Representatives from three of four networks walked out today on a hearing called by the NAACP to investigate the lack of diversity on the small screen.
Vice presidents from NBC, ABC and Fox showed up prepared to defend their networks' records but stewed in the back of the room at the Century Plaza Hotel as Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, regretted the non-attendance of those three networks' presidents, who were listed on the event's agenda as "absent."
The executives said they'd been told they could make their statements at the beginning of the program. They left after 2 1/2 hours, saying they couldn't wait any longer.
Only CBS President Leslie Moonves, who had flown in from Rome to attend, got to address efforts to increase the multicultural presence in front of and behind his network's cameras and promise to "do what is right and necessary" to improve its overall record on diversity.
"We believe we have much to be proud of and also believe we have much to improve on," he said, citing 17 prime-time series that have prominent minority actors in them, such as "Cosby," "Touched by an Angel" and "Martial Law."
The panel of minority leaders grilled Moonves for about 40 minutes.
"I'm a fan of 'Touched by an Angel' and I'm still waiting for an Asian American . . . to get to be an angel," Karen Narasaki, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, told Moonves.
After questioning Moonves, the panel members then moved on to make statements denouncing insufficient minority representation at the networks, and then interviewed a group of minority actors about their experiences in the business.
Finally the other network executives left in unison and held a mini-news conference outside the hearing room to register their dismay at being put on the back burner.
"I think this is a worthy exercise, but we were given assurances about the time, date and location" of the hearing, said Donald Gadsden, NBC's senior vice president of business affairs. "We're disappointed."
"We believe our record is absolutely as good as CBS's," said Chris Hikawa, ABC's vice president of broadcast standards and practices. "Some of the initiatives that Les [Moonves] announced today we were also planning to announce," she added, citing her network's contribution to a fund called Prism that helps minorities acquire media properties.
She and her opposite number at NBC had to catch a plane back to New York. Roland McFarland, Fox's vice president of broadcast standards and practices, walked out "in deference to my colleagues."
But Mfume confessed to being "befuddled" when he heard, belatedly, that the executives had left and held a news conference. "These are not drive-by hearings," he said. "This is a very serious matter. If it's not worth three hours for some people who have waited 300 years for some sense of fairness and equal treatment, then it says something about the kind of commitment you came here with."
The scheduling stalemate fit the acrimonious atmosphere that has surrounded the NAACP's latest attempt to change the networks' record of minority representation on TV. Last spring the NAACP and other groups denounced the fall 1999 television schedule as a "virtual whitewash." None of the 26 new shows planned for the fall had leading roles for minorities. The networks, embarrassed, responded by quickly adding minority characters to many shows.
Mfume vowed to continue to combat the problem and created a coalition with other minority groups. The coalition's representatives met with network presidents over the summer. Then the group complained that the networks did not respond to a questionnaire it sent this fall about minority hiring and employment practices and continued to threaten a boycott if the networks did not pay attention.
Finally the NAACP decided to hold the hearing "not to determine whether there continues to be a serious problem with respect to equal employment," Mfume said today, "but to develop a public record as to why this practice continues unabated."
Mfume said that if the networks don't demonstrate an acceptable plan for change, the NAACP and its coalition partners will conduct a "sustained, focused and continuous consumer action" against the networks, including boycotts and picketing of network offices, affiliates and major advertisers. "This matter is not going to go away," he promised.
The panelists were courteous to Moonves, who gave a 20-minute speech about CBS's record and future plans on the issue. Mfume praised CBS for an "impressive record, comparatively speaking."
He asked Moonves why only two of the 144 writers working on CBS shows were African American, and cited the record of the other networks: seven of 172 writers at ABC, three of 163 at Fox and one of 186 at NBC. He accused the networks of a "ghettoization" of minority writers by hiring them only for minority-themed shows. Moonves responded that that would be "stupid" if true: "You shouldn't be in show business if you believe in that," he responded.
In his speech, Moonves acknowledged that while 21.5 percent of the network's employees were minorities, only 14.8 percent of the executives were. He said CBS had a new policy in which managers' salary increases would be tied to the number of minority employees they hire and promote.
"We are acutely aware of our obligation to serve the public interest," he said.
The other network executives left written copies of the statements they planned to give in person, which broadly followed the lines of Moonves' presentation, touting their networks' accomplishments in boosting diversity and pledging to do more.
"I sincerely believe this season is the exception rather than the rule because we're proud to enjoy a rich heritage of minority representation," Fox's McFarland said in his statement. "Fox not only acknowledges the severity of this issue from a societal perspective, but also agrees with much of what the NAACP is attempting to pursue as a matter of business."
Despite the dustup at the hearing, Mfume said he believed the network presidents were committed to improving diversity on television and said he would try to continue to work with them. "I think some people will have some tough questions to answer when they get back to their offices," he said, referring to the departed executives. "I find it very hard to believe, in the home of network television, that people are not concerned about this issue like everybody else is." He said the NAACP would decide by the end of the year whether to go through with the boycott.
The three network executives who were invited to speak but sent subordinates instead were ABC Network President Patricia Fili-Krushel, NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa and Fox Entertainment President Doug Herzog.
CAPTION: NAACP's Kweisi Mfume: "These are not drive-by hearings."