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CBS has ‘systemic racism, discrimination and sexual harassment,’ a former CBS exec says

CBS’ two oldest reality competitions have a long history of problematic treatments of race and gender, and a former CBS executive’s detailed descriptions of the “toxic work environment” there may offer one reason why this kind of thing keeps happening: the network “has a white problem,” and a lack of diversity among the people in charge.

To briefly highlight some of the issues we’ve seen on CBS reality shows: Big Brother has been a cesspool of racism, sexism, and homophobia that has tolerated horrific behavior and then sanitized and whitewashed bigoted comments.

White male executives have defended that behavior repeatedly, while the network has repeatedly released empty statements. When it finally addressed something on screen, it chose to distort reality.

Over on Survivor, early votes against women of color are increasing, and becoming a predictable pattern. This season, when a black woman contributed to her tribe’s wins and ultimately played a major role in a wild Tribal Council, she was completely ignored by the editing.

Julia Carter, Survivor Edge of Extinction episode 2
Julia Carter during Survivor: Edge of Extinction episode 2. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

Meanwhile, as the show only acknowledge on screen last season for the first time, gender dynamics affect the actual game.

Showrunner and host Jeff Probst has dismissed female players and/or ignored them, even when they win, and producer Mark Burnett once said “I don’t cast by color,” which may seem noble but is more of an acknowledgement of how he was willfully ignoring things that deserve attention, like the representation of people on television.

And, of course, former CBS CEO Les Moonves was so involved with CBS’ reality shows that he personally approved the cast every season, and he resigned in disgrace last fall after reports of sexual harassment, assault, and retaliation.

Former CBS executive Whitney Davis: ‘CBS has a white problem’

Whitney Davis worked for CBS for nearly 15 years, and in letter published on Variety’s site, she details the company’s internal problems, especially with race.

She details a “toxic work environment,” from outright racist behavior to subtler but still damaging behavior, like being repeatedly confused for another black female.

When CBS investigated its own culture—and don’t get me started on companies investigating themselves, and what bullshit that is—Davis writes that “In that heart-wrenching two-hour interview, I talked about a workplace fraught with systemic racism, discrimination and sexual harassment,” but she “heard nothing again” after that.

Think about Julia Carter explaining that was “disheartening” for her “to see the lack of equitable airtime” she got on Survivor while you read this paragraph from Davis’ letter:

“The company has a white problem across the board. Did you know that there’s not one black creative executive working at CBS Television Network or CBS Television Studios? Of the network’s 36 creative executives — all upper management roles that deal with content development, casting, current production, daytime and alternative programming — there are only three women of color, none black. There is not one executive of color working in casting at CBS. The one Latinx executive hired in casting last year lasted eight months. He works at Netflix now.”

Davis also writes this:

“From December 2011 through December 2013, I was mentored by execs in casting, drama development, daytime, current programming and marketing. In every meeting I attended in those departments, I was the only black person and often the only person of color. Nothing had prepared me for the lack of diversity I encountered in the entertainment division. In fact, there was not one black creative executive at the network. Today, the only black female executive at CBS Entertainment oversees diversity and inclusion.”

CBS responded, in part, by saying this (the full response is on Variety’s site):

“While we disagree with some statements in Whitney’s story, we take all employee concerns seriously and remain committed to improving the workplace experience for everyone. CBS leadership has made strengthening our culture a top priority.”

In her letter, which you should read in its entirety, Whitney Davis explains that she’s coming forward now because “CBS continues to promote its diversity initiatives in public, while internally minorities are practically invisible. It has taken me 13 years to harness the courage to speak my truth, but I am empowered to create meaningful dialogue and change.”

She also writes, “By sharing my experience, I hoped to shed desperately needed light on the truth that CBS, sadly, doesn’t value a diverse workplace” and adds, “We should all be outraged that CBS has opted to ignore its rampant discrimination issues and lack of inclusion.”

Many of us who’ve watched—and loved to watch—CBS’ reality TV have been outraged for years, and it’s clear why nothing ever seems to change.

About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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