Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i almost failed out of college – but she bounced back to become Executive Vice President at CBS, where she’s working to include more minorities and people with disabilities in new productions.
Executive VP Entertainment Diversity, Inclusion & Communications at CBS Entertainment
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: I was not going to be window dressing. There was no way that I was not going to let this happen. As I said, when I created the role, performers with disabilities were always in that palette.
[All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation and social justice with Jay Ruderman.]
Jay Ruderman: Hello and welcome to All Inclusive. I’m Jay Ruderman. Today we’re speaking with a unique trailblazer in the world of entertainment at the intersection of inclusion and diversity in major television programing.
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i rose from within the publicity department at CBS to create the role of Executive Vice President, Entertainment Diversity, Inclusion and Communications at CBS Entertainment.
The story of her ascent from a college student hailing from LA with full scholarship to Howard University to a current position is a fascinating one, complete with a bump or two and people with interesting characters and decisive, principled actions.
So welcome Tiffany and thank you for joining me on All Inclusive.
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: It is my pleasure. It’s always good to see you and I am so happy to be joining your podcast today.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you. Tiffany, you are truly one of the leading pioneers in advocating for inclusion and diversity and entertainment. I want to talk a little bit about your background, which I found fascinating. You grew up in Los Angeles and received a full scholarship to Howard University and yet you lost the scholarship. Can you tell us your story about what happened there and the lesson that stuck with you throughout your life?
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: Absolutely. I did. I got a full four-year academic scholarship to Howard University and I got to campus and got to Washington DC and the first winter came and as you note, I’m a native Angelino. I was not ready for the weather. I was not ready. I don’t even think that I was really ready for college let’s say in the sense of being immature and not taking my studies as serious as I should be.
I would like to note that in order to maintain that academic scholarship, all I had to maintain was a 3.0 and that’s B. Someone should be able to do that and this is when I say that 17-year-old me lost my mind and I made poor decisions in the sense of that, oh, it’s too cold outside. I’m not going to go to class.
I got an A on that test last week. It’s not necessary to go again. So I did not put my studies as a priority. But also at the same time, I was telling my parents how great I was doing. I think that I – like when I say that I truly really lost my mind, I really did in the sense of that I was, “Oh, you know what? I need a car,” because I’m working. So if we could ship me a car and I don’t want to live in the dorms anymore. I think I would like to live off-campus and mind you, so I come home for break and my parents picked me up in a brand new jeep, brand new car because I’ve been doing so great.
Then they say, “You know what? It would probably be safer for you to be in an apartment. Let’s pay six months in advance.” They do this in advance and then the grades come. I get a 2.9. I miss it by one percentage and I lose my academic scholarship. Therefore my mother who sat me down at the kitchen table and I can feel and smell and taste everything that was happening at that moment and she said these words to me.
She said, “You took someone’s spot,” and when I looked, it just broke my heart that I did take someone’s spot that deserved to be at an institute for higher education and I took someone’s spot and I did not take it serious.
So she said that if you want to return to Howard, you figure out how to get back there. You pay for the next semester and see what it’s like. So I was home for 10 months. I enrolled in community college to transfer credits. I had to give back the brand new car. My parents would now drive my car and they gave me a Nova. This Nova, I don’t know if anyone remembers Novas but it was a Nova that was like barely running and the heater never turned off.
So I was hot throughout the summers and I would have to drive with the windows down and I got a job. I wasn’t able to go anywhere. I was able to save over $30,000 and I was able to reenroll in Howard and I graduated with honors and still in only four years.
So there was definitely a silver lining to it. But if I hadn’t failed my freshman year and failed so spectacularly, if you will, I think that was such a life lesson that it makes me appreciate and never take anyone’s spot. That’s what I have learned through that. So it is something that is ingrained in my brain, that I always remember what I did that freshman year.
Jay Ruderman: Well, it’s such a powerful lesson and as a father of a 17-year-old, I can identify with your mindset. But again, your persistence, your ability to focus and to get back to where you want it to be I think is the key to success.
Now you start your career as a publicist working for Niketown and Sinbad. How did you land at CBS and did you always feel you were going to end up in entertainment?
