MIPCOM: Diversity Sells, Sony and Viacom Executives Say

Roots Still Publicity H 2016
Steve Dietl/HISTORY

“The idea that shows with a diverse cast cannot sell commercially is nonsense,” says Sony's Keith Le Goy about international hits at the Cannes event's first-ever Diversity Summit.

With Empire ruling the American airwaves and Shondaland shows staking out their ground internationally, diverse casts are now more marketable than ever, said panelists at MIPCOM’s first-ever Diversity Summit in Cannes on Tuesday.

“The idea that shows with a diverse cast cannot sell commercially is nonsense,” said Sony Pictures Television president, distribution Keith Le Goy, citing sales on Lethal Weapon, NCIS LA and its latest, Timeless, which just sold to more than 100 territories.

The international market has changed from the time when The Wire, widely considered one of the best shows ever made, couldn’t sell abroad when it aired 2002-2008, noted A+E Networks president, international Sean Cohan.

Now it would be viewed “simply as a great show, with great creators and great storytelling,” he argued.

Viacom executive vp international brand development Michael Armstrong went a step further. “I’d like to take the notion that we need to make the business case for diversity and bury that in the sand,” he said. “I’d say that making diverse content is the business case for being successful.”

In fact, “diversity is money” said All3Media senior vp international format production Nick Smith. Using U.K. numbers, Smith presented the data case for diversity in casting. The high-end dramas that define this “golden age of television” tend to underperform in minority communities, he noted, including prestige programming like The Night Manager, Mr Selfridge and Call the Midwife, which have predominantly white casts.

The drama that demographically over-performs in the U.K. is The Walking Dead, which boasts an almost incidentally diverse cast that is focused on fighting zombies.

While that affects advertisers, individuals are also willing to "pay up for people who look like them," said Tonje Bakang, CEO of Afrostream, which collates black content from around the globe. “Programming is a business opportunity, not just marketing,” he said.

And while the current focus is on casting, the idea of diversity will have to go deeper. “At what point do you have black stories, or trans stories or gay stories? I think that’s the next level of diversity. Those are harder,” said Le Goy. And storytellers should be looking for fresh voices.

Diversity should not be thought of as a color issue, but “diversity of thought” and presenting varied viewpoints. “It’s not about race,” said David Ellender, president global distribution at Sonar. “It’s about imagination.” Talent — both in front and behind the camera — must be considered from the beginning of the creative process and not as an afterthought of putting in a token character.

“I think too often commissioners look at diverse talent and see risk," he said. "Black actors are seen as a commercial risk, women directors are seen as a commercial risk. Broadcasters, networks and streamers must take more risks."

Le Goy noted that sports is the most diverse programming on television, as well as the most sought after by networks. “You have a very, very concrete example of something that connects and delivers the most value having the greatest spectrum of diversity.”

With broadcasters being budget conscious, shortform video was one suggestion from Viacom's Armstrong in order to track what is working well with potential audiences.

Still in these algorithm and data-driven times, the impetus is still on individuals, argued Armstrong, citing History Channel’s recent reboot of Roots.

“If they only relied on an algorithm for what their audience had already watched on the network they would leave out a wider range of things that could help the audience understand and appreciate the diversity and history in the U.S. and around the world,” he said. “I don’t want to downplay their importance in this ever evolving digital world — programmers and marketers still matter.”