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Claims of on-set misconduct can create a social media firestorm. TV networks are scrambling to respond

Gabrielle Union at the “America’s Got Talent” Season 14 finale
Gabrielle Union attends the Season 14 finale of “America’s Got Talent” at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Sept. 18. Her contract was not picked up for another season.
(Frazer Harrison / Getty Images)

Not so long ago, a star fired from a TV show would disappear quietly, without complaining about — or contesting — the circumstances of their dismissal. Public complaints of mistreatment could mean never working in Hollywood again.

But the #MeToo movement and its supporters on social media have blown up that long-standing paradigm. TV networks have been pushed into a new era of accountability as talent becomes bolder about publicly airing allegations of inappropriate behavior, racism and sexism.

The shift is underscored by reports that actress Gabrielle Union confronted a hostile work environment on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” before she was cut from the reality hit after a single season along with fellow first-year judge Julianne Hough.

Union, who joined the series as a judge earlier this year, was allegedly told by “AGT” producers that her hairstyles were “too black.” She also reportedly objected to a joke made by Jay Leno about dogs being served as a dish in Korean restaurants (a recycled gag he has been criticized for using on TV before), and spoke up about her discomfort over a white “AGT” contestant mimicking black performers. She also reportedly complained that “AGT” executive producer and star Simon Cowell ignored the smoking ban on the show’s set, requiring her to move to another dressing room.

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Union received strong support from other stars on social media. Activist group UltraViolet praised Union’s willingness to raise her concerns with her employer and condemned NBCUniversal, saying that the company had created “an atmosphere that is dangerous and toxic to women.”

David White, national executive director of SAG-AFTRA, which is also investigating Union’s complaint, said there has been an uptick in members coming forward with issues of discrimination or mistreatment in their workplaces. But not every performer has the confidence or financial wherewithal to go public with it.

“We are receiving more complaints as a result of the increased confidence that people will be believed and something will be done to stop the conduct and deal with the issue,” White said. “But make no mistake there remains a palpable fear of retaliation that can harm a performer’s career as they go forward and we still have a great deal of work to do.”

NBC and the show’s production company Fremantle said in a statement that they are commited to diversity and promised to look into Union’s concerns, but said the lineup of judges and hosts has been regularly “refreshed” over the years. Ratings for the long-running “AGT,” which premiered in 2006, fell by 29% this season.

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The statement did not mollify some of NBC’s own talent, such as “Will & Grace” star Debra Messing and “Hollywood Game Night” host Jane Lynch, both of whom backed Union and publicly criticized the network’s record on workplace issues.

“They just really have to get their act together around women and around race,” Lynch told Variety. “It feels like someone is asleep at the wheel over there.”

This willingness to blame NBC before Union’s complaints were investigated demonstrates how media companies have become targets for activists galvanized by #MeToo, Time’s Up and other social movements. (An outside law firm was brought in to meet with Union and assess her complaints last week, and will question all parties involved with “AGT.”)

The celebrity-studded rush to side with Union reflects the growing skepticism about the handling of workplace complaints involving some of the biggest names in front of the camera and in the executive suite — and whether networks are doing enough to investigate them.

NBC News has been criticized for not using an outside law firm to investigate the harassment allegations against fired “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer. News division staffers were particularly angry when they learned in Ronan Farrow’s book “Catch and Kill” that Brooke Nevils, a former NBC employee, said she was raped by Lauer, an allegation he has vehemently denied.

While NBC is in the hot seat, it is hardly the only broadcast network accused of not doing enough to foster a change in culture and create a system in which complaints of sexual misconduct and race or gender-based discrimination are handled appropriately.

The scrutiny has been especially intense for CBS, which last year had to pay actress Eliza Dushku a $9.5-million settlement after she complained that “Bull” star Michael Weatherly made sexually inappropriate comments to her on the set. The payment was authorized by ousted CBS chief Leslie Moonves, who was fired in September 2018 over sexual harassment allegations made against him.

Current leadership at CBS maintain that they have become more vigilant about protecting the workplace. The company has put staff members through sensitivity training and provided more mechanisms for employees to report misconduct.

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Social media has put the network on notice for incidents that occur on its reality shows. Recently, producers of the long-running CBS reality show “Survivor” were criticized by the show’s Twitter followers for not intervening when a male contestant was accused of inappropriately touching female competitors. The contestant, Dan Spilo, was warned by producers; on Wednesday, viewers learned he was removed from the program for his involvement in another off-camera incident that was not disclosed. It is the first time a contestant was ejected from the program following claims of misconduct, suggesting a growing intolerance for such alleged behavior.

In another first for “Survivor,” which premiered in 2000, the season finale and cast reunion episode will be taped instead of shown live out of concern over tensions about the matter. The network is not saying whether Spilo will participate.

Contestant Kellee Kim, who called out Spilo for his behavior as early as the season premiere, posted a lengthy statement on social media saying CBS should have acted sooner.

