LOS ANGELES — CBS has sailed through some rough waters when unveiling its fall lineup at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in recent years.
For much of the last decade, executives have faced heavy criticism from TV journalists over the near-absence of people of color in leading or prominent roles on the network. While other major broadcast networks steadily increased the presence of African Americans and other minorities, the trend at CBS when it came to the casting of starring roles steered primarily toward white men.
The backlash reached a crescendo at the 2016 press tour when CBS presented a slate of six new comedies, all featuring white men, including Joel McHale and Kevin James. CBS Entertainment President Kelly Kahl and Thom Sherman, senior executive vice president of programming, encountered even more grilling the following summer, over the network’s fall slate; of its six new shows, only one, “SWAT,” had a minority lead, and none had a woman in a leading role.
The furor subsided last year when CBS introduced several shows with minority leads, including “The Neighborhood,” “God Friended Me,” “FBI” and “Magnum P.I.” And when the network presents its upcoming prime-time slate on Thursday, it will show even more momentum on the diversity front: Three of its five new shows feature performers of color in lead roles. In addition, “The Neighborhood,” “Magnum P.I,” “God Friended Me,” “FBI” and “SWAT” are all returning, giving CBS one of the most ethnically diverse lineups of the four major networks.
“Certainly, two years ago, we pledged to do a better job,” Kahl, appointed entertainment head in 2017, said in a telephone interview this week. “We knew there was some skepticism from the press tour audience. But we went back and followed through. To us, it feels organic and authentic. These are really good shows that happen to be inclusive. This is the way forward and the way we will conduct business going forward.”
Sherman, who served as executive vice president of programming for the CW network before joining CBS in 2017, emphasized that the network sees inclusion as fundamental to its development process.
“It’s how I was trained to do things — that inclusion is important and that we need to be reflective of our broadcast audience,” he said. “We put the message out into the community that we wanted to have inclusion baked into the concept of the show.”
Among the new CBS shows are “Bob (heart) Abishola,” starring Billy Gardell (“Mike & Molly”) as a middle-aged businessman who falls head over heels for his cardiac nurse, a Nigerian immigrant (Folake Olowofoyeku); “Evil,” from “The Good Wife” creators Michelle and Robert King, about a cynical female psychologist (Katja Herbers) who teams up with a priest-in-training (Mike Colter) to investigate the Catholic Church’s backlog of unexplained mysteries; and “All Rise,” a Los Angeles-set legal drama starring Simone Missick (“Luke Cage”) as a newly appointed, no-nonsense judge.
While executives in previous CBS administrations always maintained — in the face of continued criticism — that increasing diversity was a priority, one factor that may have had a dramatic impact on the network’s progress is the departure of Leslie Moonves, who was forced to resign as chief executive in 2018 due to scandals involving alleged sexual harassment and assault. Moonves was known to be heavily involved in development and casting of CBS series.
The network also has implemented or accelerated several diversity initiatives and incentives, including an annual symposium for casting directors to strategize how to increase diversity and a continued emphasis on a comedy sketch showcase for aspiring minority performers, as well as artists and writers from the LGBTQ community.
Said Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i, executive vice president of diversity, inclusion and communications: “From casting to development, all departments are now on the same page, collectively working toward this common goal. It’s important that we as broadcasters are as inclusive as our audience. Everyone’s story should be reflected and represented.”
Greg Spottiswood and Sunil Nayar, the executive producers of “All Rise,” said in a phone interview that CBS pursued them and their show “very aggressively.”
“They told us that they felt this show belonged on their network, and we could really sense their enthusiasm,” Spottiswood said. “We really feel we’re at the right network at the right time with the right show.”
“The Neighborhood” star and executive producer Cedric the Entertainer said he was aware of CBS’ previous reputation on the diversity front but said he is proud the series has found a home on the network. “It takes some guts to change, but they are comfortable with us.”
The series revolves around the fallout when a white family moves into a predominantly black working-class neighborhood. The show is loosely based on creator Jim Reynolds’ experience when his family moved into a Pasadena neighborhood.
“One of our strengths is presenting culture in terms of differences, but also common ground,” Reynolds said. “There are certainly differences, but more often than not there are similarities. With where we are in the world right now, we need to have that conversation in a kinder, more respectful way. At the end of the day, our show is about human beings.”