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Minorities in Prime-Time Television



by Katherine M. (Miller) Kleinman
November 15, 1999

Approximately seventy percent of America is white and sees no real problem with prime time television. They see a reflection of themselves, so what is wrong with that? But what about the 30% so-called "minority?" This November there was a tremendous lack of minorities in prime time television. Due to this, there has been much pressure on the entertainment industry from minority groups concerning this "whitewash." Why has this occurred and what can be done about it?

Federal Communications Commission Chairman, William Kennard remarked, that he grew up watching television that failed to reflect successful black men, like his own father. "I knew there were black architects, black teachers, and black store owners, but not on TV. I remember once the Bank of America had a black teller in one of its commercials. My mother was so excited that she ran out and changed the family’s bank account." Television was almost entirely white, and today little has changed ("Bill Cosby" 12).

In 1968, the Department of Justice ordered film and television studios to develop and implement minority training programs and provide career opportunities for a five year period. The doors were temporarily opened for minorities to break into the entertainment industry. However, as little as ten years later, the programs that remained were purely voluntary. The socially responsible solution gave way to economics (Puig A1).

In a recent magazine ad, ABC boasted that the network offers "the broadest range of programming" on television. The ad featured ten of the network’s biggest stars: all were white. But ABC is not alone, of the four major networks, there are twenty-six new prime time shows ready to debut, and nearly all the regular cast is white. When hiring, "unless it’s stated otherwise, it’s assumed the character is white," said one executive. Colorblind casting rarely happens (Lowry A1). Even shows set in urban settings don’t reflect the racial makeup of the city in which they’re set. Jachyn Davis stated, "I love ‘Seinfeld,’ but it doesn’t have any people of color, even in the background. It has an excuse, because the characters are older. Shows like ‘Friends,’ though, when they’re in their twenties, should have some diversity" (Dretzka, "Left Out" 1). Following considerable outrage from minority leaders, at least eight shows have added an ethnic actor to the cast (Fiore A3).

There is a lack of minorities behind as well as in front of the scenes. Of the 285 new fall writers, seventeen were black, four were Asian, and only one was Latino (Fiore A3). Lou Harvin, a reporter at Minnesota’s KTCA stated, "They know if there’s a job opening for an engineer at some station that if that station’s already got an engineer who’s black there’s no point wasting their time even going over there. They’ve got their black" (Lambert 1A). Most executives and successful writers also live in predominantly white neighborhoods such as Beverly Hills and Malibu (Lowry A1). Many people creating these white characters are the people who grew up watching white television and the lack of minority characters comes from this narrow point of view (Dretzka, "Left Out" 1). Executives in charge have made the decision that people of color can’t write for white characters, but white writers can write for people of color (Fiore A3). TV and radio stations have few minority owners. Approximately 3% of television and radio stations in the U.S. were minority owned in 1997 ("Minorities" 5).

There have been past successes, though: "The Cosby Show", "Sanford and Son", "Chico and the Son", and "Good Times." Industry executives say, a decade ago, white viewers were much more willing to watch shows that featured minority casts. "Past black-oriented sitcoms had a quality of writing and tone that crossed over to a mass audience. Current African American sitcoms have more of a specific tone that targets blacks. White America got tired of black sitcoms after ‘Cosby’ and ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’" (Lowry A1).

Minorities make up twenty-six percent of the U.S. population and their buying power is predicted to double over the next twelve years (McDonald 52). People need to relate to the programs they watch and non-representation from the networks may be the network’s demise. Viewers are gradually dispersing to watch programs designed for them. "It can’t be ‘Must-See TV,’ it seems, if it’s not ‘All-About-ME TV." People today seem to have a lower tolerance and are not crossing over as much as they have before. The top rated show in African American homes is the WB’s sitcom, "Steve Harvey Show," but it ranked 127th among whites. "Friends," the top rated sitcom overall, ranked just eighty-eighth in black households and seventh in Latinos (see Table 1 and 2). Monday Night Football is the only show in the top ten for whites, blacks, and Latinos. The number two through five favorite shows for whites are considerably "un-favorite" for blacks, where they rank 88th, 90th, 81st, and 104th. The favorite shows for blacks and Latinos more often come from the WB or FOX, and not the major networks (Lowry A1). As programs become narrowly focused, mainstream viewers often stop watching. For example, the WB’s black-themed shows are drawing few white or Latino viewers (Brownfield A1).

