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Talk of diversity (or lack thereof) dominates TV press tour

Twice a year, the Television Critics Assn. convenes in Los Angeles for a two-week ritual known as “press tour” — a seemingly endless series of Q&A sessions and cocktail parties at which TV networks, streaming services and other content providers showcase new and returning programs for several hundred journalists.

Once dominated by talk of ratings and scheduling strategy, the gathering has lately become a venue for networks to defend — or in some cases, boast about — their track records on diversity. In dozens of panels at the summer press tour, which concluded Wednesday at the Beverly Hilton, journalists peppered top television producers and executives with questions about race, gender, sexuality, class, religion and behind-the-scenes representation.

The gathering highlighted the extent to which the industry’s entrenched diversity problem has come to dominate the pop culture conversation and how the public, empowered by social media and emboldened by examples of successful pushback — most notably the #OscarsSoWhite campaign — is increasingly holding Hollywood accountable.

HBO programming President Casey Bloys sought to quell the growing uproar over “Confederate,” a planned alternate history drama that would include depictions of modern-day slavery.

“Everyone understands there is a high degree of getting this right,” he said, explaining the show would not be “whips and plantations.” Soon after, the hashtag #NoConfederate was trending on Twitter as the activists behind #OscarsSoWhite targeted the still-in-development series, urging users to tweet it at HBO during airings of “Game of Thrones.”

Following a widely shared tweet by star Gillian Anderson, Fox television chief Dana Walden addressed the criticism surrounding “The X-Files,” which has had just two female directors in more than 200 episodes and had no women on its writing staff when it was revived last season.

Even ABC, widely seen as broadcast TV’s most inclusive network, was accused of sensationalizing the sex scandal on its reality series “Bachelor in Paradise.”

But no one faced more blowback than CBS, America’s most-watched network and, to some critics, also its most retrograde. For the second season in a row, CBS’ fall slate includes no new shows with female leads, and just one new series, “S.W.A.T.,” featuring a person of color in a central role — a minuscule improvement over fall 2016, when the network unveiled six new shows about white men.

CBS has also faced criticism over the departure of “Hawaii Five-0” cast members Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park, both of Asian descent, who were reportedly making less than their white costars.

At a session with reporters last week, the network’s newly appointed leadership team was grilled about its homogenous programming and the “Hawaii Five-0” pay dispute.

“We can debate, have a discussion about the pace of the change, but there is change happening on CBS,” insisted Kelly Kahl, who was named president of CBS Entertainment in May and was joined onstage by Senior Executive Vice President of Programming Thom Sherman.

Some of CBS’ rivals, who presented later in the tour, seemed to have their talking points at the ready. As top entertainment executives Jennifer Salke and Bob Greenblatt fielded questions, NBC announced a new initiative for female directors spearheaded by prolific filmmaker Lesli Linka Glatter.

In her opening remarks, ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey touted the “fantastic” current season of “The Bachelorette,” the first in the long-running reality franchise to feature a black lead.

While contentious exchanges and charges of insensitivity are nothing new at TCA — a 2012 panel for the CBS sitcom “2 Broke Girls,” dominated by questions about alleged ethnic stereotyping, lives in infamy — the event’s increasingly “woke” vibe can be seen as part of a larger trend of pushback against Hollywood in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite.

That hashtag, launched in 2015 by activist April Reign in response to the second consecutive crop of all-white acting nominees, not only sparked an industry-wide conversation about diversity but has led to quantifiable change. In June, the academy invited a record 774 new members — 30% people of color, 39% women.

Other recent examples of successful pushback abound. Bad press probably factored into the dismal box office performance of “Ghost in the Shell,” which was mired in a “whitewashing” controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese character.

The casting of Rachel Lindsay, a 32-year-old African American woman, as the romantic heroine of “The Bachelorette” was a breakthrough reached only after years of sustained criticism from fans and journalists. In recent years “Saturday Night Live” has made similar efforts to diversify its cast in response to public scrutiny.

In contrast to the slow change of pace in the film world, Peak TV has opened up new opportunities for women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community, in shows including Fox’s hip-hop soap opera “Empire” and Amazon’s dysfunctional family comedy “Transparent.”

But the success of such inclusive programming has made the need for improvement in some areas only more pronounced, which may be why questions about representation were raised so often throughout the tour.

Panels for military-themed shows “Valor” (The CW) and “The Brave” (NBC) included queries about Muslim identity and women in uniform. Even a discussion of the CW’s frothy “Dynasty” remake touched on feminism, ’80s homophobia and Venezuelan politics.

“We want our slate to be inclusive. We want it to be diverse.… And we believe that we will get that,” CBS’ Sherman assured reporters.

And if they don’t, they can surely expect more questions.

Times staff writers Yvonne Villarreal and Sarah Rodman contributed to this report.

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meredith.blake@latimes.com

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