NBCUniversal’s Karen Horne and TV writer and producer Keto Shimizu discuss why diversity behind the camera makes for good storytelling, and better business.
Diversity behind the camera is a huge driver of diversity on screen1 and both are a major priority at Comcast NBCUniversal. As the SVP of Programming Talent Development & Inclusion for NBC Entertainment and Universal Television Studios, Karen Horne oversees the NBCUniversal Talent Infusion Programs (NBCUNI TIPS) that nurtures on-screen and behind-the-camera talent from diverse backgrounds. Keto Shimizu, an NBCUNI TIPS alumna, is now a co-executive producer on the series DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, which is in its second season on The CW. We sat down with them to talk about the role of diversity in creating great content that connects with audiences.
Why is diversity so important—both behind and in front of the camera?
- Karen Horne: Diversity in front of the camera allows people to see themselves reflected in the characters on TV. And what you see on screen is always dictated by who is creating it behind the camera – the characters and the worlds they live in are written by the writers. Without diversity behind the camera, I guarantee that you won’t have as much in front of the camera.
- Keto Shimizu: I agree. You want diverse stories to be told – not only for audiences who can relate to those stories, but also for people who are unconnected to those stories and who then get the opportunity to experience them. That’s how you create more empathy in the world.
Are people in the industry understanding that diversity is not just important in a moral sense, but that it also makes for better storytelling?
- Horne: Without a doubt. Beyond just better storytelling, it’s better business. It resonates with people when you can point to 20 of the top 25 shows on the air that have key diverse characters – shows like This Is Us, How to Get Away with Murder and Chicago Fire. They attract audiences of all ethnic backgrounds, because they tell great stories.
Keto, you did an interview with DC Comics where you mentioned some of the writers who have influenced you — and all of them were men. Did that ever bother you, or was it something you never really thought about?
- Shimizu: The whole notion that comics, horror movies, and action movies are for boys definitely bothered me growing up. I was always the defiant tomboy saying, “I like these things too, and other girls would like these things, too.”
It would have been encouraging to see a women of color in a field that I so badly wanted to join, especially when I was younger. It wasn’t really until film school that I learned about other women filmmakers, who had come [to LA] to pursue writing, and did [NBC’s] Writers on the Verge program. I finally got to meet prominent female voices in my field. Since then, I’ve worked with many talented women who I admire.
Karen, in your current role, you manage the Talent Infusion Programs at NBC. Can you tell me what your proudest moment in this role has been?
- Horne: That’s kind of like asking a parent which child they like best! One thing that makes me really proud is starting new programs – like our Late Night Writers Workshop, which has completely changed the late night landscape by putting more women and people of color in the writers’ room. For me, everything starts with the written word.
I also love when we connect our alumni to the perfect show for them – everybody wins. When NBC had a show a few years ago called The Cape, I knew Keto was perfect for it – and I’m not just saying that because she’s here with me. I said to the showrunner, “you created this show for Keto Shimizu.” I asked that they just meet with her and they ended up hiring her. Keto, I remember exactly where I was when I called you and told you that they wanted to hire you. And to me, that never gets old!
- Shimizu: Yeah, I’m fairly certain I burst into tears.
- Horne: I remember that! So it’s hard for me to say what one moment was the proudest for me. I’m so proud of each time a writer gets staffed, or a director gets an episode, or an actor gets a role. It makes me proud to help change the landscape of our industry.
Keto, what is the best piece of advice you have been given on how to navigate this industry?
- Shimizu: The best advice I’ve gotten is to put the work in, whether you are employed or not. I think that people who want to break into the industry don’t often realize how much work it takes to even get a “pinky in the door.” Everyone who has broken into the industry has the same story. It’s 24/7 and it’s continuing to produce even if what you produce doesn’t get noticed.
- Horne: I often compare it to an intimate dinner party. And the people in that room is who the host, or showrunner, wants to have around their table.
And how did opportunities like NBC’s Writers on the Verge Program impact your career?
- Shimizu: Writers on the Verge completely launched my career. At the time, I was working as a post-production assistant on a feature. That was my career track at that point - I was getting people lunches, organizing offices and running errands. I was on track to move up the assistant line, and be an assistant editor. But I wanted to write, so I put in the time, submitted my materials and got into the Writers on the Verge program.
Karen, what do you want alumni to take away from these programs?
- Horne: I think a lot of it is what Keto already said – if they are in our programs, they are talented. They are probably as talented as people who are working in the industry already. I want them to know that they deserve it! I think that’s one of the biggest hurdles for young talent - to know that they have a place in that room, at that dinner table, and their voice and abilities are worth being there.
Founded in 2000, NBCUNI TIPS is among the most extensive and robust diversity and inclusion programs in the television industry. They include includes Writers on the Verge, the Emerging Director Program, and StandUp NBC. Past participants in Writers on the Verge have gone on to write for series including The Blacklist, Superstore, American Crime, Suits and Shades of Blue. On February 8, NBCUNI TIPS announced JR De Guzman as the winner the 13th Annual StandUp NBC, its nationwide search for comedians of diverse backgrounds.
1Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, San Diego State University. September 2016. “Boxed In 2015-16: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television.”