Table 1.

 

White’s Favorite Shows

Black’s Favorite Shows

Latino’s Favorite Shows

ER (NBC)

1

15

6

Friends (NBC)

2

88

7

Frasier (NBC)

3

90

12

Veronica’s Closet (NBC)

4

81

16

Jesse (NBC)

5

104

13

Monday Night Football (ABC)

6

3

3

NYPD Blue (ABC)

7

17

31

Touched by an Angel (CBS)

8

6

27

60 Minutes (CBS)

8 (tie)

7

39

CBS Sunday Night Movie

10

5

20

Table 2.

 

Black’s Favorite Shows

Latino’s Favorite Shows

1.

Steve Harvey Show (WB)

Guinness World Records (FOX)

2.

Jamie Foxx Show (WB)

Wildest Police Videos (FOX)

3.

Monday Night Football (ABC)

Monday Night Football (ABC)

4.

For Your Love (WB)

Simpsons (FOX)

5.

CBS Sunday Night Movie

Sabrina – Teenage Witch (ABC)

6.

Touched by and Angel (CBS)

ER (NBC)

7.

60 Minutes (CBS)

Friends (NBC)

8.

Moesha (UPN)

Wonderful World of Disney (ABC)

9.

Walker Texas Ranger (CBS)

X-Files (FOX)

10.

Wayans Bros. (WB)

Boy Meets World (ABC)

Charts from 4th quarter of 1998 (includes only prime-time network shows) (Lowry A1)

 

The data in Chart 3 was taken on 11/2/99, 11/3/99, 11/4/99 at one minute intervals on CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, and the WB in Athens, Ohio. Significant characters only were counted.

Table 3.

 

White

Black

Hispanic

Asian

Gay

Other

8:00

22

14

14

1

2

2

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

1

0

0

0

0

8:30

18

18

9

3

0

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

9:00

14

16

11

0

1

1

0

0

0

0

1

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

9:30

7

22

16

0

3

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

1

10:00

9

8

6

0

0

3

0

0

2

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

1

10:30

9

8

8

2

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

8:00

98 (89.1%)

9 (8.2%)

1 (0.9%)

1 (0.9%)

1 (0.9%)

0 (0%)

9:00

86 (90.5%)

6 (6.3%)

0 (0%)

1 (1.1%)

1 (1.1%)

1 (1.1%)

10:00

48 (82.8%)

6 (10.3%)

2 (3.4%)

1 (1.7%)

0 (0%)

1 (1.7%)

 

Black characters in prime time dropped to 13.4% in 1998 from 14.1% in 1997. While Asians and American Indians are just trying to get on the map, blacks are pushing for shows built around black leads (Mendoza 1C).

In August, Kweisi Mfume, President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), confronted ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX, calling for an immediate change in the number of minorities in front of and behind the camera, and in the executive ranks. If not, there would be consequences such as demonstrations and viewer and advertiser boycotts during the November ratings sweep. Mfume announced on November 3, the organization would hold hearings in Los Angeles, beginning November 29, instead of a November boycott. The hearings would examine racial and ethnic diversity at the networks and whether the industry is guilty of discrimination. The NAACP would present the networks with "measurable and verifiable goals and timetables" for increasing diversity. If not agreed to, the organization will pick one network as a target of a nine-week boycott beginning January 1 of 2000 (Braxton, "Is TV Diversity" F1).

