ABC Diversity Showcase Benefits All

It takes a lot of time to sift through some 700 head shots to get to 14 lucky actors. But that's what casting executives at ABC and Touchstone Television did to select the African-American, Asian-American, Latino, Native American and physically challenged participants in their 12th diversity talent showcase, held at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood last week.

All that sifting is just the start of a long process. Once the top candidates are identified, ABC and Touchstone casting executives Carmen Smith, Keli Lee, Randi Chugerman and Ayo Davis spend long hours over several months selecting the finalists, picking scenes for them, rehearsing, and putting together the showcase.

"It's 12 hours a day for weeks on end," says Smith, ABC's vice president for talent development. "It takes a good two months to put together a show, but, for the last seven days, it's at least 12 hours a day and weekends too."

While increasing diversity on network television serves an altruistic purpose and also is a response to pressure from ethnic groups, there's a business reason for investing so much time and effort, says ABC's President of Entertainment Susan Lyne. "This is important to us as a network, and it's really important to our affiliates. They have made it so clear to us that the makeup of the cities they represent has changed dramatically in the last two decades. To grow their audiences, we have to look like the people we are programming for."

After putting all that work into the showcase, ABC invites the entire industry to come check out the talent. At last week's showcase, casting directors from NBC, Fox and CBS, along with nearly 50 agents and managers, joined ABC and Touchstone casting directors in checking out the talent.

The result of the showcases has been impressive. Since October 2001, some 216 actors have participated in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. Of those, 212 got acting jobs, with some getting more than one role. Some 20 actors have landed roles as series regulars or recurring guests; seven have landed either film roles or development deals.

The showcases also help actors get representation or upgrade their current representation. Fifty-three of the participants have held meetings with agents or managers, 13 of them signing with new representation.

ABC and Touchstone take the most advantage of their own talent searches, with more than 260 in-house auditions resulting from the showcases, but NBC, CBS, Fox, The WB and UPN have given nearly 200 auditions to the actors; of those, casting 12 in pilots and 79 in established prime time shows.

Lyne says it makes sense to open the process up to the industry. "At the end of the day, the more experience these kids get, the more we're going to be able to use them. Ultimately, the fact that someone gets cast in a CBS pilot doesn't mean they are lost to us forever."

The other networks also hold their own talent showcases, which have grown more prevalent since the NAACP and other advocate groups started pressuring the broadcast networks in 2000. The Big Four networks also are working to increase diversity among their writers, directors and producers.

After a November showcase in New York and last week's in Los Angeles, ABC is taking a break before taking its casting show on the road. Next year, the net plans to hold showcases in Austin, Texas; Raleigh, N.C.; and Atlanta before returning to New York in September and Los Angeles in November.

"We've made some progress," says Bennett Guillory, one of the directors of last week's showcase and the co-founder, with actor Danny Glover, of Los Angeles's Robey Theatre Company. "But we're late in tearing down the walls. Forty to 50 years later, we shouldn't even be having this conversation."

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.