Diversity: More Than Black and White

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It would come as a surprise to most people that a fast-paced, entrepreneurial industry like telecommunications has lagged behind slower, more traditional institutions in any regard. But on matters of diversity, the telecommunications industry can take a valuable lesson from the federal government.

Caught in a crisis without sufficient language specialists after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government came to the same conclusion as other businesses around the world. Needing people who could interpret the intelligence being gathered to combat terrorism, agencies immediately launched an aggressive diversity program because they realized that in a global culture, being more aware of the greater world outside
meant bringing people with that knowledge inside.

In the communications industry, we also face a similar crisis, yet the industry has the opportunity to be proactive before the fire starts. It is a valuable lesson that should be extended to more of corporate America. For NAMIC and other organizations dedicated to the promotion of diversity, the lesson was obvious. Indeed, it's the lesson we've been trying to teach since our inception.

Far too many people see diversity in terms of black and white. That does not begin to define the mix of peoples, cultures and opinions that define America in the 21st Century.

Recent studies examining the television viewing habits of black, Hispanic and white households show that in the matter of responsiveness to current programming, tastes are widely divergent. In a comparison of the top 10 most popular programs for each group, only Monday Night Football
is common to all.

More importantly, the lack of inclusion of African-American, Latino, Asian-American and Native American managers in programming and marketing decisions is still a cause for concern.

Such diversity is important for all the same reasons that it is important to our nation's defense. We serve our audiences and advertisers better by understanding the nuances of the markets we intend to reach. And to do that, those markets should be represented in network leadership as well.

How is it possible, in the midst of widespread consolidation and globalization of the telecommunications industry, to not similarly globalize in the building of management teams designed to serve new cultures?

Still, the situation is not all negative. Credit should be given where credit is due. There are a growing number of executives attempting to meet the challenge of diversifying both corporate offices and television programming.

And while minority portrayals still lack in quantity, there are signs of increased quality in the portrayals that exist, with the cable industry notably leading the way.

Equally significant is the inclusion of people from all cultures in reality programs focusing on everyday life — as designers, as chefs, as experts on home improvement, as surgeons and legal experts.

On March 28, NAMIC will recognize that kind of inclusive spirit at its 9th Annual Vision Awards ceremony. This year's Vision Awards honors those networks and executives who did not wait for a diversity crisis, but instead pushed forward with quality cross-cultural programming.

Pioneering female executives Debra Lee (president and COO, Black Entertainment Television), Christina Norman (general manager, VH1), Laureen Ong (president, National Geographic Channel U.S.) and Pamela Thomas-Graham (president, CNBC) will be honored along with Lifetime Television and Showtime's groundbreaking family series, Resurrection Blvd.
All are making a critical difference.

It is time to be proactive about diversity. At a time when alternative forms of media battle for the attention of television viewers, diversity can mean the development of compelling and competitive culturally-specific programming to engage new audiences and build new markets.

It is time for diversity to be seen as a priority if our industry is to thrive and survive in a shaky economic future. The people who we entrust to make our nation safe and secure have already come to that conclusion. It's time for the telecommunications industry to catch up.

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