Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw starred in "Undercovers,"… (Frank Ockenfels / NBC )
"Undercovers," a glossy drama about married caterers moonlighting as spies, was positioned by NBC as more than just a glittery entry in its fall lineup when it premiered last September. The series featured two black leads — a rarity in prime-time network TV — and was the centerpiece of the network's aggressive campaign touting its commitment to boosting diversity.
NBC trumpeted "Undercovers" as a response to opponents of the network's merger with cable giant Comcast who contended NBC had a historically poor record when it came to placing African Americans in front of and behind the camera. But despite heavy promotion, "Undercovers" never caught on with viewers and was canceled by early November, leaving some observers to speculate that NBC's push for more minority presence would wither.
Network honchos were reassuring. Then-diversity chief Paula Madison maintained in a February radio interview with noted sociologist Michael Eric Dyson that Comcast's NBCUniversal was committed to increasing diversity "in all facets of our business.…Those commitments are in writing, and they are on file with the FCC. There is no likelihood that we would revert. We're not going to put shows on the air that are devoid of diversity."
But little more than six months after the approval of the merger by the Federal Communications Commission, and three months after Madison retired, some of NBCUniversal's units have come under fire as advocates claim that the company is not honoring promises that helped pave the way for the merger's approval.
KNBC Channel 4, NBCUniversal's Los Angeles station, has been targeted by two Latino journalist groups who say the newsroom is discriminating against Latino anchors. And NBC's upcoming fall schedule shows a marked reversal from last season, when the merger was still pending and the network developed "Undercovers" as well as other shows with minorities in major roles, such as "Outlaw," "The Event" and "Outsourced." Those series were all casualties of low ratings, and the new pilots show few people of color in leading roles.
Executives at NBCUniversal are scrambling to address the concerns. Craig Robinson, KNBC's president and general manager, who was hired as NBCUniversal chief of diversity a few weeks ago, said he had long been aggressive in hiring minorities, particularly Latinos, in the newsroom. And NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt recently maintained the network was "embedded in diversity" as it moves into the new season.
Still, critics say they are waiting to be convinced. Leaders of the National Assn. of Hispanic Journalists and CCNMA: Latino Journalists of California are both adopting a wait-and-see posture toward KNBC. The groups, in two separate letters leaked to the website L.A. Observed, expressed unhappiness over the removal of anchor Ana Garcia from the 6 p.m. news, and the absence of Latino anchors from prime newscasts.
Michele Salcedo, president of the NAHJ, and Julio Moran, executive director of CCNMA, said in their letters that KNBC appeared to be in conflict with a memorandum of understanding signed by Comcast and NBCUniversal stating that they would "recruit and retain more Latinos so that their workforces more accurately reflect the communities they serve."
After speaking with Robinson last week, Salcedo and Moran said they were optimistic.
"Craig promised that the talent lineup would look very differently six months from now," Salcedo said. Added Moran: "I stressed the importance of perception. I'm willing to give him six months."
A more delicate issue that Robinson may have to grapple with in the next few weeks is NBC's fall season.
Among the six new series in the fall, only one — "The Playboy Club" — has a minority in a leading role (Cuban-American actor Eddie Cibrian). The cast of the romantic workplace comedy "Free Agents" is predominantly white. In "Prime Suspect," a New York-based police drama starring Maria Bello, the detective squad has only one person of color while the criminals are black and Latino. (The same scenario parallels NBC's 2009 pilot of "Southland," an LAPD drama that was yanked after one season on NBC but found a new home — and more ethnic cast members — on TNT.) The new comedies don't reflect the multicultural flavor of veteran NBC comedies "Community," "30 Rock," "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation."
NBC is not the only network struggling with the issue this season; new shows on rival networks feature few people of color in prominent roles. CBS has only one person of color in its new fall lineup, Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), playing a supporting role on "Person of Interest." Fox and ABC fare slightly better: Shelley Conn stars in Fox's "Terra Nova" while ABC's revamp of "Charlie's Angels" stars Annie Ilonzeh, an African American actress, as one of the Angels, while their protector Bosley is played by Ramon Rodriguez.
At the Television Critics Assn. press tour in early August, Greenblatt said, "There's lots of leads in our new shows," but named only two — Cibrian and Maya Rudolph of "Up All Night," who has a featured role opposite stars Christina Applegate and Will Arnett. Producers are currently beefing up Rudolph's part and adding Nick Cannon to the cast, though those changes are apparently creative decisions rather than efforts to meet any diversity mandate.
Said Greenblatt: "Hopefully, you see these statistics going in our favor as time goes on."