The story of two TV empires, alike in fame if not ratings: Asked to take a closer look at who they employ in front of and behind their cameras, they present their findings to the television press. One empire, darling of critics and reporters, owns up to past mistakes, and provides evidence of its corrections. The other, the people’s choice, didn’t really have the time to put together the proper charts and graphs. But it does have a slide show—not that the slide show has anything to do with that closer look or anything. No sir. No way.
So it went during the past two days of the Television Critics Association press tour, in which the bosses at FX and CBS both addressed questions of minority representation, and the former acquitted itself much better than the latter. Now, this isn’t exactly comparing apples to apples. It’s more like apples and apples that have been fermented into a complex cider: John Landgraf’s address to the TCA accounted for developments at FX Networks that have taken place over the better part of a year, spurred by a trade-publication report published in November 2015. CBS Entertainment President Glenn Geller offered follow-up to a Los Angeles Times article that came out two days ago. That article—with the online headline “Six new CBS series, six white male leads. With prime-time diversity growing, how did the network fall behind?”—previewed Geller’s TCA remarks, capturing one of his first Q&A responses nearly verbatim: “Look, we need to do better and we know it.”
Even so, there’s a difference between knowing you need to do better, knowing you need to do better and providing evidence of you doing better, and what Geller did onstage at the Beverly Hilton today. Filibustering his conversation with the TCA via a late-night highlight reel and a slide show that didn’t explicitly say “Look! Minorities! On CBS!,” but also didn’t not say that, Geller placed himself in a defensive pose from the start. So when he responded to the first query about representation on CBS shows with “We need to do better,” then stuck “diverse” into a bunch of sentences where it didn’t quite fit and deferred to the hiring of non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual talent behind the scenes—the “Well, my black friend says…” of press tour Q&A.
But here’s the thing: This is, more or less, the same tack Landgraf took yesterday. He earned positive notices by demonstrating the increased diversity of the directors hired by FX Networks’ shows. The difference was in the delivery. Landgraf’s as good a song-and-dance man as there is in American television—he’s just a more graceful performer than everybody else. He doesn’t condescend to the TV press. As a member of the TV press, I don’t feel like John Landgraf thinks we are adversaries. And in turn, he gets a lot of respect from the TV press. Yes, he has the benefit of programming fewer nights a week, and yes, the shows he puts up on those nights are loved by critics and fans alike. (And then one of them is Tyrant.)
It’s apples-to-cider, but the cider is a hell of a lot more honest. The “new series regulars” slideshow, distributed afterward as a press release, was not honest. Going forward with MacGyver, even as the whole cobbled-together device publicly falls apart, isn’t walking the walk that “We need to do better” talks. Again, Geller and CBS are in the very early stages of this process, but an answer like “Sometimes our showrunners are diverse. Sometimes they’re not diverse. These are the shows we picked up. We pick up the best shows from the pilots we make” doesn’t bode well for its progress.
Unfortunately for The Tiffany Network, the Geller session set the tone for the panels to follow, like the Bull session in which a question about the differences between Phil McGraw (who holds a B.A., an M.A., and a PhD in three separate psychological disciplines) and the CBS procedural protagonist whom he inspired (who holds three separate PhDs) was met with steely silence from executive producer Paul Attanasio. Prior to that, The Great Indoors—a largely harmless multi-camera sitcom about the generational divides at an outdoors magazine that’s going digital—birthed an equal number of future raves and pans when producer Mike Gibbons introduced the show as one concerning an “overly PC, coddled work environment.” Similarly polarizing: The “participation” trophies distributed to TCA members following the panel, alluding to a joke from the Great Indoors pilot. CBS should keep one for itself, because even if the network doesn’t win today, at least it showed up!