Starz will look to take a leading role in the television industry’s diversity and inclusion efforts with the launch of its #TakeTheLead initiative featuring monthly discussions on the topic as well as an industry-wide summit, according to Starz President and CEO Jeffrey Hirsch.
The network’s move is bolstered by a recent report from UCLA’s Center for Scholars & Storytellers that says the premium service’s commitment to diversity has led to 75% of its executive leadership team being women, with people of color representing 50% of those executives. The study also reports that 63.2% of the leads in Starz’s original series are people of color, and 57.9% are women. Behind the camera, 54.6% of showrunners at Starz are women and 45.5% are people of color.
Starz will kick off its series of “Transparency Talks” in April, which will feature discussions with organizations and thought leaders from around the country. The talks will culminate in the Starz Summit later this year which will showcase the company’s creative diversity and commitment to the next generation of voices, according to network executives.
Hirsch spoke about Starz’s diversity commitment to Multichannel News senior content producer, programming R. Thomas Umstead. He also provided a preview of the network's upcoming 2021 programming slate.
What are you looking to accomplish with the #TakeTheLead initiative?
TakeTheLead is really who we are and what we do with our deep-seated, ongoing commitment to narratives by, about, and for women and underrepresented audiences. For us, we think we can make a really positive impact in society. It’s our corporate responsibility to really try to make an impact in society and to improve representation on and off the screen so that the Hollywood world looks more like the world we live in today. We're just really excited to kind of step up and start trying to be a role model for [the industry].
Was there a particular moment or issue that spurred Starz to develop the #TakeTheLead initiative?
I think we’ve been talking about this for a long time. It goes back eight years when we started to develop original programming and made a decision to focus on fresh and underrepresented voices as a way to differentiate the company, and it built from there. We're at the point now, based on everything going on in the world and the success that we've seen, that we feel like we have a responsibility to highlight what we're doing and how we're doing it and help others. The Transparency Talks are a great way of working with the [companies and people] that we're partnering with, whether it's Melissa [Goodman, Director of Advocacy at the ACLU of Southern California] or Colleen [Bell, Executive Director of the California Film Commission], to bring a lot of these issues to the forefront, to have great conversations and to bring unique perspectives that will then culminate in the Starz Summit that will bring it all together. We think that's a really responsible and great way for Starz as a corporate citizen to highlight ways that we do things differently or to help folks with other perspectives to see that this can be done and done well.
What stands out the most to you from the UCLA survey?
We have a very specific programming mandate to showcase narratives about women and underrepresented audiences on air. I think it's really important that if we are going to serve that audience, you need to show that you are authentic to that mission. So I'm pretty proud of the fact that 63% of our series leads are people of color, 54% of our showrunners are women and 48% are people of color. Also 49% of our directors are people of color and 45% are women, but I think that number should be two up to two-thirds because we want to have a lot more representation in the director's chair, and we'll be working towards that. I'm really proud of the fact that 75% of my direct reports are women, and half of them are people of color. I'm very proud of what we've been able to build there in leadership.
How do you continue to build on that momentum within Starz, and what does the network’s 2021 slate look like in terms of development within continued restrictions due to the pandemic?
We've got 15 shows up and running in production -- two in the U.K., one in Scotland, one in Prague, one in New York, one in Chicago, one in North Carolina, three in Atlanta, one in L.A. and so on. We’ve got great protocols in place, and the talent, crews and employees are following those protocols to stay safe. We’re continuing to push forward on production. We started and completed two shows last year during the pandemic that will come on air shortly. We feel really good about the production of our shows. We're coming into I think the strongest slate in the history of Starz starting this summer. I'm really excited about the Power spinoff [Raising Kanan]; I’m excited to see [Black Mafia Family]; I’m really excited to see what producer Katori [Hall] does with season two of P-Valley, and we have Shining Vale from Sharon Horgan with Courteney Cox. I’m very excited about the slate of programming and I’m eager to get into it.
In general, how do you see the industry bouncing back from the pandemic? How long before we get back to some sense of normalcy?
I don’t think we ever get back to normal as in where we were. I think we've all learned and adapted during the pandemic. I think there are new models that have shown that we can distribute content differently and all continue to be successful. So I think that will continue the evolution of [streaming], and time shifting viewership will continue. Now that we have all of the broad-based streaming services launched with the exception of Paramount Plus, the competition for that first SVOD service in the home will be fierce over the next 18 to 24 months, which I think puts Starz in a really unique position as a premium add-on and to be a partner to all of those companies. We’ve become an even more important part of the ecosystem in the new world, so I'm excited about that as well.
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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