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Arts & Life

America's Got Questions About Talent Show's Firing Of Gabrielle Union


The long-running competition show "America's Got Talent" is one of television's most popular programs. While contestants are usually the ones getting the scrutiny, a recent controversy has thrust the judges into the spotlight. This past week, news broke that NBC cut judges Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough from the show. Now there are allegations of a toxic work culture of excessive interference by NBC executives on the women's physical appearance and of retaliation against Gabrielle Union after she raised issues of racism and sexism on the set. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans has been following this story, and he joins me now.



GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what do we know about what happened on the set, specifically with Gabrielle Union?

DEGGANS: The story first kicked into gear with a report that Gabrielle Union was fired from "America's Got Talent" for speaking up about issues on the set and being labeled as problematic. One of them was that Jay Leno was a guest on the show and he cracked a joke that centered on the stereotype about Koreans eating dog meat, that may have upset an Asian staffer working on the show.

And Gabrielle Union reportedly urged producers to take the matter to HR and supposedly that did not happen. There was another allegation that there was a 10-year-old African-American rapper on the show who was in contention and Gabrielle Union was told that this was not an act that America could get behind. And she got angry about that. And Simon Cowell, the executive producer of the show and the top judge, got angry that she got angry. Now these were the allegations in the stories.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's been the response from Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough?

DEGGANS: So Julianne Hough denied the allegations that she had been given a lot of notes about her physical appearance. But she also noted in her statement that she has two specials that are going to air on NBC. So she seemed to very much want to stay in NBC's good graces with the statement that she released. Gabrielle Union hasn't spoken out directly. She's posted a message on Twitter noting that it's been a stressful few days and that she's thankful for the support she's getting. Her husband, Dwayne Wade, the basketball star did post a series of messages on Instagram where he noted that she was fired and asked "America's Got Talent" and NBC directly why she was fired.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what has NBC said to that?

DEGGANS: Well, NBC, their position is that these changes are not connected to any complaints that anyone may have made but that they regularly rotate people in and out. Both Julianne Hough and Gabrielle Union had an especially short tenure. It is interesting to note that the major departures amongst hosts on the show have been women and people of color.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's interesting - right? - because what this story may tell us and, of course, there's a lot of reporting yet to be done is that things may have changed in this culture now with specifically stars of color speaking out when they see things they don't like, which may not have happened before.

DEGGANS: I think it remains to be seen whether something is going to come of this because if you believe what these stories are saying, Gabrielle Union spoke up and she lost her job. And, in fact, this is, I think, the central fear that a lot of women and people of color have about speaking up about issues that they see as problematic in the workplace, that they will be labeled, that they will be sidelined, that they won't be listened to and that the first chance that the employer gets to let them go they will be shown the door. So at the very least there's enough attention being paid to this that hopefully we will get to the bottom of what happened.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

Thank you very much.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.