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At this point, CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl knows what to expect when meeting with the press. His network has been getting grilled about inclusion, both on camera and off, long before he took the top post in 2017.
But as prepared as Kahl and counterpart Thom Sherman were to discuss the network’s steps to becoming less white, evidenced by the 2018 and 2019 scripted series orders, the issue of reality television proved to be the dominant topic during Thursday’s Q&A with members of the press at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour.
Issues of racism, be they in the edit of people of color or in the removal of racist comments from white participants, have followed many reality shows over the years — particularly CBS’ Big Brother. The current season is no exception, with contestant Kemi Fakunle being the latest. Not only was she the victim of alleged bullying, she was seen in one of the show feeds telling other contestants that producers told her to “act black.”
“On all our shows, our producers receive unconscious-bias training,” noted Kahl, who said CBS would review the situation. “Every season we look back and ask if there’s anything we can do better next year.”
Sherman, senior executive vp programming, and Kahl came armed with facts about representation in dramas and comedies. Not only did leads and ensembles reflect a change from CBS shows of the past, Sherman announced that 53 percent of the writers are women or people of color. By season’s end, half of the series-directing gigs will have gone to women or people of color as well. But on the subject of women and the network’s environment for them, Bull was the other dominant topic during the half-hour session.
To recap, Bull star and executive producer Michael Weatherly was accused of sexually charged and misogynist behavior on set by actress Eliza Dushku. The actress left the show, and the two later brokered an undisclosed settlement. Despite all the bad press, Bull was renewed. One reporter asked the execs point-blank why it was worth it.
“It’s a show that does very well,” said Kahl. “It’s a very popular show. More than 10 million people watch every week. Michael is loved by our audience. Even after the allegations came out, people continued to watch.”
Kahl didn’t brush the Bull problem aside completely. When the subject first came up, he offered an explanation similar to the one the network has given to the press since the news broke in December.
“We found out about the settlement the same time you did,” he said. “We took a 360-degree view of the entire situation. What we found, in Michael’s case, was no incidents and no complaints during his time on Bull — none outside of the isolated incident. At the time, he was remorseful and apologetic. He is undergoing leadership coaching.”
Bull showrunner Glenn Gordon Caron is also receiving leadership coaching, a fact that Kahl said was mutually agreed upon by the producer and the network.
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