Scott D. Pierce: CBS execs pummeled over lack of diversity

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Scott D. Pierce

Beverly Hills, Calif. • CBS’ top programmers braved a room full of TV critics, knowing they were going to be under heavy fire — and coming in without ammunition.

I felt sort of sorry for CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl and senior executive vice president Thom Sherman, who are new on the job and were sort of thrown to the wolves.

CBS was smart to put Sherman onstage with Kahl — he just moved over from sister network The CW, where he programmed all sorts of diverse shows. Kahl is the new chief programmer, but he’s been a top exec at CBS for decades, so he couldn’t duck all responsibility for the network’s lack of diversity.

A year ago, CBS added six new fall shows, and all featured white, male leads. Then-CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller acknowledged the problem and promised to do better.

This fall, CBS is adding six new shows and five feature white, male leads. So critics weren’t exactly buying Kahl’s and Sherman’s repeated promises to do better.

The issue was exacerbated by the departure of the two Asian American stars of “Hawaii Five-0” — Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park — who quit when CBS refused to pay them what the white stars of the show are making.

Art Streiber | CBS Continuing "Hawaii Five-0" stars Scott Caan and Alex O'Laughlin and former stars Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim.

Kahl refused to “talk specifics” about what happened.

“We made very, very strong attempts to keep them and offered them a lot of money to stick around,” he said. “We wanted them to stick around.”

But not enough to give the minority actors pay equity. Not enough to avoid another self-inflicted PR disaster.

And speaking of disasters, in the midst of questioning from members of the Television Critics Association, Maureen Ryan of Variety dropped a bomb — the CBS casting department is “staffed entirely by white people. Is that why you’ve had trouble casting people of color in leading roles on the CBS network?” she asked.

I actually expected some sort of denial, but there was none.

“I personally don’t think that has anything to do with it,” Kahl said, arguing that the CBS casting team has “been together a long time” and has cast “many, many diverse roles.”

When he was asked to clarify, Kahl repeated, “They’ve been together for a long time. That’s the department that it’s been.” Not the strongest defense.

He did add, “We are cognizant of the issue, and we hear you, and we will be looking to expand the casting department.”

There is only one good answer to the ongoing issue, and it wasn’t one Kahl and Sherman could give to critics. The answer is to follow through on their promises and actually add shows that feature women and people of color in lead roles.

If that happens, a lot of the network’s critics will probably say, “It’s about time.” And it is.

But then Kahl and Sherman won’t go into a gunfight completely unarmed.

Scott D. Pierce covers TV for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.