How ViacomCBS Will Lead the Way Toward More Inclusive Storytelling

By Bob Bakish
Oct 6, 2021 8:00 AM ET
Article

The Power of Pedro

Twenty-seven years ago, millions of people met Pedro Zamora.

At a time when fewer than 40 percent of Americans personally knew someone with HIV/AIDS, MTV’s The Real World introduced viewers to an openly gay, HIV-positive Cuban American man who was full of joy and willing to open his life to the world.

It was a watershed moment in television. Millions came to know Pedro not as a statistic, but as a partner and friend, wholly real and wholly human. And they mourned when he died from complications of the disease—just hours after the season’s final episode aired.

I’m proud that Pedro found a home on one of our networks. And I’m prouder still of our organization’s legacy of telling stories that reflect the whole human experience and allow people to see themselves in ways they never thought they could—from Nickelodeon’s global phenomenon Dora the Explorer, which brought an English- and Spanish-speaking animated Latina heroine right to kids’ living rooms; to BET’s Being Mary Jane, which illuminated the hopes and challenges of a Black woman building her career as a TV news anchor; to today’s hit broadcast television series, The Equalizer, where the story of a former CIA agent hellbent on delivering justice is delivered through the lens of a Black mom; to Comedy Central’s Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens, whose Asian American protagonist’s coming-of-age struggles and successes make her relatable, beloved—and just the same as so many other young women coming of age. Which is exactly the point.

For decades, we’ve told stories that matter. But we’ve been operating on instinct rather than measuring impact. We could see that Pedro was having a deep effect, for instance, but we never measured that effect, nor did we break down the reasons he resonated so much—at least, not in ways that we could replicate across other programming.

We know that media shapes minds. Now, we need a deeper, more quantifiable understanding of how to harness the power of storytelling to challenge stereotypes, shift perceptions, and create meaningful change.

This starts not just with who is represented but how they are represented. And it requires more than an earnest desire to do better; we must find concrete ways to hold ourselves accountable.

Introducing Content for Change

As we look to come together for our annual Global Inclusion Week, today, I’m excited to announce that we are expanding Content for Change, a bold initiative that seeks to apply scientific research, rigor, and data to transform our entire creative ecosystem—from the content we produce to the creative supply chain that powers it to the culture that underpins everything we do.

BET created Content for Change last year, building on its 40-year history of trailblazing leadership in audience education and celebration of Black excellence. At a moment of national reckoning, the initiative catalyzed efforts to break down the narratives that enable intolerance, hurtful stereotypes, and systemic racism to exist and grow. From groundbreaking news series like Disrupt and Dismantle, to provocative specials like Black x Jewish and State of Our Union with Vice President Kamala Harris, BET’s Content for Change began the work to shift the way we see each other – and ourselves.

Starting today, the entire ViacomCBS organization is joining forces to support and amplify these efforts —while also expanding the initiative’s areas of focus—across the globe.

Guided by scientific research and insights, we will embrace our power and our opportunity to portray people of all races, genders, sexualities, faiths, and abilities with humanity and depth—beginning with our current areas of focus: racial equity and mental health.

Three Pillars: Content, Creative Supply Chain, and Culture

You’ll be hearing more about Content for Change in the months to come. But here is our starting point: Content for Change will be centered on three commitments—or pillars—and grounded in data-driven research.

  • Our first commitment is rooted in our CONTENT: We will evolve and transform the kinds of stories we tell.

This commitment builds off research that ViacomCBS undertook in the last few years to better understand our role and ability to address racism and mental health through our content – across demographics and genres – and even through our consumer products.

BET’s launch of Content for Change was anchored in this work and resulted in the principle that media plays a pivotal role in shaping and driving individuals’ and communities’ values, perceptions and actions, and could positively impact social justice outcomes for Black Americans. In its study, “Shades of Us: A Study of Race, Identity and the American Family,” Nickelodeon also looked at how race and ethnicity inform a child’s identity and learned that media portrayals often reinforce stereotypes, which are internalized by kids and impact their self-esteem. And, most recently, our Consumer Products team conducted a study looking at “Girls and Doll Choice,” which confirmed the need for authentic representation in dolls and the heavy toll it takes on girls when it is not available. This work has been central to how we’ve begun to take action – from the ways Nick is using its content to help parents talk to their kids about race to the launch of CBS News’ Race & Culture Unit and their efforts to remove bias from one of the most relied upon news sources in the U.S.

Sensing misrepresentation and underrepresentation of mental health issues in their programming, MTV also partnered with the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to study mental health depictions across 29 shows in the ViacomCBS portfolio.

The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that while an estimated one in five Americans suffer from mental health issues, fewer than one in ten of our series regulars did—and one in thirty characters overall, many of which perpetuated negative stereotypes.

We used those insights to change our approach: partnering with a mental health nonprofit specializing in young viewers, creating a new guide to help storytellers portray mental health with understanding, holding internal workshops with writers and producers to create a fuller context around mental health struggles—and ultimately, sharing our findings with the broader industry.

Moving forward, we will expand our Annenberg Inclusion Initiative partnership by analyzing 60 series across other key demographics—like race and ethnicity, gender, age, LGBTQ+ identification and disability status. We’ll identify representation gaps among the people behind the camera—including series creators, producers, writers, and directors—initiate new training, and share that information broadly.

We are also partnering with Stanford University to test new hypotheses for how the power of content can be harnessed to shift perspectives. We’ll examine individual bias among all audiences, the impact of longstanding oppression inflicted upon and internalized by audiences of color, and systemic racism across society.

Together, this research will provide the foundation for our work moving forward. We will share the initial findings when available and identify key tenets to guide the advancement of our content efforts by 2023, with the goal that our storytelling does not just drive change, but is more provocative, more interesting, more nuanced, and more engaging as a result.

