CBS' New Execs Hammered on Race, Gender and That 'Hawaii Five-0' Debacle

Kelly Kahl Thom Sherman Split - H 2017
Courtesy of CBS

"If nothing else, we've lasted longer than The Mooch, right?"

That was how Kelly Kahl kicked of his first official meeting with the press since being named CBS Entertainment president in May. The longtime scheduling chief, taking the stage at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour with equally new programming executive vp Thom Sherman, laid out a very clear plan for TV's most-watched network during their regime — one, they said, will be marked by a drive for eyeballs (not demos) and will feature a mix of broad series and big swings.

But that's not what reporters wanted to talk about. The duo were hammered with questions about their slate's comparative lack of female-fronted shows and series featuring people of color — echoing the line of question that former entertainment chief Glenn Geller got during the previous summer's meeting of the TCA.

"We are absolutely moving in the right direction," said Kahl, citing a 60 percent lift in non-white series regulars and ongoing efforts to include more people of color behind the scenes. "We are making progress."

When the absence of a female-fronted series was brought up, Sherman explained that it was not for a lack of trying. "CBS did develop female lead shows last year," he said. "The way things turned out, those pilots were felt not to be as good as the other shows that were picked up."

Neither of their comments assuaged reporters, who really tried to take Kahl and Sherman to task for CBS' comparative lack of diversity and inclusion — a network, it should be noted, whose current lineup was molded before Kahl became involved in creative and when Sherman was still at The CW. The inclusion talk seemed to hit its crescendo with a rehashing of the recent Hawaii Five-0 departures.

CBS' evolving diversity issue did not take up all the air in the room, however. Kahl and Sherman also used their time to discuss recent meetings with talent agencies, confidence in Stephen Colbert and the ongoing discussion about violence in their many, many prodcedurals.

Here are some of the bigger take-aways:

CBS' Casting Department Is Actually Whiter Than Its Shows
The lack of diversity was inevitably a running theme throughout the network's executive session, but one pointed question came as a bit of a surprise. A reporter revealed that CBS casting departments in Los Angeles and New York are all white, a factoid many in the room likely were unaware of. Asked to explain, Sherman offered, a bit lamely, that the departments have "been together for a long time," but he added that it is something the network is "looking at." Of course, the casting issue came to a head in recent weeks with the exits of Asian-American actors Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park from Hawaii Five-0 after it was revealed that they made significantly less than the show's white stars. CBS has said they made the actors offers for "large and significant" salary increases to stay. Another questioner noted that multiple CBS series, including the passed-over drama pilot Mission Control, were written with diverse leads, but then cast with white actors in the starring roles. (The pilot starred David Giuntoli and Poppy Montgomery.) Sherman reminded the audience that the show was cast and greenlighted before he and Kahl were in their current roles. 

It's All About Eyeballs
"We're in the eyeballs business, just like Facebook and Google," said Kahl, getting ahead of any questions about CBS' popularity with older viewers. With increased traction from streaming and time-shifting, the exec admitted that demos still serve a purpose but that the true race is for the biggest share of the audience. "CBS has been so successful with broad-appeal shows, and we are going to continue down that path," said Sherman, who added that he still would like to "expand the palette" of what the network puts on the air, and is trying to do so by reaching out to the creative community. Sherman detailed a recent string of meetings with talent agencies in which they tried to open the door to pitches some may not consider sending their way: "Don't assume you know what a CBS show is."

Stephen Colbert's Success Isn't Necessarily Tied to Trump
When one, perhaps wishfully thinking, reporter asked if CBS brass were concerned the current ratings roll of Stephen Colbert might derail if President Donald Trump did not last in office, Sherman was quick to dismiss the notion. "Stephen has found a voice, vis a vis this administration," he said, suggesting that it won't go away if the comedian runs out of Trump material. Sherman also reminded the room that Colbert's previous Comedy Central show thrived during the Obama presidency. "Stephen had great success in a previous administration as well," he noted.

What Violence Issue?
The executives also fielded questions about the violent nature of some of their dramas. It's not a new issue for the network that weathered the same controversy when CSI — with its high body count — was a hit show. This time the debate comes as the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality enters its fourth year in the media's gaze. Kahl pushed back, asserting that while many CBS dramas revolve around crime, he did not personally find them "overly violent." "All of our producers take these issues very seriously," he added. "Any time you have a show where police are involved, you'll see some violence." The glorification of law enforcement was touched on during the S.W.A.T. panel earlier in the morning, with executive producer Shawn Ryan noting: "This is a pro-cop show, but this is also a pro-community show. I want to see how the cops deal with people. I want to see how the people deal with cops."