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NBC Diversity Unit Now in D.C.

Television* Network says the move from L.A. shouldn't affect the office and its new director. Some observers aren't so sure.

June 21, 2002|DANA CALVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Weeks after NBC's chairman and chief executive, Robert Wright, said programs for viewers outside its "target" wealthy audience had not scored high enough ratings to be profitable for the network, he has reassigned the responsibilities of its chief of diversity to an executive 3,000 miles from Hollywood.

Michael Jack was named this week to take the diversity duties along with his appointment as president and general manager of WRC-TV, NBC's Washington station.

Wright told the Wall Street Journal four weeks ago that the plethora of cable and broadcast networks provides "places you can go with a pure ethnic show, and they don't have to be spectacular to succeed. With us, they've got to be awfully good."

A spokesman for the network said Wright was referring to ratings and not quality of the shows. But Sharon Johnson, chairwoman of the Black Writers' Committee at the Writers Guild of America West, said Wright's comments represent the backward culture of a network that assigns "diversity chiefs" with no real power and then claims diversity is a losing venture.

"As if it's not about race, it's about economics," Johnson said. "Treating people unjustly was about economics and always has been. You're not getting away from the racial aspects by leaning on the economic aspects."

NBC received the highest "grade" of the major networks--C--13 months ago from a minority coalition evaluating their infusion of diversity into the prime-time lineup. The lowest grade, D-, went to ABC. The coalition 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.

"NBC's approach to diversity is ensemble casting," said Paula Madison, the outgoing diversity chief who oversaw that progress at NBC. "When people would cite 'Friends' or 'Frasier,' they came into being before we understood that we wanted diversity in our casting.... Now look at the diverse casts of 'Scrubs' and 'ER.' "

NBC and the other major networks appointed diversity chiefs in 2000 in response to criticism that minorities were underrepresented in prime-time programs.

Madison's new job will be to focus on integrating the staffs and mission of NBC with Telemundo, the second-largest Spanish-language television network in the country, which NBC acquired last year for $2.7 billion. She will also remain president and general manager of KNBC-TV and will lead the entertainment team of the diversity initiative at the network on a temporary basis, until her successor gets up and running.

Jack's work from an office in Washington does not sit well with the Writers Guild's Johnson.

"How is someone going to tackle diversity if they're not here in Los Angeles, where it's all happening? I'm not sure why he was chosen," she said. "Maybe on the corporate level he is effective, but we constantly ignore the creative level."

Jack said Thursday he wasn't worried about being out of touch with diversity issues in Hollywood.

"There's the wonder of telephones and planes," he said, mentioning that the head of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, Karen Narasaki, is based in Washington and already has had dinner with him.

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