For the second straight year at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, the head of CBS was hammered for his network’s lack of diversity in its fall schedule compared with its broadcast and cable competitors.
But there was a new network chief in the hot seat this year—Kelly Kahl, the longtime network scheduler who was promoted to CBS Entertainment president in May, after Glenn Geller stepped down following a heart attack earlier this year. Kahl was hammered throughout the session about the lack of female leads in any of the new fall series as well as the decision to let the two Asian costars of Hawaii Five-O depart this summer over a contract dispute at a time when CBS lags behind competitors when it comes to featuring actors of color.
While Kahl handled the barrage of questions better than Geller did last year—when he tried to defend the network’s all-white lineup of new shows—he was still put in the strange position of defending a slate he did not oversee. It was in place weeks before his promotion. Each of CBS’ freshman fall series—Young Sheldon, 9JKL, SWAT, Seal Team, Wisdom of the Crowd and Me, Myself & I—features a male lead.
Kahl said two of their fall shows have leads of color, which wasn’t the case last fall, and the casts and crews of their shows are getting more diverse. “We are absolutely moving in the right direction,” he said. “We are making progress.”
Thom Sherman, who came from The CW to be CBS Entertainment senior evp of programming, said that is trying to expand the network’s palette: “We want our slate to be inclusive, we want it to be diverse, and we believe we will get that.”
But this was a familiar refrain to press tour vets, as it echoed Geller’s “we need to do better” mantra from last summer.
Sherman noted that the network developed six pilots with female leads,“and those pilots were not felt to be as good” as the ones that were picked up.
“That’s just the cycle of business, and that’s how it happens sometimes,” Sherman said. And with so many long-running shows on the network, there is “not as much shelf-space” for new product.
One potential explanation for the lack of diversity, reporters pointed out, is CBS’ all-white casting department staff. “We are cognizant of the issue, we hear you, and we will be looking to expand the casting department,” Sherman said.
While the network will continue to look for shows with broad appeal, they are “expanding the palette of what we do”—i.e., include more people of color in front of and behind the camera—and have spread the word to agencies to have their clients “bring us your passion projects,” Sherman said. CBS is still a “big-tent network,” and they want to make it bigger.
Asked point-blank why a creator would want to bring a show that reflects America to CBS, Kahl repeated, “We are doing better. … We’re moving in the right direction,” and pointed out that “every single drama on our air has at least one diverse character.”
As for the departure of Hawaii Five-O stars Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park, who complained they were not paid as much as their white co-stars, “we love both those actors and did not want to lose them. … We wanted them to stick around,” said Kahl, calling it “an “unfortunate by-product of having a long-running show.”
“Sometimes you lose cast members,” he said. “We made very lucrative offers to those actors.”
Before he found himself under fire from reporters, Kahl talked about his recent promotion. “This was not something I expected, but I’m really excited,” he said. “I love network TV, I believe in network TV, and I consider it an honor and privilege to be here.”
As the industry changes, “putting on shows with huge audiences of all ages is how CBS succeeds now and into the future,” said Kahl.
Perhaps knowing what he was about to face from reporters, Kahl started his session by joking, “If nothing else, we’ve lasted longer than the Mooch,” a reference to Anthony Scaramucci’s brief tenure as White House communications director.