Many question the purpose of the hearings, since the networks have already admitted they need to increase diversity and have instituted several corrective measures (Braxton, "Is TV Diversity" F1). But annually, network promises are easily abandoned for the next year’s chase for ratings. In 1997, then NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield mandated all shows integrate their programs. He left NBC last year and none of NBC’s new shows for this fall feature minority leads (Lowry A1). All four network’s main response has been to quickly add a minority role here and there to quiet interest (Mendoza 1C).

The Major Broadcasting Corporation Gospel Network (MBC) hopes to fill a void in African American programming. Founded by high profile names such as: Evander Hoyfield, heavyweight boxing champion, Cecil Fielder, former all-star baseball player, and Marlon Jackson, former Jackson Five member, their business relationships have helped launch MBC. Offered last November to three million U.S. households, MBC’s objective is to "compete and rival all other existing cable networks" (McGee 27).

MBC has family oriented formats and morally sound broadcasts. Programs include youth-oriented video shows, home-shopping programs, inspirational movies, children’s shows, gospel concerts, and the MBC Gospel Awards. "We want to enhance the lives of the African American community by producing something positive, productive, and inspiring," say Vice Chairman Fielder. Marlon Jackson added, "We’re giving today’s kids what they want to see on TV and we’ll show them that it’s cool to be spiritual and committed to your community" (McGee 27).

MBC’s executives are not concerned with competition from Black Entertainment Television (BET) because their audiences are different. Although BET airs African American shows, they have little original programming. Many BET viewers are waiting for the twenty-year-old network to come out with some "substantive, mature entertainment and hard-hitting news forums." BET’s shows are syndicated (except "Sanford and Son"). They are black shows that were cut by the major networks, since most black shows rarely make it to the five-year mark needed for syndication. The cost of developing high quality, original programming for black-owned networks is a barrier and the lack of innovation and progress over the years has been a disappointment to many black viewers (Brown 171).

Home Box Office’s (HBO) creative agenda and the network’s relationship with independent black producers make it a more substantive, multicultural cable network. Thirty-five percent of black households subscribe to HBO. There is greater room for diversity and niche programming in cable because "cable networks don’t have to satisfy everybody" (Brown 172). The Warner Brother’s Network (WB) also airs more black programming than the four major networks. Jamie Kellner, chief executive officer of the WB network, said he didn't understand why TV critics were suddenly so concerned. The WB was continuing to air three sitcoms this fall with black casts (Mendoza 1C).

There is little Latino representation also on television. There have been studies showing that there are more extraterrestrials on television than Latinos, (Dretzka, "Left Out" 1) who constitute 10.7% of the U.S. population. As the most underrepresented minority group, only 3.5% of the available roles are Latino (Munoz C9). Hollywood, located among the nation's largest concentration of Latinos, fails with adequate representation in hiring or programming (Fiore A3). Two programs without regular Hispanic characters are based in states with large Hispanic populations: "Walker, Texas Ranger," based in Texas and "Baywatch," based in Southern California (Harlan).

A coalition of Latino groups announced a boycott, or "brownout" in July, around the same time the NAACP began their own threats. Despite the boycott, little changed. For the fall season, ABC had two Hispanic roles, NBC had four roles, CBS had five, and FOX had six. ABC issued a statement that they take diversity "very seriously," pointing to its broadcast of the Hispanic entertainment community's annual ALMA awards. What the statement didn't say is; this year there was no award for best actress in a sitcom, because there was no one to nominate (Mendoza 1C).

Recent studies have found that Hispanics continue to be shown in negative light, most notably as criminals and undocumented immigrants. "Those portrayals have gone down a lot," says Lisa Navarette, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza. However, "the question [still] is: Are you the criminal of the week, the sloppy lazy gang member, or are you Tony Soprano," the lead character on HBO's Mafia series "The Sopranos" (Mendoza 1C). "It's image forming," said Harry P. Pachon, president of a Latino civil rights group. "What does it mean to Hispanic youth when they don't see themselves portrayed on a big or small screen, and when they do, it's a negative image?" (Fiore A3) Liz Torres, a comic actress thanked God for stereotypes, because, otherwise, she said she wouldn't have a job (Dretzka, "Left Out" 1).

