BOB GARFIELD: February is Black History Month, and as usual a relatively good time for black actors. But a coalition of advocacy groups has long clamored for more screen time for ethnic actors all year round. The networks have responded in part by hosting showcases where minorities have the chance to perform in front of talent scouts and agents. Reporter Trang Ho has the story.
KENNEDY KABASARES: I don't know! I was looking out the window of the party, and I drank some wine, and--
TRANG HO: Kennedy Kabasares rehearses a love scene from a short play called The Red Coat in a downtown L.A. studio.
KENNEDY KABASARES: I, I felt that wine and that moon and, and your face all pushing in my heart!
TRANG HO: On this day, Kabasares was preparing for a showcase sponsored by Fox. He went on to perform the piece in front of scores of TV executives and casting agents.
WOMEN: That does look pretty.
KENNEDY KABASARES: It's beautiful! I didn't think a street lamp could be so beautiful! Mary, I love you.
KENNEDY KABASARES: Oh, I shouldn't have said it! I shouldn't have said it!
WOMEN: No, no, that's all right!
TRANG HO: Until he lands a regular role, Kabasares, who's Filipino-American, supports himself working two jobs at a public relations firm in a theater. The network showcase will give him exposure to key industry players that he would not have access to otherwise. These showcases were an effort to add more color to next fall's lineup. ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC invited minority performers to demonstrate their talents, though they weren't auditioning for any particular roles. Carmen Smith is the vice president of talen development at ABC.
CARMEN SMITH: I think that what we've done is put in place a mechanism that will help us as a company in opening up the doors to actors and directors and writers of all backgrounds.
TRANG HO: Two years ago African-American, Asian-American, Latino and Native American civil rights groups banded together to grade the four major networks on their diversity records. The report cards they turned in were peppered with C's and D's. ABC's Carmen Smith shrugged off the criticism.
CARMEN SMITH: The showcase, the planning for that, really had taken place prior to any of the report cards that have come out. I had already started working on this prior to that. This was already in the works.
TRANG HO: Alex Nogales leads the National Hispanic Media Coalition. He says the showcases are a work in progress, and the networks still have plenty of room to improve.
ALEX NOGALES: The things that I have heard is that not enough actors were notified; that the selection of the actors was not adequate.
TRANG HO: Nogales's skepticism is shared by others from the coalition. Guy Aoki, president of Media Action Network for Asian-Americans questions whether the showcases are a genuine effort to find hidden talent or just a public relations ploy.
GUY AOKI: My contention has been that nothing's going to change until the writers and the producers and the executives really go through some diversity training where they have to actually confront the racist attitudes they have toward minorities.
TRANG HO: Part of the problem, he says, is that Hollywood tends to see race only in terms of black and white.
GUY AOKI: Mostly they only want white and maybe some black actors anyway. The problem is that they've got blinders on, and they don't really conceive that Asian-American actors can play quote "white" roles, so the only thing they allow us to play are the stereotype roles where we're the Chinese waiter in a restaurant or-- a Kung Fu artist - it's just - it's really, really a stupid thing.
TRANG HO: A report from the Screen Actors Guild shows the number of African-Americans on TV right now is disproportionate to the actual number in the country. According to SAG figures, while African-Americans make up 13 percent of the population, they account for 16 percent of the characters on prime time. By contrast, Asians and Latinos are under-represented across the board. Actor Kennedy Kabasares has a theory as to why networks might be reluctant to create roles for Asian-Americans like him.
KENNEDY KABASARES: They have a demographic to think of and--sponsors to think of, and-- they have to think well, would the audience be open to seeing, you know, a Buffy dating an Asian guy. [LAUGHS] You know, that kind of thing.
TRANG HO: Already there are reports of success stories as a result of the showcases. Three quarters of the Latino actors who read for ABC were called in to read for the George Lopez show. Many of them who didn't have agents before now do. As for the Asian actors, one landed a guest star role on ABC's The Practice and another was booked for a sitcom, The Random Years, on UPN. Kennedy Kabasares has also had a taste of success. As a result of performing in the showcase he's landed a part in a commercial and an appearance on Sabrina, The Teenage Witch. Because both gigs were scheduled to shoot on the same day, Kabasares was forced to choose. He opted for the commercial. Though disappointed, he says it was one problem he didn't mind having. For On the Media, this Trang Ho in Los Angeles.