As controversy rages over #OscarsSoWhite, most people agree: The way to spur more diversity on-screen in Hollywood is to hire more diverse people behind the scenes.
A panel of TV executives and producers emphasized that fact at the RealScreen Summit non-fiction TV conference in Washington, D.C., as they discussed the state of diversity in reality television. While several felt that unscripted series already feature pretty diverse casts because they tend to reflect the country's actual demographics more than scripted programming, they said there's still a need for more minorities in positions of power during production.
Rod Aissa, Oxygen's executive vice president of programming, had a particularly poignant experience with this concept years ago thanks to rapper Snoop Dogg. Aissa was a vice president at MTV when the network was developing Snoop's sketch comedy show Doggy Fizzle Televizzle, which debuted in November 2002. One day, Aissa and other MTV executives met with Snoop and talked about the great news: They wanted to hire a bunch of Saturday Night Live writers for the show, an impressive get for a new series.
Suddenly, Aissa said, Snoop abruptly walked out of the meeting. Soon, Aissa was summoned to Snoop's house in Diamond Bar, California, so he drove there to find out what went wrong. While Aissa said he didn't want to spill everything the two talked about that day, the gist was that while Snoop understood MTV's excitement about hiring SNL writers, he wasn't comfortable with it. In essence, Snoop said, "I need someone like me to write for someone like me."
That idea, Aissa said, was something of a wake-up call - especially when Snoop introduced him to an African-American writer who suggested that Snoop's parody on the show of The Brady Bunch be called The Braided Bunch. Aissa thought it was a perfect joke that never would have occurred to him. Doggy Fizzle Televizzle only ran for eight episodes, but the lesson stuck with him for a long time.
"It was the power of the celebrity (that) showed me the light," Aissa said later, acknowledging that Snoop's star status caused him to second-guess the idea of SNL writers. Years later, as he runs programming at Oxygen, the network makes diversity a priority in all stages of development. "We can tweet about people not getting this, or not getting nominated for that - so, OK, let's start a production fund to do that."
The other execs on the panel agreed it's crucial to cultivate talent behind the scenes to bring a variety of perspectives. "If you have a diverse team, you will catch nuances in your characters you wouldn't have seen in a million years. You're stacking the deck in your favour," said Leola Westbrook, an executive producer at Mandalay Sports Media.
Jeff Collins, president of production company Collins Avenue Entertainment, said it wasn't that long ago when TV show buyers would say that "You can't have a show with an all-black cast." Clearly, times have changed, given hits like Empire or reality series including Real Housewives of Atlanta and Love & Hip Hop.
"I think that in the past, we approached the topic of diversity as 'It's the right thing to do.' I think we've moved beyond that," Collins said. "The message is that diversity is good business. The demographics of the country has changed, what people are watching on TV has changed ... it's good business because you have to reflect (different) points of view in order to tell stories in a relevant and authentic way."