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CBS Stars Express Optimism, Frustration Over Diversity Woes

Stars on the oft-criticized network's shows express optimism and frustration about CBS' record of inclusion

Malcolm Venable

Matt Murray, one of the stars of CBS' new fall comedy 9JKL, can best explain the importance of diversity and inclusion on TV by telling you about a haircut.

"One of the hairstylists [on set] came up to me and said 'Listen, if you want, we can get you a barber to come here and cut your hair, because I don't know how.'" A native of Detroit, Murray, who is half-black, told TV Guide at CBS' party as part of the Television Critics Association summer press tour Tuesday that he appreciated the gesture. That's because he's experienced the alternative, worst-case scenario: a (white) hairstylist on another set who assured him she could give him a haircut, but ended up screwing up his hairline so badly that a makeup artist had to be summoned to color it in.

He laughs about it now, but for him, having hairstylists and makeup artists on set who don't know how to work with varying hair types and complexions -- or worse, cause a disaster by assuming that they're all the same and plowing ahead -- is a tip-of-the-iceberg issue emblematic of the systemic diversity and inclusion gaps that've been plaguing the TV industry for a while. "You have to be conscious...to have awareness," he said.

CBS Execs Address Diversity Issues, Hawaii Five-0 and "New Palette"

Matt Murray, 9JKL

Matt Murray, 9JKL


As a star of a CBS show, his statement couldn't be more fitting -- or ironic, given the network's shaky history with diversity which, at least optically, looked abysmal this year. Just one year after debuting a lineup of shows all led by white men (putting CBS dead last among other networks), Doubt with Laverne Cox was swiftly canceled, and Hawaii Five-0's Asian co-stars Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park left the show in protest for being paid less than their white counterparts. CBS' losing streak came to a head Tuesday, when Kelly Kahl, president of CBS Entertainment, and Thom Sherman, senior executive vice president of programming at CBS, had a pretty disastrous Q&A with reporters at TCA, as they struggled to explain why the network has no female leads and casting departments on both coasts that are entirely white.

Change appears to be coming, however slowly: The socially consciousS.W.A.T.has Shemar Moore as a lead and, behind the camera, Aaron Rashaan Thomas, who is African-American, as an executive producer. The network has renewedSuperior Donuts, with comic Jermaine Fowler executive-producing and starring. He and other stars at the network told TV Guide the inclusion issue is perplexing, frustrating and yet hopeful; though they agreed more change was necessary, all the talent in front of the camera had varying thoughts about the issue and how to fix it.

Jermaine Fowler, Superior Donuts

Jermaine Fowler, Superior Donuts

Sonja Flemming/CBS

"It's annoying, I'm not going to lie," Fowler told TV Guide. "They're taking small steps to getting there with shows like ours. We have a show that's about gentrification and sexism and racism and police brutality... we could benefit from having more of color in that room. At the same time, the writers we have now are really damned open-minded and they do a good job of listening to the ideas that I have. I don't feel like I'm trapped. But [CBS] has a long way to go."

S.W.A.T. Aims to Show How Both Black and Blue Lives Matter

Azi Tesfai, who plays Nadine on The CW'sJane the Virgin (The CW is owned by CBS) was was one of many who noted that inclusion is created with more stories -- and the Golden Globe-winning Jane is a success story. "Jane the Virgin is about a real family. That's why people relate. It's not about race. We're a diverse world. They're telling honest and true stories about real people -- lawyers and doctors and detectives can be different races, and ages." Her co-star Andrea Navedo agreed. "Jane the Virgin was a groundbreaking show, but there's always more work to be done. I think that it will continued to go that way. I think it's going in the right direction."

Duane Henry, Wilmer Valderrama, NCIS

Duane Henry, Wilmer Valderrama, NCIS

Michael Yarish, CBS

Of course, CBS' actors -- many of whom have been with the network for many seasons -- aren't very likely to bad-mouth their employer in public. Even still, most of the talent TV Guide spoke with on the subject struck a fine line between awareness of a pervasive and systemic problem and optimism. "CBS has been great with me; I have absolutely nothing to complain about," said Boris Kodjoe of Code Black. "But that doesn't mean my head is in the sand. It's the industry as a collective that has to do better on the executive level. That's where we need to take hold. That's where things have to change."

Richard T. Jones, co-starring on the forthcoming Wisdom of the Crowd with Jeremy Piven, also put an emphasis on writers and showrunners. "We have to get more behind the scenes in the creative process," he said, adding that criticisms of CBS' inclusiveness are fair depending on which shows are being picked up. (It should be noted that CBS has a robust diversity institute, which has been grooming actors, writers, and directors for over a decade.) Wilmer Valderrama of NCIS co-signed Jones' sentiment, explaining that a lot of what we see (or don't) has to do with a lengthy, unpredictable process. "I think it's very seasonal," he said. "Unfortunately not a lot is getting green-lit. But I have to say, working with CBS, they really are working on it and you're going to see the evolution of it in the next two, three years."

On the whole, CBS' on-screen talent seemed encouraged by progress, while eager to see the network make more changes. Some, like Fowler, are looking for progress faster than others. "I can't force them to... change what's been making money for years," he said. "l know a lot of brothers and sisters and and very talented people who have great ideas, who are just as capable of making TV shows as some other folks who aren't black or Asian or Latina. They [CBS] really have to explore and expand on what they have."

(Disclaimer: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)