CBS' Glenn Geller Admits to Diversity Problem: "We Need to Do Better"

"In terms of leads, we are definitely less diverse this year than we were last year."
Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS
Glenn Geller

Glenn Geller extolled the virtues of the big-tent broadcast model in his second address in front of the Television Critics Association as president of CBS Entertainment.

He was the only broadcast exec to mention the upfront sales season — noting that CBS notched double-digit CPM increases during the fall selling bonanza that produced “one of the strongest markets we’ve seen in years.” He also noted that late night has become “good business for CBS” since the network now owns The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and The Late Late Show With James Corden.

But neither of those subjects was what reporters seemed interested in talking about on Wednesday morning — and CBS was ready for that. Geller took several minutes to introduce a bevy of African-American and Latino actors who have been added to the network’s shows this fall — blowing up their photos on screens to his left and right. CBS has been excoriated for presenting a schedule that includes virtually no non-white leads, and its three high-profile new comedies all star white men (Matt LeBlanc, Joel McHale and Kevin James). As the Q&A portion of the session kicked off, the first several questions focused on the network’s lack of diversity.

“I’m glad this is the first question,” Geller said. "We need to do better and we know it. That’s really it, we need to do better. In terms of leads, we are definitely less diverse this year than we were last year."

Geller was pushed for a good 10 minutes about the subject, fielding pointed questions about the lack of non-white leads and non-white showrunners. "We need to do better" was echoed several times throughout the presentation, and he emphasized the 11 non-white leads that had been added.

"I understand the inclination to look at leads," the exec said. "In the terms of ensemble diversity in our new shows, we are more diverse than we were last year. That's our commitment to diversity, it's ongoing."

Of CBS' eight new series, only one is female-driven: Doubt, set for midseason and starring Katherine Heigl and featuring Laverne Cox in broadcast TV's first transgender series-regular role played by a trans actress. The latter was extolled by Geller, when he was also asked about LGBT diversity. Only one of CBS' new shows, also for midseason, has a black lead (Training Day, with newcomer Justin Cornwell starring opposite Bill Paxton).

One reporter asked Geller about specific initiatives, pointing to FX chief John Landgraf's announcement on Tuesday that he had cut the number of non-white men directing his shows in half. The CBS chief would only say that they have made similar efforts and are still booking directors for the coming season.

That was not all that was discussed during the Q&A. Geller also returned to the subject of late night, talked about one of the network's more problematic pilots (MacGyver) and took a pass when asked address one potential renewal. 

CBS Loves Both Its Late-Night Stars Equally
Geller was careful to spread his praise for the network’s late-night stars evenly among Colbert and Corden — a stark difference from the network’s upfront presentation in May, where Corden had a starring role and Colbert went unmentioned. And certainly Colbert’s live convention shows last month — which produced two of the show’s most viral clips to date, thanks in part to an assist from Jon Stewart — have been a high point for The Late Show. "Stephen recently delivered a daring and creatively impressive two weeks of live shows,” said Geller. (Colbert will do it again in the fall following the presidential and vice presidential debates.) Geller reminded journalists that Colbert’s show has “not even been on the air a year yet," and it’s become the place to go for “newsmaking interviews.” (Later in the session, the exec was vague on the impact of a missive from Viacom about Colbert’s use of his Comedy Central alter-ego on Late Show.) Geller’s praise for Corden included the reminder that Late Late Show is “Emmy-nominated”; Colbert did not receive an Emmy nom. And Corden is putting on a "big variety show five nights a week" that has scored some of the most viral clips ever in late night via "Carpool Karaoke" bits with Adele, Justin Bieber and One Direction. The viral bait that Corden seems to pull off so effortlessly is something Colbert and his team are still working on. The convention shows were a step in that direction and with showrunner Chris Licht on board, CBS executives are looking toward the fall as a relaunch of sorts for Colbert’s Late Show. And live shows after the presidential debates are obviously part of the plan to further revitalize the franchise. 

Geller Thinks MacGyver Is Worth the Trouble
CBS' MacGyver reboot has been plagued by problems, so much so that it's being reshot, but that did not keep the network from scheduling it for the fall. Geller was asked if the name recognition of the franchise was just important enough to justify the placement. "Every pilot goes through retooling," he said. "Admittedly this pilot went through more retooling than most do. We have an iconic franchise. We felt we had more than enough than to pick it up and schedule it on Friday."

BrainDead Is Still Alive — for Now
One show that is very much up in the air is summer drama BrainDead. The series, from The Good Wife creators Michelle and Robert King, has languished in the ratings and captured very little buzz, despite broadcast's relatively scant scripted offerings this summer. Geller was asked about a renewal and essentially punted. "We haven't made any determination for the other scripted shows this season," he said, having announced a renewal for Zoo earlier in the day.

No News Is Good News on the Big Bang Front
Geller expressed confidence that The Big Bang Theory would continue beyond its upcoming tenth season. It’s not entirely surprising given the show's staggering success — it’s the No. 1 comedy on television by a lot — and a cash cow for studio Warner Bros. Stars of the Chuck Lorre-created sitcom locked up a rich multiyear deals that ends after the tenth season that pay them in the neighborhood of $1 million per episode. And Geller noted that all stakeholders have an interest in keeping the juggernaut going for as long as possible. “We are very confident that everyone wants more Big Bang past year ten,” said Geller. “I’m sure Warner Bros. will make those deals.”