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When he talks, people in high places often listen. NAACP CEO Kweisi Mfume recently brokered agreements with top brass at television networks NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox, saying he wouldn’t rest until the face of television reflected the ethnic mix of America. Mfume and officials from ABC, including network President Patricia Fili-Kruschell, met earlier this year in New York to announce an agreement to actively promote racial diversity throughout the television network and in its programming.
“The NAACP has worked extremely hard with our coalition partners over the last several months to create opportunities
for qualified men and women of color,” Mfume says. “Their ability now to significantly impact the executive, production and talent ranks of network television is greatly enhanced.”
The ABC agreement came on the heels of a recent agreement signed with NBC President Bob Wright. It was subsequently followed by deals with CBS and Fox. It is also a major coup for Mfume and the civil rights organization that just two years ago was struggling in the midst of internal turmoil that ended with a major reorganization of its board and the ouster of four board members.
Critics said those internal battles, including those with former Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks, as well as frequent money problems, had distracted the group from its purpose. Membership had begun to slump, and until Mfume took charge, many believed the group was in peril.
“We needed to rededicate ourselves and focus on our mission-working for civil rights,” says Julian Bond, NAACP board member and veteran activist. Bond is now board chair.
Under Mfume, the NAACP has done just that. The group is currently leading a boycott against the state of South Carolina for refusing to remove the Confederate flag that flies over the state’s capitol. Many major groups, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Governors’ Association and the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, have canceled their annual conventions, which were planned to be held in cities around the state.
Accustomed to making deals and driving hard bargains from his time as a representative of Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, Mfume was the only man with the clout and political connections to even contemplate taking on the networks, observers believe.
The NAACP’s spotlight fell on the television industry this summer when the fall TV broadcast schedule was announced. Of the 26 new shows, none was targeted toward African Americans or featured a minority lead character. Supporting roles for African Americans were also scarce.
Calling it “a virtual whitewash,” Mfume held a summit on TV’s lack of diversity in Los Angeles in November, but Leslie Moonves, president of CBS, was the only network executive to attend. The summit ended with Mfume calling for a January 2000 boycott of network TV if substantial progress had not been made.
“We have made every attempt to meet the four major networks more than halfway on this issue,” said Mfume in his opening remarks. “But there is a limit to even the NAACP’s patience.”
Talks with the networks were stepped up in December. The result was
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