Broadcast nets scout diverse actors in Canada

NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox were in Toronto for casting call

TORONTO -- The latest front in the four major networks' push for more racial and ethnic diversity in primetime: Canada.

NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox were in Toronto this week for a two-day open casting call for actors from visible minorities to appear mostly as day players on network series produced in Canada.

Kelly Edwards, vp of talent development and diversity at NBC Universal, said the studio first noticed three years ago that shows shot in Vancouver had too few non-white faces that audiences and advertisers back home demanded.

"We went up, we did our thing, and didn't connect with communities back home," Edwards said.

The networks will next travel in September to Vancouver, the shooting home for top-rated U.S. series like "Fringe," "V" and "Smallville," to find hopeful actors from the East Indian, African American, First Nation, Asian and Latino communities for local shoots.

The four networks will share their lists of minority talent uncovered in Canada, including headshots and video introductions, as they jointly push for a more multicolor primetime TV screen.

"This is the one area (diversity) where we all want to come together," Tiffany Smith-Anoa'I, CBS vp of diversity and communications, said of the major networks otherwise in cutthroat competition for TV ratings.

Janice Tanaka, a diversity consultant for Fox Television, said the push for primetime diversity stems in part because 20th Century Fox produces some series here, including the the upcoming CIA drama "Chaos" for CBS set to shoot in Vancouver.

"We need talent in both casting, script and directors," Tanaka said of the 13-episode order that follows a Brett Ratner-directed pilot.

Greater diversity on and off screen throws up its own logistical challenges.

Placing minority directors on network series sets is especially difficult in an industry built on relationships and where, unlike writers or lead actors, directors aren't guaranteed 22 episodes per season.

Network tactics also differ. Frank Bennett Gonzalez, Disney/ABC TV's director of talent development and diversity, said his studio includes as part of their programs, having emerging directors or writers from diverse backgrounds shadow an established director or writer.

"The aim is to get people jobs" that could build and sustain a career, he explained.

So Disney/ABC Talent Development and Diversity, in partnership with the DGA, has revamped their directors program to allow 15 helmers to shadow current staffed directors on series such as "Brothers and Sisters" and "Desperate Housewives."

"If they gel, they go to the next show. If they clash, they're knocked out," Gonzalez said.

Tanaka said Fox will approve an overage for a series to take on a minority director.

NBCU's Edwards pointed to a 10-week shadowing program for minority directors at her studio where the first-episode director fee is subsidized. CBS' Smith-Anoa'i insists on-going efforts to get non-white faces in front and behind the camera is an opportunity for the four networks to target rapidly changing and diverse audiences, not a challenge.

"We don't force people in. This isn't a hand-out. It's about giving a person of talent, rather than just diversity, access to a TV writers' room," she explained.

And the major networks are doing their part to achieve similar progress in Canada, where domestic broadcasters have been slower than their American counterparts to secure racial and ethnic diversity on and off the screen.

Karen King-Chigbo, a drama production exec at Canwest Broadcasting, has long banged the drum in Canada for greater primetime diversity. Her latest initiative is Productions Without Borders, in partnership with the major U.S. networks to provide an annual report card on Canadian networks on how well programmers make homegrown TV shows with minority
talent.

"We're storytellers, and we're trying to get our voices heard," King-Chigbo said of the new Canadian watchdog group.

"We all need to get on board," she added, with a call to arms to Canadian broadcasters, unions and guilds and industry associations.
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