CBS Execs Talk Plans to Increase Diversity: It's "Our Most Important Issue"

Halle Berry in 'Extant'

They outlined projects within the network at a UCLA law school panel discussion

When CBS svp casting Fern Orenstein's department starts casting a new project, it's a different conversation than it was just several years ago.

“The first thing out of people’s mouths now is can we make this diverse,” Orenstein said, speaking at the UCLA School of Law in a panel discussion on Wednesday co-presented by the university’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. “When we go to agency meetings with [CBS Entertainment chairman] Nina Tassler, the first thing out of her mouth is diversity is our most important issue.”

“I’m so excited to see that finally, after all these years, that’s the first conversation now,” Orenstein says.

The panel featured Orenstein, CBS vp diversity and communications Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i and writer-director Rick Najera, who all play roles in CBS’s Diversity Institute. Like similar initiatives at other networks, the Institute is focused on developing minority talent in in acting, writing and directing. Orenstein produces and Najera, whose credits include writing MadTV and In Living Color and directing his Latinologues on Broadway, directs the Institute’s centerpiece effort for performers, the Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase.

They touted the showcase for starting the careers of minority actors and actresses on CBS projects and elsewhere. This year, seven of the showcase’s 22 performers were cast in series, including Chloe Wepper in ABC’s Manhattan Love Story and Drew Tarver in CBS’s How I Met Your Dad pilot. The showcase has landed 32 actors as series regulars since it was founded over 10 years ago, with alums including Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez and Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon.

The program's success might be in part due to one of its regular attendees, Smith-Anoa’i said: CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves. "When he comes to showcase, people go, 'Oh, if Leslie wants it, then yes!'" she said.

The network’s minority leads include Halle Berry in Extant and Maggie Q in Stalker, and in The McCarthys Tyler Ritter plays a gay character. But there’s still progress to be made, the panelists agreed. “I think we have a long way to go in our comedies,” Smith-Anoa’i said.

When asked if the major agencies contribute to the imbalance, Orenstein responded, “I actually think that’s the biggest problem. The networks and the studios are finally on board with this, but I’ve got to say, it’s tough with the agencies." But the network could do better to voice its interest in minority talent to the agencies, Smith-Anoa'i said.

The panelists noted that the lack of minorities in the industry might in part come from minority cultures' ideas of professional success. The Asian-American actors Orenstein works with in the showcase often tell her that they work as lawyers or doctors for the approval of their families, who don’t know they act as well. "I think part of the problem is that their parents never saw a lot of asian actors on television," she said.

"Families of people of color say, are you making money?' It’s the next generation that goes, 'Daddy, Mommy, I want to be a philosopher!'" Najera added. "Our people don’t do that."