“CBS and ‘Survivor’ were on notice of Dan’s behavior from the very first days of the game,” she wrote. “And, as ‘Survivor’ fans know, shortly after I spoke up on camera, I was voted off the show. Since then, I’ve accepted genuine, heartfelt apologies from fellow castaways, but I’ve continued to feel disappointed by how this pattern of behavior was allowed to occur for so long.”

Meanwhile, ABC was put on the defensive this summer when actress Afton Williamson announced via Instagram she was leaving the police drama “The Rookie” after alleged incidents of sexual harassment and racial discrimination on set. She also claimed that showrunner Alexi Hawley failed to take her complaints seriously or report them in a timely fashion.

An independent investigation by studio Entertainment One “concluded that those identified in Ms. Williamson’s allegations did not conduct themselves in an unlawful manner or demonstrate behavior inappropriate for the workplace.” It also found that Hawley and producers acted responsibly and with reasonable speed, though Williamson pushed back via social media, alleging that efforts were made “to deceive, lie and cover up the truth.”

For a number of legal and privacy reasons, reports on how such situations are handled are rarely made available to the public, increasing skepticism and bolstering the perception of a cover-up. An internal investigation conducted at NBC following Lauer’s firing in 2017 cleared network executives of wrongdoing, but Farrow’s book has led to calls for a second investigation, which NBC has thus far resisted.

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While in 2019 every business large and small has to deal with heightened sensitivity over workplace issues, television networks must also respond to a large and increasingly outspoken customer base.

Although the broadcast networks continue to lose audience and cultural clout, they still reach the most viewers of any media platform every week and generate the most attention when a scandal erupts. A top network executive, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely on the matter, said it’s naive for companies to expect complaints to quietly blow over anymore, as millennials powered by social media platforms will no longer tolerate inappropriate behavior that might have been accepted or ignored in the past.

“Previous generations were hesitant to rock the boat because, OK, maybe you’d get your claim heard, [but] you’d probably never work again,” the executive said. “If your dream was to work in entertainment, that was probably a bridge you didn’t want to cross. Now, there is more of a willingness to post something on social media or a willingness to call a reporter or simply just file a complaint.”

How media companies handle the complaints is another matter. NBCUniversal now has to navigate Union’s complaints against one of its most popular shows — one partly owned by Cowell, who generated a ratings turnaround on “AGT” when he joined its judges panel several years ago.

Experts say the power of a single individual on a hit program often leads networks to try to avoid confrontation when a problem arises on set.

“When a network is overly invested in one character, one bright star, whether it’s the star of the show or the executive producer or the president of the company, the ability to constrain their behavior and bring it into accord with what we think are workplace norms is always going to be counterbalanced with ‘but we need him’ or ‘he’s the center of the project,’” said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia University.

Weatherly likely survived the scandal at “Bull” because his firing would have ended the series, which is a global hit for CBS. Executives have said Weatherly was given a second chance because he agreed to undergo sensitivity training and the company had received no other complaints against him during his long employment with them. (Before “Bull” he costarred for 13 years on the long-running series “NCIS”).

Likewise, NBC would be loath to part ways with Cowell, who is the linchpin in “America’s Got Talent,” one of the few mass appeal shows left.

“The initial conversation was candid and productive,” NBC said in a statement following a five-hour meeting with Union and her representatives last week. “While there will be a further investigation to get a deeper understanding of the facts, we are working with Gabrielle to come to a positive resolution.” Union also issued a tweet indicating she was pleased that her concerns were heard.

People at the network say “America’s Got Talent” has a record of hiring diverse cast members and producers.

But hiring people from an array of backgrounds does not guarantee harmony. While the idea of being more inclusive on-camera is increasingly embraced, ensuring that everyone is sensitive to cultural differences requires more work.

“Don’t just get a token person,” Crenshaw said. “Really reshape the industry and reshape the workplace.”

Although networks have made long-overdue strides in hiring diverse casts, some problematic attitudes on set remain, especially when it comes to the delicate issue of hair. A number of black actresses have begun to speak out about the pressure to alter their hair to conform to narrow beauty standards — and about a lack of knowledgeable on-set stylists.

“As women, they are subjected to aesthetic demands that men aren’t; and as black women, they are subject to policing of their hair and features in a way that white women are not,” said Crenshaw. “Black women entertainers are fully aware of these double binds, yet the ways that race and gender equity are discussed rarely if ever address this kind of discrimination.”

NBC sources maintain that their concern about Union’s and Hough’s hair was continuity, not aesthetics — because “AGT” episodes are shot over multiple days, the appearance of judges has to remain the same over the course of shooting.

So what happens if the pending investigations over Union’s concerns are found to be valid? Sensitivity training for “AGT” producers — and Cowell — would be likely. Union could also get a financial settlement or more. She has a series in development at NBC called “Black Girl Magic,” and the network will decide soon on producing a pilot episode. The chances of the project moving forward have probably greatly improved.

Said the former NBC executive, “I would be dumbfounded if that pilot doesn’t get made.”


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