One minority, though, has found a niche on television: there are seventeen gay characters on the four major networks schedules this fall. That number is equal to the combined representation of significant black, Latino and Asian characters (Dretzka, "One Minority" 1). "Gay viewers seem to be a component of the young, upwardly mobile audience that networks are wooing at the expense of other minority groups" (Brownfield A1).

Much has changed in the past ten years since many advertising companies boycotted an episode of "Thirtysomething" in which two men slept together in the same bed and a lesbian kiss on "Roseanne" (Dretzka, "One Minority" 1). But why the breakthrough for gays? Explanations range from increased tolerance to trendy, comedic additions to shows. Others put it more bluntly: there are gays on television because there are gays in television (Brownfield A1).

Within prime-time TV's cast of gay characters, however, there is little diversity, only good-looking white males. Some people believe that the number of gay characters is not a reflection of increased tolerance, but "bad, copycat writing." Many characters, particularly in sitcoms, still function as "comedic buttons, on hand to provide a laugh or two." Time Doyle, who was the executive producer on "Ellen," says, "I just feel like, post-'Ellen,' we've relegated gay characters to comic types." In the past, pressure came in the largely untold stories of gay romantic life. When it comes to the bedroom, the doors remain closed for gays. Don Roos, a longtime movie writer, said, "You're never gonna have a show on (network TV) about the life and loves of a gay man" (Brownfield A1).

One prominent ad buyer said major networks really have no financial incentive to have more diversity. "They are reaching the minority audience no matter what, so they don't really worry about trying to put more minorities on the shows" (Braxton, "A White" A1). Other industry sources say, "the answer boils down to a harsh economic equation: there's not enough money in diversity to make it a priority." Delores Robinson, a talent manager, put it bluntly, "For God's sake, don't pretend you care about people and minorities. That is not where their heads are. They should just say outright, 'We don't see minorities as a profitable business.' It's just like it used to be in the South. The South had the 'For Whites Only' signs. When the signs came down, the prejudice was still going on. So the networks should just put up the signs, so we know what's going on" (Lowry A1).

In a 1998 study by Children Now, children agreed that minorities are depicted more negatively than whites on TV. Even at a young age, children believed it was important to see people of their own race on television (Kato). The study showed that 66% of white actors have positive roles, but few minority actors do. White characters are more often rich and well educated, while characters of color break the law, are lazy, and act goofy ("Children Say" 13). But the children still had a sense of strong racial identity and were very open to diversity (Kato).

"You always see black people doing drugs and carrying around drugs, shooting people and stealing things," one white girl reported (Muwakkil 19). Fifty-nine percent of the children said a criminal, maid, or janitor is likely to be portrayed as black and 53% said a white actor would most likely portray a police officer, boss, doctor, or secretary. The children clearly saw and recognized the inequalities across television ("Children Say" 13).

Nickelodeon and HBO have been two exceptions to the lack of minorities in children's programming. Marianne Romano, a spokeswoman for Nickelodeon said, "Our philosophy has always been that kids come first in whatever we do and that extends to a diversity philosophy" (Kato). Nickelodeon's "Gullah Gullah Island" is a program about an African American couple. Brown Johnson, executive producer for Nick Jr., said, she wasn't sure that NBC, CBS, or ABC would ever want to make a show like "Gullah Gullah Island." "It's not considered mainstream enough." HBO's "Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child," premiered in March of 1995, whose characters "boasted a full rainbow of heritages." The show's writers and stars were equally diverse. Donna Brown Guillaume, owner of Confetti Entertainment Co, said, "We are giving children of color the chance to believe that they can be the princess, prince, king or queen. It's just as important for white people to see people of color in these stories" (Brown 170).

