Victoria Rowell at the 39th NAACP Image Awards in 2008, where she received the award. (Photo Credit: Tammie Arroyo)
Actress Victoria Rowell and other Black industry insiders are denied equal opportunity to some of America’s most popular daytime dramas
By Brandon Brooks and Sam Richard
Sentinel Contributing Editors
Pioneering actress Victoria Rowell is not new to the acting world and she certainly is not new to the millions of fans of the daytime drama “The Young and The Restless.” The veteran actress was part of the cast as Drucilla Winters for more than 17 years. However, the millions of fans and corporate sponsors of the longtime No. 1 daytime drama may be surprised to discover that in her 17 years, and even worse, in the show’s 37 year history they have never had a single African-American writer, director or producer. Despite of the fact that African-American viewership for “The Young and The Restless” is estimated well over 35 percent and some have estimated it is as high as 45 percent, it has caused many in the civil rights community to call for boycotts and demonstrations of the show and its advertisers.
Rowell told the Los Angeles Sentinel in an exclusive interview for all NNPA newspapers across the country that she has attended several meetings in an effort to help diversify daytime soap operas behind the scenes and in front of the camera.
Rowell believes that several examples of discrimination exist the most egregious being the lack of Black writers, directors or producers, for over 37 years.
The Sentinel contacted Jim Kennedy, executive vice president for Global Communications at Sony Pictures Entertainment, which co-owns “The Young and the Restless,” along with the Bell family, regarding the lack of African-American participation behind the camera, who stated, “With regard to “The Young and the Restless,” we are proud of the fact that five African American actors play important roles on the program, and we are especially grateful for the diverse audience it has every day,”
“And in light of that, Sony Pictures has over the course of the past year undertaken an initiative designed to have us be more representative of the global audience we work to entertain.” While in the statement, which was sent via email Kennedy did talk about diversity, he did not address why “The Young and The Restless” has not hired a Black producer, director, writer or crew member in 37 years, which leads many industry insiders and civil rights leaders to believe that CBS has no interest in making real change without pressure.
For years, many industry leaders, and community organizations including the NAACP, the Urban League and the Los Angeles Brotherhood Crusade have raised concern about what they say is a lack of diversity in front of, and behind the camera.
To demonstrate the lack of diversity on television and to help bring about change in the industry, the NAACP commissioned a report titled “Out of Focus–Out of Sync: Take 4.” The report pointed out that the number of African-Americans in regular roles and on air in a prime time scripted series–in the 2006-2007 season–were 20 African Americans on Fox, 19 on NBC, 17 on CBS and 15 on ABC. The report did not track African Americans on cable channels which in recent years have become a much larger part of the television viewing format. The figures, provided by the networks, are the latest numbers available.
“All four major broadcast networks have made important strides in increasing diversity,” the report stated, but it also added: “Progress has been slower in areas that arguably could have the greatest impact: writing and producing.
“White males have always dominated the entertainment industry and that continues to be largely the case. While African-American writers represent the largest share of minorities employed in television, they still only averaged about 5.2 percent of the total number of writers employed. That translates to 161 African-American writers out of 3,088 during the 2005-2006 television season, according to the Writers Guild of America.”
Other African Americans and Black organizations are looking into the issue of diversity in daytime soap operas, including the National Urban League and NAACP.
The Sentinel obtained two letters from Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial, addressed to Howard Stringer, president and CEO of Sony Corp., and William Bell Jr., president of Bell Dramatic Serial Co.
The letters, dated Sept. 23, contends: “Through a preliminary review we have learned that there are few African American actors, producers, directors and support personnel in the ‘Day time Soap Opera’ industry despite the fact that African Americans are a crucial significant portion of the loyal audience of viewers for ‘Daytime Soap Operas.’ The letters pointed out that this is unacceptable in 21st century America.”
Emma Young, head writer and associate producer for an online African-American soap opera, “The Proud and the Privileged,” said that she knows several actors who complain about having “no” African Americans behind the scenes.
Young added that it is important to have Black producers, writers and directors.
“It’s very important to show African Americans not only in a positive light, but in a true light,” Young said. Also someone might not do that if he or she is not Black, because they would be unfamiliar with African American life experiences and their experiences would come from stereotypes.
Darryl Manuel, producer and director of “The Proud and the Privileged,” agrees, but thinks it is important to have diversity in all genres of entertainment.
