Smith-Anoa’i started at CBS television as a publicist in 2000, then in 2009 stepped up to head the company’s diversity efforts. She was recently promoted to senior vice president of Entertainment Diversity and Communications. Diversity Woman talked with Smith-Anoa’i about the unique challenges and responsibilities that come with diversity work in broadcast television.
Diversity Woman: You’ve said it’s important to promote diversity both in front of the camera and behind it. Why are both aspects important?
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: TV plays a huge part in establishing and perpetuating social norms. Audiences identify with characters who look like them and whom they can relate to—and these images travel the globe. As a broadcast network, we have to be sure we are reflecting the audience we are serving. And before an actor can say anything, a writer has to write the words.
DW: What were the biggest challenges you faced initially, and what are the challenges now?
TS: Back in 1999–2000, all three of the networks introduced their fall schedules, and there was not one person of color in a regular role in any series. So the conversation then was, how do we combat this? As a publicist, I was involved in those conversations.
It’s no longer novel to see people of color on TV. But casting diverse characters in atypical roles will help shape social views. For instance, when most people think of a cop, they think of a white male. What about an Asian female cop? Also, we are trying to increase the number of writers and directors of color who are women.
DW: Are there difficulties that come with promoting diversity in a highly visible and creative industry?
TS: The challenges have to do with the unconscious bias hardwired into all of us. This is a business of relationships—people hire the people they know. We overcome some of these issues by introducing and mediating conversations between underrepresented minority parties and decision makers. For example, at our diversity symposium we have executive producers and writers, and invite a lot of our coalition partners: NAACP, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, GLAAD, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. We want people to think, what does our writers’ room look like? Who are our directors?
DW: It sounds rewarding.
TS: It is! The best part is being able to see that you were a part of change that is able to shape people’s minds.
DW: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
TS: One thing that’s near and dear to me is our CBS on Tour program. It takes executives into colleges and universities to describe the roles available in entertainment. People think of actors and writers, but there are so many other jobs—research, finance, development. We want to make sure we are exposing the younger generation to those jobs.
DW: Who inspires you in doing this work?
TS: My family. I’m raising a diverse daughter and I want her to know she can accomplish great things without any barriers.