In the Eyes and Ears (Summer 1999), we reported on MANAA’s efforts to address the lack of lead minority actors on the new shows produced by the four top television networks.
Here is a chronology of significant events that trace the organization’s efforts, their partnership with black, Latino, Asian, and Native American coalitions, and the historic results where the four networks signed detailed agreements (5-8 pages in length apiece) intended to make institutionalized changes in the way they do business.
May 28, 2000-In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Greg Braxton reports that none of the 26 new television prime times series debuting on the four top networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox) stars a person of color.
June-Billie J. Green, President of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP chapter, invites MANAA co-founder and Secretary Guy Aoki and MANAA to join a coalition of black, Latino and Native American activists to address the problem. By August, the coalition frays because of the involvement of the Brotherhood Crusade’s Danny Bakewell, who, in the past, has made inflammatory remarks against Asian Americans and other ethnic groups.
July 12-At the NAACP’s 90th Annual national conference in New York, President Kweisi Mfume blasts the networks. He threatens possible boycotts and a lawsuit asserting that the absence of minorities is in violation of the 1934 Federal Communications Act, which states that the television airwaves belong to the public. The NAACP has purchased 100 shares of stock in the four networks so the organization can attend shareholders’ meetings and raise the issue.
July 19-MANAA announces it is following the lead of the NAACP in confronting the networks for their exclusion of people of color. The group asks people to write the networks (through email and letters) and point out the success broadcasters have had with programs starring actors of Asian descent, encouraging them to add more in their upcoming series. Hyperlinks to the networks’ websites are eventually placed on MANAA’s website, making it easy for participants to send messages to the networks.
July 21-In the Hollywood Reporter, Guy Aoki says the organization shares the sentiments of the NAACP but: “We cannot sign on [to a boycott] because we are not convinced we can pull off a viewer boycott.” Aoki adds, “All of us have done a lot of talking with the networks for years. They give us a lot of lip service-always saying they want to improve their diversity-but it seems to happen only by accident.”
July 27-At their national conference in Houston, the National Council of La Raza, angered at the exclusion of Latinos in the new television season, announces plans for a week-long “brown-out” of the television networks.
August 21-The Los Angeles Times reveals that Mfume has already met with all four networks and has not included representatives from any other ethnic group. However, Mfume expresses frustration that none of the networks have agreed on any plan to remedy the situation.
August 24-Representatives of Asian, Latino and Native American groups including the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, Organization of Chinese Americans, National Council of La Raza, Nosotros, MALDEF, and National Hispanic Media Coalition fly to the NAACP’s national headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, to meet with NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and assert their desire to work together in a coalition. Mfume agrees on the concept of shared leadership.
August 31-After discussing the issue with Asian American and Latino activists, MANAA decides to join the boycott efforts, realizing it’s more important to educate the various ethnic communities about how to be more responsive viewers than worry about the ability of Nielsen to reflect a drop in ratings.
On a conference call with the various ethnic coalitions, all parties agree that each of the four coalitions will choose a co-chair of national stature to represent them and to act as negotiators with the networks. Eventually, the selected reps are Mfume, fellow former Congressmen Norman Mineta and Esteban Torres, and Sonny Skyhawk of American Indians in Film. The various coalitions will continue to act independently but cross-endorse each other’s efforts.
September 8-Member Jeff Park speaks on behalf of MANAA, supporting the National Hispanic Media Coalition at their press conference at Patriotic Hall. The organization announces a now-expanded two week national “brown-out” from
September 12th to 26th encouraging the Latino community to not watch television during that time, and, instead, rent Latino-themed videos.
September 9-The coalition agrees that each ethnic group can meet with the networks separately, but none may make demands or negotiate a settlement of the boycott without the agreement of all four groups.
September 10-In New York, the NAACP, National Latino Media Council, the (later named) Asian Pacific American Media Coalition and American Indians in Film speak at a press conference establishing the unity of the four ethnic groups and endorsing the brown-out. The coalition threatens a boycott of one of the networks during the sweeps ratings period in November.
September 13-MANAA Vice President Ken Kwok sends out flyers to MANAA’s supporters asking them to support the brown-out and instead, watch Asian/Asian American-themed videos (a list of them is provided, compiled by MANAA member Robert Payne).
September 14-MANAA, East West Players and Asian American Coalition for Total Inclusion on the Networks (AACTION) hold a press conference at the entrance of David Henry Hwang Theatre, asking people to support the brown-out and rent videos which feature Asian and Asian American performers. As an added incentive, the East West Players offer the public free previews of its latest play, “Leilani’s Hibiscus.” Actor George Takei also releases the details of a petition initiated by Daniel M. Mayeda, Vice President of East West Players and original Legal Counsel for MANAA, and modified by MANAA President Guy Aoki, East West Players Managing Artist Director Tim Dang and East West Players Literary Manager Ken Narasaki. “The Whitewashing of Network Television Must End” petition makes three demands: 1. “The networks [must] immediately adopt policies ensuring that actors of color be sought out to play any role that is not of necessity racially or ethnically specific.” 2. The networks should “hire and promote more people who exemplify diversity and who are interested in integrating new perspectives in programming.” 3. Advertisers “demand that the programs on which they associate their goods and services reflect America as it truly is-a land filled with diverse, vibrant and talented people of every hue, gender, age, sexual orientation, physical ability, religion and culture.”