“There’s just a wealth [of information] and a rich point of view that the general audience misses out on, by not having a true representation of that point of view,” he said. “I mean it’s only going to make those stories better; it’s only going to bring more to the pot, you know … put more meat on the bones, into the stew, when you have this story that has an authentic and a rich story line.”
Davetta Sherwood, an African American who also played on “The Young and the Restless,” said at first she had a good experience being on the show.
But that eventually changed.
“The experiences that I had with the lack of diversity, the lack of acknowledgement of the Winters family, and just our ethnic background, was really disappointing,” she said.
Sherwood said people on the show were strategic about choosing her. So, she thought they would treat her “carefully” on the set.
But “I felt disregarded at times; I felt unappreciated at times,” she said.
Sherwood said she confided with Rowell, telling her that she felt something was “a little off” on the show.
“And she shared with me some of the issues she had had in her … years on the show.”
Sherwood, echoing similar sentiments that Rowell had, said, “There has never been a Black … crew or director or writer in the history of “The Young and the Restless.” So that was really disappointing considering how successful and how profitable the show has been for CBS and the Bell family.”
Later she added: “Right now … it’s about speaking out and making people aware so that we can create a change right now. There’s no more time to wait. We don’t have 20 more years to revisit this conversation again. This is something that has to happen immediately.”
Dawn Stern, another African American who played on “The Young and the Restless,” also contends that the show had never hired a Black writer or producer.
“They could have had a Black writer; they did: Victoria Rowell was her name,” Stern said. “But they never gave her the credit for doing what she was doing, they never gave her the title, they never gave her the money.”
Ellen Holly, the first African-American actress to integrate daytime soaps, played on “One Life to Live”, wrote a book “One Life: The Autobiography of an African American actress,” which included her negative experiences in the soap opera industry.
Holly said that she is concerned about what some young actors are going through.
They’ve read her book, she said.
And “they still come to me … and to this day say to me, ‘The things that you went through … you’re writing what’s happening to me right now.’ And that’s very upsetting to me.”
Pushing for Diversity
Rowell said she has always been concerned and always wanted to find solutions to tell Blacks’ stories with integrity and to the best of her ability.
One instance in which Rowell sought to bring change took place when she was told her character would be illiterate.
She requested the illiteracy story line be played out to its fullest extent and expedited so that–while it could be shown that adult illiteracy existed–the story line be moved along.
“Then I presented the classical ballet story line, proving that dance and arts belong to everyone no matter what the socio-economic bracket, no matter what the race,” Rowell said.
Her story line demanded more African-American cast members since her character would have to have parents, a sister, love interest and others on the show, she said. More Blacks came on board.
Doing that was “quite unique,” but her efforts to do so, she believes, generated “push back.”
Rowell–who first came on the show in 1990 and continued on for several years afterward–was nominated for Emmys and won several NAACP Image awards for her work on “The Young and the Restless,” along with other Black actors on the show.
She contended, however, that although some of the African-American actors on the show have won awards they appear on a small amount of the shows.
Rowell told the Sentinel that she’s asking for “one thing” from all the tenure she has as an actress: to reinvest in African-American talent as writers, producers and directors in daytime drama, including the “The Young and the Restless.”
“What could possibly be impossible about that?” she asked.
CBS responded to some of Rowell’s contentions: “We have great respect for Victoria Rowell, but strongly disagree with her statements about diversity. CBS is very committed to diversity and inclusiveness throughout the company–including Daytime, where we feature diverse talent in all programming.” But, again CBS did not address the 37 years of not hiring any African Americans as writers, directors or producers.
The company said that, through the CBS Diversity Institute and other outreach programs, CBS mentors aspiring writers and directors, and sponsors talent showcases, including an “unprecedented casting initiative specifically for daytime dramas.”
Letters and phone calls from Urban League President Marc Morial to William Bell, Jr., president of Bell Dramatic Serial Co. and Sir Howard Stringer, chairman, President and CEO of Sony Corp. received the height of disrespect: they have not been responded to, nor has Bell Dramatic Serial responded to the Los Angeles Sentinel’s request for this story, which has many in the civil rights community furious. “If the Chairman of CBS would not respond to Urban League President Marc Morial for a meeting, what does that say about their commitment to inclusion and diversity? Maybe the racism starts at the top,” stated Danny J. Bakewell, Sr., chairman of NNPA (Black Press of America).
“Meetings are great, but access and results are greater,” stated Rowell.
Sentinel interns Biko Poindexter-Hodge and Robert Gillard contributed to this report.