In 2020, CBS made a landmark deal with the NAACP. So where are the TV shows?
The 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police horrified the country, sparking massive protests and propelling the Black Lives Matter movement demanding justice for Black people in the face of systemic racism and violence.
The tragedy also rocked Hollywood, which has had a roller-coaster history when it comes to diversity, particularly prioritizing projects by and for people of color. Numerous studios, production companies and TV networks swiftly pledged large donations to various advocacy groups and social programs. Others announced new programs and initiatives committed to locating and promoting Black talent in front of and behind the camera.
But of all of Hollywood's efforts to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, one stood out.
CBS Television Studios announced it was joining forces with the NAACP to develop scripted, unscripted and documentary programs for TV networks and streaming platforms. The deal marked new territory, the most prominent agreement ever hatched between a major television studio and an organization outside Hollywood to create entertainment content.
"An important way to diversify and grow our storytelling is to expand our horizons beyond the traditional studio-producer system," CBS Entertainment Group President George Cheeks said in a statement at the start of the pact. "There is no better partner than the NAACP — the preeminent civil rights organization in our country — to help us find, develop and tell these inclusive stories."
The announcement privately bewildered a number of industry executives, particularly those familiar with the sector's diversity efforts: How could a TV studio work with a civil rights group? they recall asking. What would the content look like — would there be dramas, comedies, historical specials? Was this a serious endeavor or just a declaration geared to generate positive publicity for CBS, whose record on diversity has been uneven?
"If you're going to announce a bold deal like that, there is a danger if people don't see great results," said one TV executive who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about another network's decision-making. "It's a real risk."
As the three-year anniversary of Floyd's death approaches, optimism continues to fuel the unusual pairing: Several intriguing projects have been sold and are being developed under the CBS Studios/NAACP banner, including a a reboot of the 1991 movie comedy "Soapdish" starring Whoopi Goldberg and a drama inspired by the life of a female head of the oldest minority-owned construction company in the country.
But despite the enthusiasm and ambitious slate, the promise of the pact has stalled: None of the projects have yet made it from the boardroom to your living room. Of the eight projects sold, only three are in active development with their original buyers, while three are being shopped to other venues after being shelved by their original buyers.
Two others — a CBS comedy starring comedian Earthquake and a limited series for Apple TV+ about the Little Rock Nine — a group of Black students who enrolled in a racially segregated Arkansas high school in 1957, are not moving forward.
Executives involved with the partnership continue to be hopeful, proclaiming that the five-year commitment will continue. They point out that the progress has been heavily affected by a development atmosphere that did not exist when the partnership was announced.
"Images are advocacy," said NAACP President Derrick Johnson. "This was the right timing for this to happen, and the wrong timing for this to happen. The entire industry is in transition — cable, broadcast, networks."
Analysts have forecast since late last year that the decadelong boom on original content is coming to a close, as programmers cut back on spending in a crowded entertainment marketplace. Orders by TV networks and streaming platforms of original scripts for adult dramas and comedies dropped by 24% in the second half of 2022, according to research firm Ampere Analysis.
Cheeks said the partnership, like production ventures of all sorts, has been swept back by "a development headwind. The development process is arduous at the best of times. There are shows that can be several years in development before they make it to being platformed and greenlit."
He continued: "Neither Derrick or I realized when we made this deal how challenging the environment would become. Streamers are now reconfiguring and redirecting their programming filters on the amount of shows they want to buy. Cable is slowly moving away from scripted."
Sheila Ducksworth, who was hired in October 2020 to head up the partnership, said she is determined to overcome the hurdles.
"Everyone is aware of the state of TV these days with the cutbacks and all of that, but I always feel that in due time and the time it's supposed to happen, it will," said Ducksworth, who previously was head of scripted television and production for Will Packer Media. "We're constantly feeding these projects, looking to see how we can get them to where we want in pushing them over the finish line. We're very proactive, and every day is like a new day."