In less than a month the petition has been endorsed by more than 800 individuals and community organizations across the country.
Aoki is heard in a sound bite on KNBC-TV listing some of the stereotyped roles Asian Americans are forced to play: “As Chinese waiters who do not understand English (let alone your order); as drug lords from Hong Kong; Asian men as asexual beings; Asian women somehow only being interested in white men.” MANAA VP Ken Kwok and member Jeff Park also attend.
In a Hollywood Reporter article, Aoki points out the coalitions are not worried about the Nielsens reflecting a drop in ratings during the two week brown-out: “If you ask anyone in this coalition if they trust the Nielsens to be able to accurately reflect their communities, they will tell you no.” He adds, “We’re starting a grass roots campaign to educate the general public on how to be more responsible viewers and consumers. If we do not see ourselves on television, we will not watch your shows, we will not watch the commercials, and we will not buy the products.”
September 15-Daily Variety runs a story of the press conference. Various Asian American papers also cover the issue.September 17-George Takei is quoted in the Washington Post saying, “This all-white season feeds into the delusions of white supremacists. It sustains the perception that no matter how many years we’ve been in this country, we’re not really American… True Trekkies embrace diversity.”
September 20-Takei talks about the brown-out on Jonathan Brandmeire’s syndicated radio show.
October 8-The Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch of the NAACP and the Coalition of African American Television Writers release a study showing that of the 839 writers working on this fall’s primetime dramas and sitcoms on the six networks, only 55-or 6.6%-are black, and 40 of them are relegated to working on the smaller networks, WB and UPN. There are only 11 Latino writers (1.3%), three Asian writers (.3%) and no Native American writers.
October 19-Fox TV executives-including President Doug Herzog-meet with members of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition: Mayeda (who represents MANAA in Guy Aoki’s absence); former Congressman and APAMC chair Norman Mineta; Karen Narasaki of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium; Ken Narasaki and Tim Dang of East West Players; Jack Ong of AACTION; and Sumi Haru.
Some executives express their belief that in order to have programs which are relevant to their younger viewers-and to ensure the inclusion of more minorities from this point on-Fox has to change its “corporate culture.” One of the Fox officials says he understands the frustration of Asian American actors who are always forced to speak with accents, as one of his best friends is a Korean American actor who’s complained to him about his experiences. Fox executives include Tom Tyrer, VP of Corporate Communications; Charles Kennedy III, VP of Programming; Marisa Fermin, VP of Business Affairs, and Roland McFarland, Senior VP of Broadcast Standards and Practices.
Tim Dang and East West Players offer their services in helping the network find Asian American actors for their shows.
November 3-At a press conference in Manhattan, Kweisi Mfume announces the NAACP’s originally scheduled November boycott of one of the networks will be moved to January and expanded to two months unless the networks agree to meet “a set of verifiable goals and timetables” to “significantly enhance equal opportunity for qualified men and women of color in the areas of the executive, production and talent ranks.” He adds that he is frustrated that the networks have not responded to a questionnaire the NAACP sent them eight weeks ago asking for detailed information about their hiring, promotion, and procurement of people of color and business practices with minority vendors.
November 10-NAACP releases 27 demands of the networks.
November 29-NAACP holds hearings in Los Angeles inviting the presidents of the four major networks to testify. Only Leslie Moonves, President and CEO of CBS, attends, speaking in the morning. The other networks send underlings who then angrily walk out, complaining in a news conference that they’re scheduled to speak in the afternoon and can’t wait around that long.
December 20-Mayeda, Nogales, Pinichet, Skyhawk, and MANAA Vice President Ken Kwok, meet with Sassa to hear the network’s proposals to address the concerns of the previous meeting. Nogales continues to push for a VP of Diversity position which Sassa is not willing to create.
January 5, 2001 -At a press conference in New York, Kweisi Mfume, NBC CEO Robert Wright and Scott Sassa announce a deal that seeks to implement policies to get more people of color into the network including adding a minority writer to each second-year NBC series.
January 6-The L.A. Times reports the anger of former Congressman Esteban Torres who says Mfume negotiated and closed the deal without including the three other co-chairs. John White, co-Legal Counsel of the NAACP, insists Mfume kept in mind the concerns of all minorities when negotiating and accepting NBC’s deal. However, Torres says that Bob Wright has agreed to fly from New York to Los Angeles next week to meet with members of the Latino, Asian and Native American coalitions to discuss their concerns that were left out of the NAACP/NBC agreement.The paper discloses that Mfume called Wright to complain about “the slow-moving talks with Sassa. Wright immediately pledged his support and ordered Sassa to take charge of the situation.” Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the Fox parent company News Corp., called Mfume on January 4th, “breaking an impasse with Fox executives.”
