Waving "report cards" that contained several low marks, a multiethnic coalition, along with attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. and entertainer Bill Cosby, harshly criticized the four major television networks' attempts to diversify their prime-time lineups.
In overall grades, ABC landed at the bottom with a D-. CBS earned a D+. Fox scored a C-, and NBC received the highest grade, a C.
During a news conference Thursday, coalition leaders said the networks have not fully honored agreements reached 16 months ago to increase diversity. The action follows the networks' presentations of their new fall shows to advertisers last week.
"The television industry is failing, and failing quickly," said Esteban Torres, a California state transportation commissioner who is head of the coalition, which includes the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Latino Media Council, American Indians in Film & Television and the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition.
The reaction from networks was swift and ranged from disappointment at Fox to accusations of misrepresentation from ABC.
With the exception of the NAACP, the key coalition members graded the networks in a range of categories including: minority actors in prime time; writers, producers and directors in prime time; the development of deals with qualified minorities for programming; employment in the management, corporate and executive ranks; and commitment to diversity issues.
Despite the fact that most of the 22 new shows will feature at least one minority, coalition leaders said the networks are not taking the coalition or the agreements seriously. The specter of advertiser boycotts, lawsuits and other actions was also raised, although there were no specifics.
"The time for talking is fast coming to an end," Cochran said. "A lot of promises were made, and those promises were not kept, by and large."
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who was unable to attend the news conference, backed the coalition and its report cards.
"I haven't seen a greater willingness to empower qualified African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans with the ability to green-light programs and determine what is going to be on the schedules," he said.
After ABC was singled out by the coalition as the worst offender, its senior vice president of communications, Zenya Mucha, said the coalition did not present a complete picture of diversity initiatives at the network.
"We are disappointed that the coalition has misrepresented ABC's record," she said, adding that by ABC's count, its fall schedule of new and returning series will have a 39% increase in nonwhite recurring characters.
"There will be improvement and additional changes," she added.
Josie Thomas, CBS' head of diversity, said: "We're disappointed with the grades. I don't believe they reflect the progress that we've made to date."
In a prepared statement, NBC said: "We are very pleased that every one of the new shows on NBC this fall has minority representation . . . and we intend to build upon this as we move forward. In addition, we have implemented several programs designed to give minorities the experience needed to obtain meaningful careers in the industry, both on-air and behind the scenes."
Fox's head of diversity, Mitsy Wilson, was the only network executive to attend the news conference. She said she was "disappointed personally" by Fox's below-average grade.
She added: "I totally understand the direction the coalition is going in. They're looking for change. . . . If the best statement of diversity is the faces they see on the network, 41% of our leads or recurring roles are minorities. That's up from 24%" in 1999-2000.