NAME: Josie Thomas
TITLE: Executive VP, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer
COMPANY: CBS Corp.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Was named CBS News director of business affairs in 1989, and became senior VP of diversity, CBS Television in 2000. Thomas has held her current title since 2010.
QUOTABLE: “[Diversity] has been a passion of mine forever. Where I am now is where I should be — it’s brought together all my various skill sets in a way that allows me to be very productive in this role.”
When CBS took its turn on stage for its Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour sessions in Pasadena, Calif., early in 2018, the network’s significant efforts to have more diverse series were there for all to see. There was a panel for new drama Instinct, a procedural with a gay character as the lead. And there was another panel titled “Politics & Social Issues on Television,” where the executive producers from a host of diverse shows, including The Good Fight, Superior Donuts and Star Trek: Discovery, talked about how their series tackle social topics.
Aaron Harberts, executive producer on CBS All Access series Star Trek: Discovery, spoke of Star Trek’s long history in addressing social matters, and Discovery’s willingness to continue the tradition. He mentioned the newer show’s diverse cast, including an African-American lead, and a gay couple.
Contrast CBS’s sessions with its executive address at TCA a year and a half before, when the network was blasted for a lack of diverse stars on both sides of the camera.
“It shows very conclusively what direction we are headed in,” said Josie Thomas, executive vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at CBS Corp. “It’s an incredibly positive direction.”
From the Legal Side to Diversity
Thomas has long focused on bringing more diversity to CBS. She came on board at the company on the legal side, as broadcast counsel for the law department of CBS, in 1987. She returned to CBS in 1989 as director of business affairs at CBS News, and took on a VP of business affairs title in 1995.
In 2000, Thomas, a Harvard grad, shifted to senior vice president of diversity at CBS. Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp. chairman and CEO, said Thomas had done “an extraordinary job” heading up business affairs, and was the easy choice to lead diversity. “She had a wonderful way about her,” Moonves said. “She’s very smart and knew how to handle people, and was a very concerned citizen.”
It was around then that she created the CBS Diversity Institute, which gives participants access to the network’s decision-making process. “We get our talent in the right room, to have the right conversations, with decision-makers in our company,” Thomas said. “We want to be your aunt or uncle in the business.”
Such a program, she added, is designed for those with the right skill sets, but who don’t get enough opportunities to share those skills with company brass.
A more recent launch saw CBS and the Association of National Advertisers get behind the #SeeHer movement, which aims to accurately portray girls and women in the media. As part of the initiative, CBS will deliver on-air, online and behind-the-scenes opportunities to promote the #SeeHer mission, which is targeted toward women and girls seeing their true selves on TV by 2020, free of gender bias. CBS will produce PSAs toward that end as well.
CBS Sports Network show We Need to Talk, a talk show hosted by women, featured a #SeeHer-branded segment Dec. 19, with guests discussing how sports provides a platform to empower women. The show aired live, following a women’s college basketball game between UConn and Oklahoma.
The #SeeHer initiative was also discussed on the CBS daytime show The Talk, and #SeeHer figures have met with showrunners on CBS series.
“We’re constantly innovating in this area,” said Thomas. “What we need to do as a company is be ahead of the curve.”
Asked about her mentors, Thomas mentions her parents. Her mother, also named Josie, was very engaged in politics in Minnesota, where Thomas grew up, and is writing a book on her experience. Her late father Charles was a mathematician who worked for Honeywell. “My parents recognized the need to try to improve an environment or leave a legacy or have an impact,” she said.
When Thomas is not working, she enjoys traveling and the beach. “All those years in Minnesota really make you appreciate the warm weather,” she said.
Always Working Toward the Goal
CBS’s on-air offerings continue to show a more diverse network. Among the projects in development are drama Rosarito Beach, about a female attorney working with a Latino lawyer, and a romantic comedy called History of Them that has a multicultural couple at its core. CBS also signed an exclusive development deal with Cedric the Entertainer in September.
Moonves said diversity on the air is “always a work in progress” at CBS and Showtime, with plenty of room to get better. But he added, “it has improved a great deal the last few years.”
Thomas is also active outside of CBS, including being a board member at the Alliance For Women in Media, and working with Komen Race for the Cure on women’s health issues. “I try to get engaged externally as much as I can,” Thomas said, “in order to facilitate further CBS engagement.”
Moonves gives Thomas high marks for making diversity a priority at CBS Corp. “She’s helped make the CBS culture aware of the importance of diversity,” he said. “She’s brought up the awareness of it for virtually everybody in the organization.”