Media influencers chart a path for ‘Social Change through Storytelling’ at Google HQ

By Christina Campodonico

From left: William Morris Endeavor’s Alexis Garcia, L.A. Film Fest Director Stephanie Allain, Google’s Julie Ann Crommett, RYOT’s Molly DeWolf Swenson and Cenk Uygur  of “The Young Turks” discuss the future of diversity in media at Google’s headquarters in Venice

From left: William Morris Endeavor’s Alexis Garcia, L.A. Film Fest Director Stephanie Allain, Google’s Julie Ann Crommett, RYOT’s Molly DeWolf Swenson and Cenk Uygur
of “The Young Turks” discuss the future of diversity in media at Google’s headquarters in Venice

Can a perky cartoon superhero named Bubbles really change the way girls think about computer science?

Google’s Entertainment Industry Educator in Chief Julie Ann Crommett, who works with media companies to place more positive and diverse depictions of computer scientists and STEM workers into TV shows, thinks so.

“Engineers and storytellers find they have more in common than they think,” Crommett said of her idea to put screenwriters and engineers in the same room to brainstorm character development for the popular Cartoon Network kids show “The Powerpuff Girls.”

Lo and behold, “Bubbles became a coder,” said Crommett. And the episode where she appeared as a computer programmer, eagerly showing off her new app and typing at her keyboard with headphones and pigtails in her hair, became one of the most popular “Powerpuff Girl” episodes of all time.

Casting Bubbles as a coder in direct contrast to the nerdy white guy with glasses stereotype was one slice of a larger conversation on diversity in the media industry held in July at Google HQ in Venice.

The panel “Creating Social Change through Storytelling,” moderated by UCLA researcher Yalda T. Uhls, brought together media executives from the Mar Vista-based 360-degree video and VR company RYOT, talent agency William Morris Endeavor, the YouTube news show “The Young Turks” and the L.A. Film Festival to discuss the challenges and solutions for creating diverse and perception-changing media.

“Unconscious bias” — subliminal social stereotypes about certain groups of people — among media decision-makers came up early as a roadblock to creating more diverse media programming.

“There’s a lack of awareness of our unconscious biases,” said L.A. Film Festival Director Stephanie Allain, who for over a decade held the highest creative production position for an African American at Columbia Pictures and was a champion of the urban drama “Boyz N The Hood” and Justin Simien’s breakout hit “Dear White People.”

“The first solution is understanding we’re part of the problem. We’re brought into a racist environment the moment we’re brought into the world,” she said.

Cenk Uygur, cofounder of the YouTube political news show “The Young Turks,” also cited the “Old Boys Club” that still pervades much of the media industry.

“If you keep giving jobs to your sons, your daughters can’t break in,” he said.

But the panelists also offered solutions to these problems. Allain talked about the importance of creating a media industry landscape that is as diverse as its audiences.

“The gatekeepers of all disciplines have to be diverse. I’m not just talking about studio execs. I’m talking about reporters, the people who review movies,” said Allain. “We need diverse gatekeepers across industries.”

Meanwhile, Uygur touted the ability of new media platforms such as YouTube to democratize the content-making process for voices that might not ordinarily be heard on legacy media.

“What I love about new media is that we tore those gatekeepers down,” said Uygur, who put “The Young Turks” on YouTube in 2005. Since then, the channel has racked up more than 2.8 billion views.

“New media is telling new stories every day, and [legacy media] can’t keep up,” he said.

RYOT’s CMO Molly DeWolf Swenson talked about how VR now holds the same potential to disrupt the traditional media landscape because of its ability to transport viewers to distant places in new and imaginative ways.

“You’re not showing them something, you’re taking them somewhere,” Swenson said about RYOT’s VR philosophy, who nonetheless cautioned that women still need to be better represented and paid comparably to their male peers in the media industry.

All the panelists rallied around the idea that personnel changes behind the scenes could have a major impact on what ends up on TV, film and online — and vice-versa.

“What happens on screen influences what happens off screen,” Crommett said.

The trick, William Morris Endeavor’s Alexis Garcia said, will be to keep diversity on the media industry’s radar.

“This conversation is trendy now,” said Garcia, “but how do you keep the conversation going?”

christina@argonautnews.com