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: I didn’t feel that I was always going to be in entertainment per se. I really had a desire for sports and so that’s why I stayed at Nike for so long. So it gave me that adjacent to – I was sports adjacent and I was doing PR for Niketowns. Those are retail stores that were open across the country and being the liaison between the store and our athletes. I have a friend and she told me, “Hey, CBS is hiring for a publicist and I interviewed for it. But they said that I was overqualified and they asked if I knew anyone that didn’t have as much experience as I did, but was like me. So I thought of you. You can get an interview. So send in your resume.”
So I sent in the resume, went in and I nailed the interview and the asterisk to the story is my friend Ava DuVernay who everyone knows is a director now. But she started as a publicist. She is the reason why I am at CBS and she was the reason, she was the overqualified friend that gave me an opportunity. So that’s how I landed at CBS in publicity.
Jay Ruderman: You also say that when you entered into CBS, there was no one like you there.
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: Yes.
Jay Ruderman: When you looked around the room, what did that feel like and what impact did that have on you?
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: It was a little shocking to tell you the truth. When I first showed up to work or even for the interview, it wasn’t even the first day of work. It was the interview that I noticed it most. Number one, it’s a communications department. But when I came in, it was really quiet and it wasn’t what I expected. I thought that it would be bustling and almost like a newsroom. I was used to that environment.
So that was number one. It kind of got my spidey senses up if you will and then when I came for the first day at work, I realized, I was like wow, when we had a meeting, I’m the only person of color, any color in the entire department. That was both west and east coast. I always usually say that with an asterisk because a lot of people stay at CBS for a long time. It’s a good – obviously a good testament to the company.
I myself just celebrated 20 years in this past February. But I’m kind of a – thank you. I’m kind of a spring chicken in that sense because there’s more people that have been there 25, 30, 35, 40 years and so I think that that was another reason why it looked the way it did is that no one left. So it didn’t give an opportunity for others to come in.
Jay Ruderman: Tell us why you feel diversity is important in your industry and the story of how you created your position at CBS.
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: Sure. I started as a publicist at Legacy CBS and I really noticed that television was going in the direction of more inclusivity as well as needing more diversity, both in front of and behind the camera. One of the ways that was a real through line was actually the 1999-2000 season.
That particular season is when diversity talks sprouted up for all of the major networks and four major coalitions got together that particular year, the NAACP, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition and the Native American Coalition. Those four coalitions banded together and demanded that the major networks really put more diversity both in front of and behind the camera. But the catalyst for that was that during – right around this time, that fall shows were being launched and there was not one person of color in any series regular role across all three networks.
That was the spark of it and with me being in publicity, we were on the receiving end of a lot of those calls. So they would be, “Oh, the NAACP is on the phone. What do we say?” and my reaction being the only person of color in the entire department is, “They speak English. Let’s talk to them. Let’s have a conversation.”
That’s how ultimate change happens and before I ever knew that this could be a real job, it was the research that I continued to do and looking at the numbers and the business case for diversity.
The business case for diversity has been proven over and over and over again. However, I feel that at that time, it was one of the things that I needed to create for a major network.
So I had a little PowerPoint that I put together and went into my boss’s office and I said, “I don’t think that you are managing me in the most effective way. This is where television is going,” and I said, “At this point, we are not even playing in the game. We are at home. The television is off and we’re asleep on the couch.”
It was two year in the making of this being a real department. But I kept my head steadfast in knowing that I wanted there to be much more diversity in front of and behind the camera and being diverse in all of its diverseness, if you will. And let me say that again.
Diversity does not solely mean race and ethnicity and/or sexual orientation. It does not mean it also includes performers and people with disabilities and that was always a priority for me as I created this position.
Jay Ruderman: Octavia Spencer recently did a public service announcement for our foundation, calling for authentic representation of disability in film and television. One of the lines in the PSA that she said stuck with me. She said that the first time she saw someone like herself on TV was on the show The Jeffersons, which was a great show for those of us who are old enough to remember the show.
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: I remember The Jeffersons.
Jay Ruderman: But you’ve spoken about this. Why do you feel it’s important for people to see themselves portrayed authentically on TV and in film?
