More hues for NBC peacock

Television: Network's deal with the NAACP emphasizes training, but there's also a pledge to increase minority presence and voice.

January 06, 2000|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Unveiling a broad plan that civil rights leaders and television officials called "unprecedented," the NAACP and NBC yesterday announced a multimillion-dollar agreement to open more jobs at the network to minority writers, producers, directors and contractors.

The nine-page memorandum of understanding, which focuses mainly on behind-the-camera changes at NBC, sets no quotas but outlines plans to create several dozen new network positions for minority media professionals, links employee pay raises to achieving a more diverse workplace and vows to double NBC's $10 million spending with minority suppliers.

"This is an aggressive initiative that will open the pipeline of power and increase diversity," said NBC President and CEO Bob Wright at a morning news conference at network studios here. "Our goal is to make it unequivocally clear that NBC is committed to diversity."

NAACP President and CEO Kweisi Mfume called the agreement a "model for inclusion" that would help change the "incessant segregation in network programming. ...NBC has stepped forward and responded in a very real way," he said. "This will affect the executive, producer and talent ranks of network television for a long time to come."

Mfume added that similar negotiations with the other three major networks -- Fox, ABC and CBS -- are continuing. He expects agreements within 10 days. Barring that, he said, officials with the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People would be prepared to call for boycotts.

The agreement also includes:

Creating a new program to hire 25 trainees to work in the network's News, Entertainment and Sports divisions every year.

Reviewing -- with the NAACP -- NBC's 7-year-old diversity training program and requiring its 5,000 employees to attend the training this year.

Holding an all-day seminar in Los Angeles next month for current and prospective producers, talent agents, writers and others aimed at increasing diversity.

Hiring a "minority sourcing executive" to increase products and services bought from minority vendors.

Provide six NBC Minority Fellowship scholarships for graduate students studying media-related subjects.

Starting next season, funding an additional writing position, to be filled by a minority who is new to the business, for each second-year show, of which there are typically five to seven each year.

This pool of new program writers can greatly affect the complexion of NBC's shows, said NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa. "Writers are the key element to producing a TV series," he said. They "make the biggest difference in what we see on TV."

The jobs typically come with three-year contracts, he said.

The agreements barely touch on opportunities for actors and actresses, which had been the NAACP's focus when it began its television diversity campaign last July. The network has promised only to issue "casting instructions ... emphasizing NBC's commitment to equal opportunity and diversity."

NBC and NAACP officials agreed yesterday that the effects of increased minority presence behind the camera would "trickle down" to on-screen talent. "The front of the camera eventually will be affected," Mfume said.

But such optimism was not mirrored everywhere yesterday.

Commitments to recruit and hire young people for short-term, behind-the-camera spots sound good but often can ring hollow, said Sherri Parks, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"An internship program is good but I'd like to see some commitment that's more vertical," she said, commenting that there was no push to recruit top-level minority talent. "There are minority writers who are having trouble getting mature minority stories on the air. There is a bias toward the young, hip, urban minority stories."

The agreement sets forth lofty goals, she said, but many are unspecific.

NBC pledged to ask its current directors to "certify that they follow hiring practices that include consideration of all qualified applicants regardless of race or ethnicity."

The network also promised to tell its suppliers they are expected to "take action to increase" shows that feature minorities.

"All of this sounds nice, but it's hard to envision what's going to happen on this after a year," said Parks, who is one of the co-hosts of "Media Matters," a weekly radio show on WJHU-FM.

The Hollywood branch of the NAACP will be charged with monitoring the program to ensure the goals are carried out, Mfume said.

The diversity plan follows months of discussions between Mfume and network executives. Last summer, Mfume denounced this season's line-up of new programs, which have very few minority characters, as a "virtual whitewash."

Threatening to boycott the networks, he began negotiations with officials from each one. By all accounts, the talks were rancorous.

"It would be misleading to suggest this was some big happy party," Mfume said. During the last session with NBC, he said, "we thought we were at an impasse." Hammering out the details of initiatives that related to economic reciprocity -- such as hiring minority advertisers and vendors -- were particularly difficult, Mfume said.

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