Media and entertainment companies must get more diverse. They shape how we see our world.
I’ve confronted the diversity issue all my life, especially as a Black man in executive positions at corporations like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Coors and GM.
Few issues rank higher on the agenda for brands, especially those in media and entertainment, than the ever-intensifying debate about diversity. But results throughout the industry landscape vary widely. Let’s face it, some companies are “doing” diversity better than others – getting it right while others fail to get it at all, and still others that land somewhere in between. Every day the stakes for success keep getting higher.
These companies should be held to an even higher standard on DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) than businesses in most other sectors. After all, they shape the images that our children see via television and movies. A recent study by McKinsey found that the industry remains disproportionately homogenous: 87% of TV executives and 92% of film executives are white.
Netflix and Disney are leaders
My perspective is also based on metrics rather than mere opinion. The Association of National Advertisers and its Center for Brand Purpose recently established the ANA/Swayable ESG Brand Perception Index. The tool, reflecting daily surveys of consumer opinion, measures 400 national brands according to environmental, social and governance impact. Equity and diversity reporting and accountability are among the key metrics.
Topping the list among entertainment brands are Netflix and Disney. At Netflix, for example, the number of Black employees in the United States doubled in the last three years. Soon after the murder of George Floyd, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife, Patty Quillin, donated $120 million to historically Black colleges and universities to honor his memory.
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At Disney, Walt Disney Television recently unveiled the Onyx Collective, a new production entity designed to feature work by “underrepresented” creators such as those of color. Its content will be distributed largely through Hulu, a Disney streaming platform. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the Floyd murder, Disney quickly issued a statement declaring that “the pandemic coupled with these recent injustices have pushed the issues of racial disparity into the open.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is ViacomCBS. Back in 2018, CEO Les Moonves was ousted amid allegations of sexual harassment. The following year, longtime executive Whitney Davis – the company's own director of entertainment diversity and inclusion – resigned, accusing the network of having a “white problem” and neglecting to “value a diverse workplace.”
If only those difficulties had inspired CBS to change. But no.
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Earlier this year, the Emmy award-winning daytime series “The Talk” was embroiled in a controversy with racial overtones. Long-time co-host Sharon Osbourne referred to Piers Morgan’s comment that he refused to “believe a word” of the Oprah Winfrey interview with Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan that was broadcast on CBS. In a hostile exchange about the topic with Sheryl Underwood, a Black co-host, Osbourne said, "I very much feel like I’m about to be put in the electric chair because I have a friend who many people think is a racist and that makes me a racist." A CBS investigation led to Osbourne leaving the show.
I’ve confronted the diversity issue up close and personal my entire adult life, especially in my experience as a Black man holding executive leadership positions in corporations such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Coors, and General Motors.
At GM, for example, as Vice President of Marketing and Advertising for North America in 2007, I often complained to my superiors that our media buys lacked diversity. I expressed a particular concern about advertising for Chevrolet and Cadillac on “Imus in The Morning,” a nationally syndicated radio program on Westwood One, and simulcast on MSNBC.
I was told that the company had to support voices from both the left and the right. This has nothing to do with the left or the right, I said, it's that Don Imus is racist.
Weeks later, Imus said the words that got him kicked off the air. On hearing that the Rutgers women’s basketball team had lost an NCAA championship game, he used racist and sexist slurs to insult them and their appearances, most infamously their hair.
DEI is a must-have for New Hollywood
Activists and journalists immediately called for Imus to be fired. Later that morning GM CEO Rick Wagoner told me, the company’s most senior Black marketing executive in North America, that Imus' words were despicable and asked me what we should do. I put forward my recommendation and GM quickly issued a statement suspending its ads on the show.
GM turned out to be one of the first companies to withdraw advertising support from Don Imus. A domino effect ensued, with Amex, GlaxoSmithKline and Procter & Gamble also dropping the show. Finally. MSNBC dumped the show as well.
My experiences tell me that warnings are sounded again and again, only to go unheeded for years, leading to disastrous consequences. Media companies bear a special responsibility to build a culture that reflects the audiences who pay the bills. They must continue to deliver high-quality content from people of color, ensure that production budgets mirror the consumer market, and address the ongoing lack of diversity in the C-suite and among boards of directors.
In the New Hollywood now emerging, the companies committed to embracing these changing dynamics will flourish. DEI is a “must-have” rather than a “nice to do.” McKinsey estimated that if the film and TV industry addressed these barriers, it would unlock more than $10 billion in annual revenues, equal to a 7% expansion in baseline industry revenues.
Talking the talk is good. But walking the walk will be even better.
Mike Jackson is Chief Marketing Officer at Vision Media.