January 7-NAACP announces a deal with ABC. A follow-up L.A. Times article reports that the coalition-without the NAACP-is requesting immediate meetings with the heads of all the networks to ensure their interests are included in any agreements or added to past ones.
January 11-The four co-chairs unite at a press conference in Los Angeles pledging to work together in concert on the diversity issue from now on. The coalition members then go on to negotiation meetings with NBC and CBS to push for, among other things, a Vice President of Diversity to oversee and implement policies to expand the inclusion of minorities at every level of the networks.
January 12-Aoki joins activists in a follow-up meeting with Fox President Doug Herzog to discuss their proposed policies. Fox is the first network to agree to include a provision for a VP of Diversity position. Aoki pushes for more specific language in the casting clauses, asserting that Fox should attempt to reflect the reality of this country by casting people of color in leads whenever possible. It ends up being incorporated into the final draft of the Memorandum of Understanding, the only revision made. Attending the meeting are Peggy Binzel of News Corp; Alex Nogales, National Hispanic Media Coalition; John White, co-Legal Counsel for the NAACP; Sonny Skyhawk and Dan Jones of American Indians in Film; and Ken Narasaki of East West Players.
February 3-Fox signs an agreement with the coalition at a Los Angeles press conference at 10 a.m. After finally agreeing to hire a VP of Diversity the day before, CBS signs their agreement at another news conference at noon.
February 10-Aoki, Tim Dang and other activists in the coalition attend NBC’s six hour Diversity Seminar at Studio 1 on the set of their game show, “21,” in Burbank. There, CEO Bob Wright announces the network’s agreement with the coalition to hire a VP of Diversity, Paula Madison, who is also the VP of NBC News in New York. She will work with a six member committee made up of two African Americans and Latinos, one Asian American and a white person to oversee NBC’s diversity efforts.
Panel #1, “The Need For Diversity in the Media,” feature NAACP co-Legal Counsel Debbie Liu, John Mack of the Los Angeles Urban League, and coalition co-chairs Norman Mineta, Sonny Skyhawk and Esteban Torres. It’s moderated by Cruz Bustamante, the Lt. Governor of California.
Panel #2, “Successful Diverse Writers,” moderated by Cynthia Garrett, host of NBC’s late-night talk show, “Later,” includes Yvette Bowser (“Different World,” “Living Single”), Julie Friedgen, John Ridley (“Three Kings”), Jim Wong (“X-Files”) and Jorge Zamacona (“St. Elsewhere,” “Homicide”).
Panel #3, “Commitment to Diverse Voices,” features producers Marcy Carsey (“The Cosby Show”), Gary David Goldberg (“Family Ties,” “Spin City”), Marta Kauffman (“Cheers,” “Friends”) and John Wells (“ER,” “The West Wing.”), and is moderated by NBC News Correspondent Maria Shriver.
During the second panel discussion, Guy Aoki points out that some of the writers are defending business as usual and reminds them that NBC initiated these policies because diversity was not happening on its own. He points out that 70% of all television shows are written by white males and if the networks keep going to the same pool of white writers, they’ll never get new ideas on the screen. Networks have to go out of their way to find minority writers instead of relying on who they know.
During the third panel, Aoki tells the participants they don’t have to know Asian Americans in order to write for them: All they have to do is write “white characters”-as they always do-and cast Asian Americans in those roles. He relates how, a few years ago, a network tried reviving “Hawaii Five-O” but didn’t allow Asian American actors to audition. The writer said he’d have to change the backgrounds of the characters so that Asian Americans could play them. Aoki reads the descriptions of the three main leads to the audience’s astonishment (it’s clear Asian Americans could’ve played any of them). Aoki asks the producers to look for red flags when conceiving of new shows: When you set a show in Los Angeles and there are no Latinos, or one in San Francisco and there are no Asians, something is wrong. He tells the panel, “You are the movers and shakers in this business. If you don’t try to do something like this that is considered ‘groundbreaking,’ no one will. But I have to tell you, to the rest of us, it seems so easy! We don’t see why it’s so hard to cast us in these roles.”
March 6-APA Media Coalition’s Karen Narasaki and Daphne Kwok and NHMC’s Alex Nogales meet with ABC President Patricia Fili-Krushel, VP of Human Resources Jeffrey Rosen, and ABC General Counsel Alan Braverman in New York to discuss adding provisions to their agreement with the NAACP that had not been approved by the other coalitions. The coalition members push for a VP of Diversity and more specific wording for casting that would spell out ABC’s intention to cast minorities as leads and series regulars whenever possible.
March 22-Doug Herzog resigns as President of Fox.
March 28-Fili-Krushel resigns as President of ABC, effective April 10th.
April 26-ABC agrees to the casting language pushed by Aoki.