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: I think that it is important for people to see themselves represented in media across the board because it lets others know how to treat us. People look to television, films, media, social media as well on what that represents and these images travel the globe. This is something where it’s not just a cute hashtag to say, “Oh, representation matters.” It really is – people look to television also that, “Oh, I saw it on TV. So it must be true.”
That is where you are. Sometimes that is someone’s education. Sometimes that’s their only window into the world and if you are only seeing it through homogenous ways and a lens that is so narrow, you are not seeing the richness of cultures. Then therefore you don’t respect them. What is unknown to a lot of people becomes fearful of it also and/or it slips into a stereotype that is perpetuated.
So it’s one of those that representation allows for creativity. It allows for people to actually be their full selves and not having to adhere to the limited view of what people have seen for centuries in their business.
Jay Ruderman: Right. And addressing the issue of stigma, I’m not paraphrasing. Michelle Obama said that most of us get to know people who are not like us by seeing people on TV. It is such an impactful medium that it seems as America changes and America becomes more diverse, that we would like to see more people from different backgrounds authentically portrayed on television and in film and especially when it comes to disability.
We know there has always been this concept that great acting means playing a disability. Yet for the disability community, this inauthentic portrayal of disability is deeply offensive. That’s beginning to change.
I see changes all the time in new TV shows. But we have a long way to go in that area.
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that I don’t want it to only be that we’ve done this once and done. Oh, we did it. It was great. We put some – yeah, a performer with a disability in and then we’re done with this.
I think that the way that this entire industry is based on relationships, it truly is and that’s why I want more people meeting each other. I always talk about the Ruderman Family Foundation. Oh, do you know them? Have you heard of them? You should do a general with them.
This industry is based on relationships. So the more that people actually speak and listen to one another, that creates opportunity. But if you were speaking to the same people, hiring the same people, looking at the same stories all of the time, you get into a rut.
Jay Ruderman: Well, thank you and you know, we’re proud of whatever part we’ve been able to play. But without partners such as yourself and other people I’ve met over the years, we’re not of the industry. So we really need to connect our advocacy with people who are on the inside. Really doing the day to day work.
I will never forget our meeting at CBS when I came to you and asked you to sign the Ruderman Family Foundation pledge to audition actors with disabilities and you said to me something to the effect of, “That sounds right. We will sign.”
How were you able to so quickly commit to the pledge and can you talk about how CBS has empowered you to make such impactful decisions?
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: Absolutely. I mean I think that when you are someone that creates a division or a department and has that headstrong attitude, I was not going to be window dressing. I am not State Farm Insurance in the sense of that you just wheel me out when you need me to get you out of trouble.
It is much more being proactive. So this was something that – again as I’ve said, when I created the role, performers with disabilities were always in that palette. So when you came in and said this, it was a no-brainer. I didn’t have to go ask anyone else. I knew that this was something that if I went back and said to our president, to our chairman, to whomever, our head of casting, this is what we were doing.
That was the other thing. It wasn’t an ask and I think that when we can shift our mentality a little bit in that sense where we don’t always have to ask for something, that when I had to show you that there was no way that I was not going to let this happen and I didn’t also receive any resistance on it. There were definitely questions such as, “OK. Well, we’re already doing this, aren’t we?”
Sure, we’re already doing it. But we could always do it better. We could always do it more. We could always have and we should also be very deliberate about it. So that was the other thing Jay that this was public-facing and I wanted our other industry partners to see. Hey, this is serious. We want you all to join us and that’s why it was much more of a call to action.
Jay Ruderman: So first of all, thank you and I want to tell you at a conversation not so long ago with Nina Tassler, who is the past chairwoman of CBS Entertainment, and she could not stop singing your praises about your impact on the company. Do you feel that over the past year, that you’ve noticed a trend in the increase of authentic representation of diversity in television without getting into any specific shows? Do you think that there’s something happening out there?
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: Absolutely. I think that we are no longer just working with the same three creators and I think that new ideas and most people that are coming up with new ideas, new shows, new stories, they have inclusive rooms. They want authentic representation and again, I want to be clear.
