When CBS announced its 2016 fall TV schedule a few months ago, the lack of diversity was glaringly obvious: All six new shows are led by white male actors. This includes three sitcoms (Matt LeBlanc's Man With a Plan, Kevin James's Kevin Can Wait and Joel McHale's The Great Indoors) where middle-aged white men complain about kids these days.
While TV reporters noted this at the time, CBS executives came face-to-face with critics Wednesday at the 2016 Television Critics' Association press tour, where networks feature the casts of new TV shows for Q&A sessions. During the executive Q&A with CBS president Glenn Geller, critics didn't hold back.
The first question dove right in: "You still have no people of color as the leads in your new fall shows. Why is it so difficult to get more inclusion for people of color in the top level of casting at CBS?" one reporter asked, noting that the network had black and Latino actors as supporting characters. "What message does it send that the leads of your shows are all heterosexual white men?"
Geller admitted that when it comes to lead characters, the network is "definitely less diverse" than last year, though he noted that of 16 new series regulars on the network, 11 of the actors are from diverse groups.
"We're very mindful at CBS about the importance of diversity and inclusion, and I'm glad we're having this conversation first," Geller responded. "We need to do better and we know it. That's really it. We need to do better.
"I do think that when we're talking about diversity and inclusion, we have to also look behind the camera," he continued. "And there, we are doing very well. Our writers are more diverse than last year, our directors, and we're not finished booking every slot, but we're on track to be more diverse this year than last year."
Another critic brought up the fact that all 10 showrunners for new CBS shows are white. "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," Geller said.
Reporters pushed on. "You guys have been aware of this diversity problem for a while. We've been talking about it at press tours for years. How can you come up with a slate where every star is a white male? You don't have any showrunners of color, and you've had years to fix this."
"Look, I am acknowledging we need to do better. In terms of directors, and this is a place I would love to talk about, we've been getting better and better every single year about diversity among our director ranks," Geller said, adding that more than half of the directors on Madam Secretary and The Odd Couple are diverse. "We work very hard to make sure that every facet of our company is as diverse as possible. But I hear you. I really do. And I understand that we need to do better. I do want to point out, though, that in the ensemble casting, we are more diverse this year than last year and that to me is forward progress."
This went on for a little while longer. Another reporter brought up that Geller, who is gay, said during the last press tour earlier this year that he was proof of the network diversifying, and asked about "sexuality representation" on the network. (His quote in January: "I'm just a gay guy from Indiana who doesn't play basketball, but now I'm the entertainment president of CBS.")
"It's obviously a very personal topic for me, I think things are definitely shifting," Geller said, pointing to LGBT characters on Code Black, NCIS: New Orleans, The Great Indoors and new drama Bull. Plus, he added, Laverne Cox stars in the Katherine Heigl-led drama Doubt this season as the first transgender actress to play a transgender series regular on TV.
"I'm very proud of that," Geller said.