CBS executives defended the network’s portrayals of people of color on the reality shows “Big Brother” and “Survivor” during a heated exchange with critics on Thursday.
Kelly Kahl, president of CBS entertainment, and Thom Sherman, senior vice president of programming, fielded questions at a Television Critics Association panel.
A reporter began the conversation by asking about “Big Brother” cast member Kemi Fakunle — the “only black female cast member” saying that a producer asked her to “act and talk in a more stereotypical way.” The reporter asked Sherman and Kahl whether they planned to “allow this behavior to continue.”
“We learned that a producer, in an attempt to get a sound bite from one of the house guests, overstepped. That producer was reprimanded and received unconscious bias training, as did all the producers on the show, and we don’t believe that an incident like that will happen again,” Sherman said.
Later, Eric Deggens of NPR challenged the executives again, asking, “Why can’t you take that criticism and do some substantive looking at it rather than trying to spin it?”
“Well, I would say on ‘Big Brother,’ half of our cast this year is diverse, and the last three winners of ‘Big Brother’ have been people of color,” Sherman replied.
Here is a full transcript of the exchange.
Reporter: “To return to diversity and inclusion — that’s one place where CBS has often been strong in its reality show casting — but I just want to quote something that the only black female cast member on ‘Survivor’ wrote after her experience this year. She said, quote, ‘There is a significant difference between diversity and inclusion. Casting a few black faces simply isn’t enough. Include them in the story. Stop giving them stereotypical edits that perpetuate the same stereotypes that many of us come on the show to combat,’ end quote. This Summer ‘Big Brother’ producers have asked their only black female cast member to act and talk in a more stereotypical way. They’ve edited out hateful and violent things that white men have said about her and editing her seems rather crazy. So I guess my question is, is it acceptable to, in your two top reality shows, allow this behavior and continue to perpetuate stereotypes through the choices that producers are making in editing and in production?
Thom Sherman: “In the case of ‘Big Brother,’ the producer — we learned that a producer, in an attempt to get a sound bite from one of the house guests, overstepped. That producer was reprimanded, and received unconscious bias training, as did all the producers on the show, and we don’t believe that an incident like that will happen again.”
Reporter: “What about on “Survivor” and — again, this is a pattern that’s happening over 10 years and these are just some specific examples. So that’s a great first step — how might you address it across reality TV and with all your producers?”
Sherman: “Well I think all of our shows the producers receive unconscious bias training. In terms of how people are represented, I think the vast majority of people who come off the shows are very happy with the way they’re represented. Most people who’ve been on those shows speak very fondly of their experience, so I’m not sure we can always edit the show in the case of all these shows — there are thousands of hours that are condensed down to 42 minutes per episode and we’re simply not able to show every single thing that happens on the show. We strive, and the producers strive, to show a good representation of what happens, and I think they do a good job with that. Most participants on these shows come off and come away having a very very good experience.”
Eric Deggens of NPR: “You guys have been in situations before where people have tried to talk to you about your lack of diversity in programming, about your lack of gender diversity. And finally you saw the light and we’re glad to see this in your fall programming. We are now telling you that you have a problem with your reality shows. Why can’t you take that criticism and do some substantive looking at it rather than trying to spin it?”
Sherman: “Well, I would say on ‘Big Brother,’ half of our cast this year is diverse and the last three winners of ‘Big Brother’ have been people of color, so–“
Deggens: “This year you had a situation where your three people of color were stuck in some sort of camp situation where they had to live in lesser circumstances than the other houseguests. The people of color have been systematically eliminated from the show. People are talking about the racism on ‘Big Brother’ and you’re telling us that one producer got some kind of training.”
Kelly Kahl: “First, we said all the producers have received training. Second of all, I would say that we’ve heard things on the show that we’re not comfortable with, that we have not enjoyed hearing, and we will absolutely — after the season is over — take a look at the show. Every season we try to go back and look and ask if there’s anything we can do better next year, and that is something we will do after the season is over.”