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TV Networks Able to Avoid a Boycott

Television * They spell out plans for more diversity in employment and programming to the NAACP.

December 20, 1999|DANA CALVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The major television networks have successfully staved off a threatened viewer boycott by minority activists after closed-door meetings in Baltimore this month with the president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

During separate meetings in the second-floor office of NAACP President Kwesi Mfume, top executives from ABC, NBC and Fox laid out specific proposals to bring more diversity to the industry. CBS was in touch by telephone.

"If we had had negative responses, we had planned to launch a boycott," said John White, spokesman for the NAACP. "Right now, we have positive responses from the networks, and there's no plans for a boycott because we're in daily, constant communication with [them]."

Representatives from the NAACP and the four networks said the discussions were delicate and they had agreed not to divulge details at this stage. The NAACP has been pressuring the networks to improve their employment and depiction of minorities since last summer, and had lined up a broad range of other minority organizations to support a boycott if one was deemed necessary.

Today was the deadline for the networks to hand in what White referred to as a "working document" in response to requests issued by the NAACP on Nov. 10, which were geared toward increasing the responsibility and power of minorities inside the networks. One of the proposals called for the appointment of at least one new African American member to each network's board of directors by Sept. 1.

As of Friday, only one network had delivered a document to the NAACP, according to White; he would not say which one. Representatives from CBS and Fox said they planned to turn in a written response today.

A Fox executive who spoke only under condition of anonymity was the only network representative willing to discuss details of their meetings, although officials from all the networks have previously acknowledged a need to improve minority representation both within their executive ranks and in their programming.

According to the Fox executive, the threatened boycott was never discussed at last Tuesday's afternoon meeting. Instead, members of the NAACP listened to Fox's plans for a minority trainee program that would ultimately place a writer trainee on every show it produces.

Fox also plans to sponsor seminars hosted by minority writers, directors and producers that would provide networking opportunities for aspiring artists.

"People always tend to hire people they know and that are like them," the executive said.

But Fox executives felt that some of the NAACP requests were unrealistic, and the network said it would not be held to a timetable, such as appointing an African American to the board of directors by next fall.

Meeting with Mfume in Baltimore were Pat Fili-Krushel, president of ABC Television Network; Doug Herzog, president of the Fox Entertainment Group; and Scott Sassa, president of NBC West Coast.

CBS executives didn't make the trip, apparently because of the goodwill the network fostered when its president, Leslie Moonves, took the time to appear at a public hearing the NAACP held here Nov. 29. White said Moonves has been speaking with Mfume on the telephone since then.

Moonves testified to his financial and personal commitment to recruiting and retaining minority employees. He also talked about "City of Angels," a weekly drama with a predominantly minority cast that will premiere Jan. 16.

The other networks sent lower-level executives to the morning session, all of whom left early when they learned they would not be allowed to address the gathering until the afternoon.

At the time, a disgusted Mfume said he was not presiding over "drive-by hearings." According to White, Mfume readdressed the snub during the meetings in Baltimore.

"I think it would be fair to say that they think it was a mistake to have their designees leave early," White said.

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