Cable Operators

Industry Still Fighting Diversity Battle

4/10/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Cable has taken many strides on the issue of diversity, but executives attending the National Show last week said the battle is by no means over. From hiring and promotion opportunities to the launching of new networks and shows, executives say cable still needs to remain vigilant in its push to not only effectively serve but also to accurately reflect a fast-growing U.S. minority population.

For the most part, executives speaking last Tuesday at the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications’ annual National Show awards breakfast said the industry is on the right track when it comes to diversifying its workforce and providing targeted content to people of color.

“It can honestly be said that if you look around the entire communications industry and assess for yourself which sectors have shown a real and deep understanding of what diversity means, cable stands out in the big way,” says Comcast Corp. executive vice president Dan Cohen. “This industry has truly built a big tent — we’re creating opportunities for diverse employees to grow and advance together with our industry.”

To illustrate his point, Cohen said that the number of minority executives at the vice president level or above at Comcast has increased from 2% to 5% during the past year, with people of color operating major systems in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Miami and Atlanta.

“One of the most important things is to create an environment that’s diverse and inclusive where we respect everybody, that we get everybody’s opinions and understand our customers,” adds Time Warner Cable chairman and CEO Glenn Britt, who received NAMIC’s Stanley B. Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. “If we do that, we’ll be a successful organization. We’re certainly not all the way there yet, but we all have to work on it.”

FAMILIARITY OVER DIVERSITY

Executives say fostering a diverse environment goes beyond raw employment numbers. Companies also have to be open to new ideas that may emanate from a point of view different from their own, according to Nicole Browning, MTV Networks president of affiliate sales and marketing.

Browning says she was a tireless supporter of diversity at MTVN, yet after receiving negative feedback from minority employees who felt they had limited advancement opportunities, she realized she had fallen into the trap of hiring people who had the same mindset as she did.

“I was getting different types of people, but only those people who thought like me, that were educated like me and had similar values like me,” says Browning, who received the NAMIC Winston “Tony” Cox Executive Award given to executives exhibiting exemplary leadership skills within the industry.

“It is human nature, albeit subconscious, to hear and relate to only those voices that sound like our own,” she says. “At the end of the day, if we don’t challenge our end belief and operating systems, we will never realize the true facet of having diversity.”

PERPETUATING STEREOTYPES

That subconscious urge to hire and to promote people reflective of our own image is often based on fear created by stereotypes of other people and cultures formed mostly through images in the media, says the breakfast’s keynote speaker Frank Wu, a professor at Howard University Law School.

Wu, an Asian-American who authored the book Yellow: Race Beyond Black and White says that everyone, despite their relative open-mindedness toward diversity, still subconsciously harbors some stereotypes.

Referencing an experience where a kid on the street perpetuated a typical Asian-American stereotype by greeting him with a martial arts pose, Wu says the key for cable is to help undo those negative images through the portrayal of people of color in various roles and situations that provide a more balanced view of society.

“We all have these images rattling around in our heads that make us do things even when we don’t notice it,” he says. “It’s the way that we are … maybe we can rewrite the scripts so that the kid who sees the karate moves and those people who see the images of people of color as thugs see a diversity of images, not only in the faces but in different roles.”

That will only come with the development and wide distribution of quality comedy and dramatic content for video and broadband featuring people of color in prominent and substantial roles.

“We have the means to change stereotypes, we have the means to open people’s minds, and we have to use them,” says Joe Lawson, recipient of NAMIC’s L. Patrick Mellon Mentorship Award, for his efforts in counseling others within the industry. A former NAMIC president and Bresnan Communications executive, Lawson — who now heads The River Jordan Cos., a content company specializing in personal growth and social justice from a Christian perspective — said cable has the ability to help transform the social and economic plight of disadvantaged people here and abroad, just as it has revolutionized communications technology through programming.

Those sentiments were echoed by Friend Of NAMIC Award winner Larry Dunn. The Reed Television Group publishing director, with responsibilities for Multichannel News and Broadcasting & Cable, says cable must make sure that it is providing diverse programming choices within their video channel lineups, and access to information rich, high-speed broadband technology.

“Both operators and programmers alike are doing great work in the communities that they serve, but we must make sure that we prioritize a full menu of broadband services in every neighborhood in this country,” says Dunn.

CONTENT BIGOTRY

But some executives say that’s easier said than done. With the exception of Black Entertainment Television, few minority-based networks have gained enough carriage to reach a majority of cable subscribers due to lack of channel space and, in some cases, a perceived lack of interest in markets where minority populations are sparse.

Other targeted networks, such as MTVN’s soon-to-be-launched gay and lesbian-themed service Logo face a different dilemma: overcoming often bigoted, intolerant decision-makers.

While the network has reached distribution agreements with Time Warner, RCN Corp. and Adelphia Communications Corp., Browning says she has had to deal with “mind-boggling” prejudices from industry decision-makers who have a personal bias against the channel due to its content.

“We’ve heard comments from senior level people in companies with huge diversity initiatives like 'If we launch that network here I will personally resign,’” Browning says. “What message does this really send within our companies about our diversity initiatives, many of which have received accolades?”

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