While some industry skepticism remains, others have praised what the banner has accomplished so far: "If this group has already sold all these properties, they are doing really, really well," said one diversity and inclusion executive from a rival network, who requested anonymity to discuss a competitor candidly. "It's not easy out there to sell content, so they have nothing to feel bad about. What they've done already is noteworthy."
The CBS Studios/NAACP deal was not the only studio-activist partnership to follow the Floyd killing.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors in October 2020 signed an overall "multi-year and far-reaching" deal with Warner Bros. Television Group to develop scripted and unscripted series, as well as animated and kids shows. (Seven months after the announcement, which also called for amplification of work by the movement, Cullors resigned from her leadership role at Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation amid a firestorm over her real estate holdings — which Cullors has described as a conservative smear campaign — and criticism of the organization's handling of donor contributions.)
In 2021, Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, and her Field/House Productions partner Mervyn Marcano signed a deal with CBS Studios to produce scripted, unscripted and documentary projects.
The groundwork for the agreement between CBS Television Studios and the NAACP was laid before the summer of 2020. Soon after Cheeks was named head of the CBS Entertainment Group in January of that year, he announced several measures to demonstrate his seriousness about making diversity and inclusion a priority. For one, he mandated that 50% of the casts on unscripted shows such as "Survivor" and "Big Brother" must be BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color).
That order came after years of criticism about "Big Brother," which had been continually accused of racism and the targeting of minority contestants. Although racial conflicts between the participants have not disappeared, the last two seasons have ended with the crowning of Black winners, the first since the series premiered in 2000.
Given her extensive experience and contacts within creative circles, Cheeks said, the hiring of Ducksworth to head up the CBS/NAACP partnership would help "create and distribute truly groundbreaking content that speaks to the Black experience.”
Asked what shows produced under the banner would look like, Ducksworth said, "When we meet with people, we tell them we're looking for things that are entertaining, stories that mean and say something. That could mean straight-up drama, horror, science fiction, thriller, animation. There's really nothing we would not do or categorically shut off. We're open to anything; it depends on the story."
Johnson said the NAACP is deeply involved in the partnership, and that he is in constant contact with Cheeks and Ducksworth: "We work directly with Sheila in making and evaluating pitches, sharing content, adding our input and being a part of the larger conversation."
Ducksworth last January announced the partnership had sold five projects to various platforms. The most noteworthy was "Soapdish," a reboot of the film that starred Goldberg, Sally Field and Kevin Kline, which was sold to Paramount+. The update would have centered around Goldberg's character, Rose Schwartz, the head writer of a hit soap opera. In addition to starring, Goldberg was listed as an executive producer along with writer Jennie Snyder Urman ("Jane the Virgin").
"The show would focus on Rose and her daughters, who were mentioned in the movie but never seen," Ducksworth said. "It would be the nexus of an important story that has yet to be told."
Although Ducksworth said at that time that the "project is going very well," the show ultimately was dropped by the streamer and is being shopped elsewhere.
Projects still in active development with their original buyers include:
—“The Pact," a drama inspired by a true story about three childhood friends from inner-city Newark, N.J., who become doctors and reunite to open a medical center in their community. CBS has opened a writers room for the potential series.
—“The Finest" (a.k.a. untitled Katrina Brownlee project), inspired by the life of NYPD homicide detective Brownlee. CBS has ordered additional scripts.
—“Construction," a drama for Paramount+ inspired by the life of Cheryl McKissack, fifth-generation owner of the oldest minority- and woman-owned construction company in America. The series is described as "'Billions' meets 'Succession' meets 'Dynasty.'"
—“Carver Law," a series about a charismatic bachelor and his "judicious legal savant twin sister working together in their family's historic, Black-owned law firm," with Martin Lawrence attached.
Cheeks said the deal with the NAACP will be intact for at least five years: "For me, the endgame is not just getting a show on the air or on a platform. It's about developing projects that really are at the right home and have the best shot at enduring success. Putting a show on the air and not having it succeed is not a win."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.