The 'Friends' Cast Would Not Look the Same if Show Were Made Today

Executives from Freeform, TNT and more discuss the importance of representation and inclusion, and how women might not ascend to the top ranks in Hollywood thanks to the "executive VP ghetto."
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The importance of diversity and representation in television cannot be understated — and four female TV execs sat with The Hollywood Reporter's Lesley Goldberg to discuss just how vital it is and what they're doing to continue to change things.

Sarah Aubrey (executive vice president original programming at TNT), Lauren Whitney (president of television at Miramax), Karey Burke (executive vp programming and development at Freeform) and Carolyn Newman (senior vice president scripted programming at eOne) talked about how to encourage diversity in front of and behind the camera and in the executive ranks, how to champion new voices and what they're doing to be more inclusive.

Burke said that although there's no spoken mandate at Freeform about hiring diverse voices, it's something the company is very aware of. Especially in this peak TV era, it needs to focus more than ever on giving new voices a chance.

"The proliferation of content has created so much more opportunity," she acknowledged. "That said, there's more to do and I think putting less of a premium on experience for us as buyers, having it be a value for us to take chances on fresher, less experienced voices is critical."

Newman said that another way to encourage fresh voices is to seek out women to direct pilots rather than single episodes. Because many women have had less of a chance to direct shorts or features in their careers, they're not usually looked at to shape the look of a show in a pilot.

Whitney and Aubrey both cited examples of the importance of diverse voices in the writers room and in the executive suites about recognizing content that will appeal to a wider variety of people.

Said Whitney, "If we have more people in the room writing it, we could have more people on the other side connecting to it and I think the same is true with the pitching process."

All four women discussed how they have had to balance being parents and their working lives and how there are many more examples of working women in Hollywood. This causes women's careers to stall before reaching the highest levels of their offices, what Burke calls the "executive VP ghetto."

They also talked about pivotal moments in TV representation that have affected them. For Burke, it was seeing an interracial married gay couple in The Fosters that inspired her to take a job at the network (then ABC Family). For Newman, it was seeing the groundbreaking Transparent pilot and how that transformed Amazon. For Aubrey, it was seeing the diversity in the Grey's Anatomy cast.

"I remember watching that first episode of Grey's and I thought, 'Oh, my God, there's not one, not two but three black doctors and Sandra Oh is a doctor and we have four people of color outnumbering the white doctors on this show — and they're all the senior doctors.' That is without a comment, without a political statement about it. It just was," said Aubrey. "I was knocked out by that at the time."

For women coming up in Hollywood, Newman has one major piece of advice: Band together and work as a team with other up-and-coming people. "Getting to find other people who are entry level and work together, that's a good way of starting."

While things might seem disheartening, there have been changes. Burke was in the room when Marta Kauffman and David Crane pitched Friends, and when execs tried to push for a more diverse cast than six straight white people, the creators pushed back. They wrote the script with specific people in mind.

"I think now it might be a different conversation. I also think that was gen X, and I think millennials and subsequently gen Z are far more diverse generations," Burke said. "And I think to honestly serve those generations... it might feel a little tone deaf to not be more inclusive."

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