diversity personally because he's Asian-American.

"I don't know that I'm qualified to tell you how African-Americans feel about how they're portrayed or what they see on television," he said. "And I don't think I'm capable of telling you how Latinos feel about how they're portrayed or what they see on television.

"But I can tell you how I feel about seeing Asian-Americans portrayed on television." He said that growing up seeing David Carradine as a Chinese man in the series "Kung Fu" irritated him.

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