Most media isn’t obviously the history channel. These are not historic documents that have to be factually and actually correct. There’s still entertainment there. However, it has been one way for so long where it has only been – where this is the only way that we can do it because that has been the only way that it has been done and that’s what has been accepted for so long.
But yes, in the past year, I truly feel that the creators that we are witnessing, they want to tell more inclusive stories. It makes for richer stories. It really does. So it’s no longer just, oh, let’s see what we can remake. I don’t also want there to be diversity just for diversity’s sake. I don’t want to always feel as though it is something that is tokenized and/or trying to put a circle into a square.
It needs to fit naturally. It needs to be done authentically and that’s why more people need to talk to others who aren’t like them.
Jay Ruderman: Right, right. Based on your experience, what needs to happen for there to be true diversity in Hollywood? What are the steps that need to be taken?
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: I think that there are several steps and I think that – I mean believe me. In my department has become the most important department in the history of departments ever since May 25th. I will tell you that. That George Floyd happened and I think that all of a sudden, it was one of those that had been clamoring. Oh my gosh. What do I do? Can you look at my memo? Blah, blah, blah.
But this has been going on for hundreds of centuries. We need to be very clear about that. I think that in order to have true diversity moving forward, you need to have diverse teams. That’s number one. The end people that are making decisions, they have to have inclusive teams that they actually include people. That’s the root of the word.
So I think that Hollywood has been very linear as it pertains to diversity. They’ve been linear in a lot of other ways. But as it pertains to diversity, they’ve been very linear in their thinking and it is because it has been a certain way.
The stats and the facts and the numbers that I like to deal with, first and foremost, they don’t lie. They’re not making up a story. We know that in directors, they are heavily white males. OK. Well, let’s try to have a more balanced list with that. Let’s make sure that we are providing access, exposure and opportunity for those in this business.
So I feel that those are a few of the steps in making sure because it’s also very factual. When you have more of a diverse team, you have diverse outcomes. So if you don’t, then you normally don’t. So I think that that’s the other thing. More people in decision-making positions that like – when you came in and said, “Hey, we want to do this,” and I didn’t have to wait. I didn’t have to get back to you.
I was able to be in power to say, “Yes, this is what we’re doing. Can I sign on the dotted line and what else do you want to talk about?” because we finished that business.
It didn’t take two months to figure out. So I think that again, if you have more inclusivity in your ranks and you empower them and allow them to – allow them that space, then that’s when you have better outcomes. Otherwise, you just have people and companies that just say that they want to do better over and over and over again. I am so exhausted with the aspirational do-better and I’m doing air quotes right now, but you can’t see that. But that’s what I’m doing, the do-better.
Like to me, just do it. That’s the thing. What – these systems that have been in place Jay, they have to be dismantled and reconfigured. I think that that’s what we are seeing right now.
Jay Ruderman: So I think that you and your network are unique in jumping on things, in recognizing trends quickly and responding to the public, which you’re serving. You know, we also work with many, many universities and universities also have diversity officers.
Unfortunately, a lot of them will come to us after a meeting and pull us aside to listen. We don’t have the authority to make a decision. There are things that need to be done at universities. But we’re not moving the ball forward. So I think that any institution, whether it’s a university or a studio or a major corporation, they’re going to come to this realization that they will probably benefit from it in terms not only of their public reputation but also to being able to see it reflect in the bottom line. But some work slower than others.
I wanted to pick up on a point that you made, which is extremely important because we’re living in such very turbulent times right now. Let’s talk a little bit about racial injustice. I just looked at a piece this week in the Washington Post about police shows and how the police are being portrayed in a certain way and there may be a lack of nuance in that and that it’s something that you’re addressing.
So how is your company addressing issues of racial injustice and adapting to what’s happening in real time on the streets in the United States?
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: I think that we have a new President and CEO George Cheeks and he just started in March and this has made a lot of changes for not only CBS. But that I think that will help the industry, that we – specifically for our writer’s room. Who’s writing the stories that we have right now, that for the 2021 season, that we are going to have 40 percent of our writers that are people of color and hopefully for 2022, that’s going to be 50 percent.