  • Our second commitment is rooted in our CREATIVE SUPPLY CHAIN: We will transform our content creation process, ensuring equity at every stage—from talent to production to the writers’ room—while enlisting the participation of our partners, suppliers, and vendors.

We’ll build on our existing work supporting a new generation of creators from underrepresented communities, with a renewed focus on hiring emerging talent and moving to new paradigms that inject equity into our talent pipelines.

This includes new early access, apprentice, and mentorship programs, as well as our longstanding efforts to broaden our creative talent pool with programs such as our ViewFinder Emerging Directors Program, Directing Initiative, and Writers Mentoring Program.

Expanding on this work, today, we are proud to announce the launch of our Content for Change Academy, a new program that aims to remove barriers to entry for new storytellers, build equity, and invest in our next generation of leaders from nontraditional pathways, including individuals from community colleges and certification programs, who are historically marginalized from entry into the entertainment industry. To identify this talent, we are partnering with Reel Works, a Brooklyn-based organization that provides emerging storytellers in underserved communities with mentorship for careers in media, and their MediaMKRS workforce development program. The MediaMKRS program aims to build a talent pool that reflects the diversity of New York City by credentialing young professionals and matching them with on-the-job training opportunities at a number of media organizations, including ViacomCBS. The Content for Change Academy will provide these individuals with paid experience in entry-level creative and production roles – without the need for enrollment in traditional four-year colleges or universities – allowing them to learn the skills for a successful career in entertainment and build their portfolios, with the goal of staff placement upon the program’s completion. Storytellers are joining this inaugural class across BET, CBS Sports, CBS Studios, Nick Jr., Paramount Network, Showtime and Velocity.

Together, these efforts will strengthen our career development programs, which have helped hundreds of people from historically excluded communities launch their careers and begin to change the face of content creation, both in front of and behind the camera. We are also working to develop a cross-company framework to leverage partners and vendors in this work, including unions, guilds, and industry partners spanning negotiations, hiring practices, opportunities, commitments, and more. And, in honoring the kickoff of this commitment, ViacomCBS is awarding $1 million over the next few months to community-based organizations on the front lines of enabling and celebrating more inclusive storytelling, with a broader commitment that the guiding principles of Content for Change will steer the company’s giving going forward.

  • Our third commitment is rooted in our CULTURE: We will continue to evolve our corporate culture, expanding opportunities for advancement and access at all levels of the company and across our entire content creation ecosystem.

We will hold a mirror up to ourselves, building on our foundation of inclusion and belonging that touches all 20,000+ people across ViacomCBS. From our annual Global Inclusion Week and Employee Resource Groups to Listening Tours and Engagement Surveys, we will continue to engage our employees with programs that promote belonging and create an environment where everyone is empowered to succeed. We will also measure our internal impact with the same rigor we apply to our external efforts. By the end of 2021, we are targeting a global hire and promotion rate of 55% for female senior vice presidents and a U.S. hire and promotion rate of 40% for ethnically diverse vice presidents. We are tracking ahead of this goal and, by the end of 2022, we will share an update to achieve longer-term targets.

In addition, we will scale MTVE’s Culture Code, bringing the training’s emphasis on respect and mutual understanding to our entire creative community. Our shared values will inform how we as inclusive storytellers address pressing issues of race and social justice. We will continue to partner with community organizations and subject matter experts to inform this work, to create ripple effects across the entire entertainment industry.

Finally, we will require our creative partners to be trained in our standards and we will hold them accountable for results—starting with MTVE productions, 100 percent of which will be trained by the end of 2022.

Together, our investments in these three pillars will help us marshal our resources and insights to write the next chapter of inclusive storytelling. It’s the right thing to do, of course, but it’s also the smart thing to do. It will enable us to continue to attract the best possible talent to the best possible workplace, while further building ViacomCBS’ legacy as a global content powerhouse. And I’m grateful for the many colleagues across our brands and businesses who have already done so much to further this important work, including our Content for Change Executive Sponsors – Scott Mills, Chris McCarthy, Brian Robbins, George Cheeks, Marva Smalls and Julia Phelps – for their partnership and unwavering commitment to leading the way.

The Good We Can Do Together

We readily acknowledge that, as a company, we aren’t perfect. We don’t have all the answers and we will undoubtedly stumble and fall short from time to time. The goal isn’t to be perfect.

The goal is to keep getting better, to keep learning, and to have a foundation and an approach to self-correct in ways that are measurable and concrete.

This will be some of the most important work we do as a company. But I also believe that it will be the most meaningful. My sincere hope is that the work we begin today creates an entirely new ecosystem for content creation.

Just think of the characters we’ll never meet as long as only two percent of speaking characters have any kind of disability. Just think of the perspectives we’ll miss as long as just thirteen percent of directors are people of color.

When diversity becomes a box to check rather than a core value, it shows. A stove-piped, piecemeal approach will no longer cut it; this moment demands nothing less than systemic transformation.

That’s why this company-wide commitment is reaching toward a high purpose: to transform the way the world sees people and how people see themselves—just as Pedro Zamora did 27 years ago.

In 1994, the 22-year-old Pedro testified before Congress. He told lawmakers, “If you want to reach me as a young gay man, and especially a young gay man of color, then you need to give me information in a vocabulary I can understand and relate to.” During his time on The Real World, Pedro embodied that charge. His humanity was palpable, and his story inspired not just empathy, but education.

As a company, and eventually as an industry, we can lift up people, tell their stories, and elevate the programming that will change the ways we see ourselves and one another.

In the process, we can transform the world for the better—one person, one story, and one program at a time.