March 26, 2021
In The Mix

Window on the World

ABC’s new diversity standards will lead toward a realistic reflection of the world, says the executive overseeing the rollout.

Dinah Eng

Simran Sethi, executive vice-president of development and content strategy for ABC Entertainment, has made diversity and inclusion a priority in every job she's held.

Having managed projects for a production company (Happy Madison Productions), a studio (Sony Pictures Television), a streamer (Netflix), a broadcast network (NBC) and a cable network (Freeform), she's participated in the development process from all sides.

That expertise led to her overseeing the introduction of ABC Entertainment's diversity and inclusion standards, which cover four areas: onscreen representation, creative leadership, below-the-line and industry access, and career development. Sethi recently spoke with emmy contributor Dinah Eng about the guidelines.

What was the impetus for the inclusion standards?

It has been ABC's goal to create shows that reflect the world around us, and I think this is evident with shows like black-ish, Grey's Anatomy and Scandal.

The impetus for devising the standards is the reality that we can always do more and do better. We aren't going to be content with just checking boxes. Karey Burke [then head of ABC Entertainment and now president of 20th Television] and I had worked together at Freeform, and inclusivity was reflected in our work on shows like The Bold Type and grown-ish.

Karey knew this is a value system I hold, and it was one of the reasons she hired me back to ABC. We're both very passionate about diversity and inclusion work.

We looked at the 2018 BFI [British Film Institute] standards and thought they could be made stronger. There was a team of executives from around ABC who were passionate about driving the diversity effort at ABC-Disney, and we all worked together on the standards.

How were those standards designed?

We developed a menu approach that acknowledges that each show and each creator of a show are different. We wanted to make sure there were choices in how one could look at inclusion to ensure that creators also maintain creative freedom. There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. We wanted to be expansive about how to encourage inclusion.

For example, with casting, productions need to meet at least three of five factors. Underrepresented groups can be 50 percent or more of regular and recurring written characters, or they can be 50 percent or more of regular and recurring actors, or they can be included meaningfully as secondary or minor onscreen individuals. They also can be integrated in overall themes and narratives, or in episodic themes and narratives.

We're looking to build the broadcast network of the future. These standards are now ingrained in the ABC-Disney brand.

What's been the reaction?

The explosion of content over the past 10 to 15 years — and opportunities for programming over all platforms — means a larger tent. In the early days of television, a few powerful people controlled what was seen. The wider tent means more people can be at the table. Now, being transparent and collaborative is the norm.

So, at the end of 2019, we consulted stakeholders to get their points of view on everything. In September 2020, we presented the initiative to showrunners and producers. We've gotten great feedback. The culture shift we're creating touches every single level.

The change I've been most excited to see is the dialogue from producers, writers and executives who want to discuss crew, staff and cast hires. The imperative and openness these standards create have encouraged more thoughtfulness.

What are your goals for meeting the standards, and how will you ensure compliance?

The goal is to meet two of the four standards by May 2021, three of the four by October 2021 and for all shows to meet all four standards by May 2022. We connect with showrunners quarterly and talk about how they're doing. We try not to talk about it like a checklist. Shows can evaluate themselves, and then we evaluate where they are. It's about progress, not perfection.

Our studio partners are conducting trainings with our showrunners. We're creating databases as a resource. Many independent organizations put out lists of available underrepresented talent. We're making sure everyone's aware of how many resources are available to them.

All of us — from the executive level to the assistant level — need to look at our own habits.

Are we looking at a broader pool of people? When you do that, inclusivity naturally occurs.

How will we know when such standards are no longer needed?

We'll know when we hear the voices and see the faces of all the people in the world we live in. When we look around the table, we have to ask: who is not there? That's a question we should never stop asking.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2021

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