We are also in development to have 25 percent of a development fund going for people of color creatives. You have to be deliberate about it. We also have the partnership with the NAACP that we are going to be having. There will be a whole department at the studio that is going to have an opportunity to hear more stories, more voices and we have a lot of police procedurals on our network.
We gave an opportunity and joined partnership with 21CP Solutions and have experts and not only just police officers or former police officers but those that study criminal justice and injustice. Civil rights attorneys also as consultants. So we have what we like to call a brain trust of about six consultants from 21CP that are going to be working directly with our police procedurals on more authentic storytelling. Just something different.
Again, not trying to change and squelch creativity, not trying to put any sort of agenda one way or the other. But again, like I said earlier, when I said we’ve seen things based one way for a long time, if someone came to me and had a whole bag of resources, I would want to utilize those and that’s what this is.
We’re looking at it to really make sure that we are opening up our resource bag to our shows, to make them as authentic and as representative as possible.
Jay Ruderman: Is there anything that you’re working on now that you can talk about that’s particularly exciting for you?
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: Yes. Well, we just finished inclusion week at Legacy Viacom. They have done Inclusion Week. It started in the UK and then it came over to the States. This was the third year that they did. We had to reimagine everything because – due to COVID obviously and everything was online.
But we had over 90 sessions with amazing speakers that the entire company could be really part of and I think that that has been something that is continuing to have ripple effects into what we are doing and how we’re doing the work.
So that is the one that stands out to me right now of what we are doing and we are also upcoming – and I don’t think that you’ve ever attended but our Sketch Comedy Showcase. I’ve always told you about it but you haven’t – yes. And that is actually – we – again, we will be doing it all digitally and I’m excited about that. So that’s something that’s coming up and I’m hopeful that now that it is all digital that you can now participate in it and we can share that with your listeners.
Jay Ruderman: And we’ve had some very successful people go through that program.
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: Oh, yes, absolutely. I mean so many people have come out of Showcase, from Tiffany Haddish, to Kate McKinnon, Randall Park. So many people have been part of Showcase that are now – and they didn’t need Showcase, let me tell you. They were already talented but they just were able to have that stage and they’ve grown on to so many really, really great careers right now and we’re really proud that they even grace us with their presence.
Jay Ruderman: You’ve had a tremendous impact and you will continue to have a great impact. Let me end by asking you more or a general philosophical question. Our lives are very fast-paced and as you said, it’s like 24/7 with social media and people consuming content. How do you think the entertainment industry is going to evolve to remain relevant to people’s lives and how do you think it will remain socially responsible?
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: I think that it will remain relevant because right now more than ever, we still need escapism. We still need creativity. We still need television shows and whether you like to watch it on the box in your home or on the computer or in your hand, with your phone. There are those options.
So I feel that that will always remain relevant. The art of storytelling is going nowhere. I will say that in telling this in a social justice way and telling this with this type of lens, the more that we can create space for more stories, then we are able to see much more within that realm. So that’s where I think – and that’s where I also feel that with streaming platforms, with other ways of social media, people are already telling their stories and they don’t need a network to say yes to them and I love that. I love that people are creating stories on their own devices, short stories, films, whatever that it is and we are benefiting there.
Just similar to you doing this podcast right now. There are so many podcasts that people are discovering at this time, that they might not have known about before. So that’s what leaves me really, really hopeful for the industry and knowing that there is space for all of that to coexist.
Jay Ruderman: So I totally agree with you that I think storytelling will always be with us and in many ways storytelling is more impactful and more empowering in breaking down stigma than anything else.
When people are relaxed in consuming content that’s diverse and inclusive, it will impact people and change the face of our country. You are a pioneer. I’m so proud to know you and thank you for spending the time with us on this podcast.
I just hope that more people in the industry will recognize you and CBS Viacom and the leadership you’ve had and will follow your example.
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i: No, I really appreciate it. Thanks for taking the time to even speak with me. You know I adore you, your organization, everything that you all stand for and it’s really truly my honor to be a partner with you as we continue to watch this change together.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
[All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts or to learn more, go to www.RudermanFoundation.org/allinclusive. Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to tweet at @jayruderman.]
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Transcript by Prexie Magallanes as Trans-Expert at Fiverr.com