A solution to the lack of minority programming is difficult. Many minority leaders are looking to Congress to help integrate the entertainment industry, in front and behind of the camera. Activists are urging lawmakers to keep diversity in mind the next time the industry comes calling for political favors. Representative Solomon P. Ortiz (D-Texas) agreed, "We'll see if we can get these [industry] guys... Not because they saw the light, but because they felt the heat" (Fiore A3).

Broadcasting executives established an investment fund intended to spur ownership of television and radio stations by women and other minorities on November 4 of this year. Led by Mel Karmazin, the chief executive of the CBS Corporation, the initiative already contains $175 million. The announcement came of heightened concern that the wave of mergers in broadcasting limited diversity of ownership ("Fund Set" C2).

Some producers have already figured out how to make diversity work. In the process they have redefined how the TV industry thinks of the issue. CBS' "Touched by an Angel," ABC's "NYPD Blue," and NBC's "ER" have multiethnic casts and are popular "across the band." For the future, these shows need to be closely examined to see what the writers have done to make them work so well (Lowry A1).

Edward J. Olmos stated, "no one will ever forget the television season of 1999" (Lowry A1). But will they forget, or will the networks and executives just repeat the same cycle of making promises to keep minority groups off their backs and then giving in to advertisers and writers? Diverse television programs have worked in the past, "The Cosby Show," and they can work now, "ER." With a growing minority population, more minority programming is needed. Children of all colors need to see themselves on television as the roles they aspire to be, and the roles they will become.

Works Cited

"Bill Cosby Blasts Hollywood's Portrayal of Blacks on Television." Jet 12 April 1999: 12.

Braxton, Greg. "News Analysis; Is TV Diversity Slowing?; NAACP's New Drawn-out Strategy Causes Concern Among Some Supporters." Los Angeles Times 5 November 1999: F1.

Braxton, Greg. "A White, White World on TV's Fall Schedule." Los Angeles Times 28 May 1999: A1.

Brown, Carolyn M., and Nadirah Z. Sabir. "The Promise of Programming." Black Enterprise February 1996: 170-6.

Brownfield, Paul. "As Minorities' TV Presence Dims, Gay Roles Proliferate." Los Angeles Times 21 July 1999: A1.

"Children Say Minorities are Shown More Negatively Than Whites on TV." Jet 25 May 1998: 13.

Dretzka, Gary. "Left out of the Picture: Young Women Prod TV Executives to Diversify Programs." Chicago Tribune 4 December 1996: 1.

Dretzka, Gary. "One Minority has Managed to find a Place on Television and in Film." Chicago Tribune 10 August 1999: 1.

Fiore, Faye. "Latinos Urge Congress to Pressure Hollywood." Los Angeles Times 14 September 1999: A3.

"Fund Set Up to Aid Diversity Among Broadcast Owners." The New York Times 4 November 1999: C2.

Gonzalez, Juvencio. "A Call to Arms: Media Brownout '99." Minorities Job Bank. Online. Available: http://www.minoirities-jb.com/asian/arts/APAbrownout.htm.

Harlan, Christi. "Hispanics Say Improvement in TV Portrayals is Not Enough." The New York Times 16 April 1996.

Hohman, Kimberly. "Race Relations: You Said it!" Online. Internet. 6 November 1999. Available: http://racerelations.auses/racerelations/blfeedback.htm.

Kato, Donna. "Children Want Broader View of Race on Television, According to Study by Children's Advocacy Group." San Jose Mercury News 6 May 1998.

Lambert, Brian. "Black and White TV." Saint Paul Pioneer Press 23 June 1996: 1A.

Lowry, Brian, Elizabeth Jensen, and Greg Braxton. "Networks Decide Diversity Doesn't Pay." Los Angeles Times 20 July 1999: A1.

McDonald, Marci. "The TV Screen has Gone White." U.S. News & World Report 6 September 1999: 52.

McGee, Sherri A. "Gospel Cable Network Hopes to Fill void in African American Programming." Black Enterprise November 1999: 27.

Mendoza, Manuel. "Beyond Brownout." The Dallas Morning News 12 September 1999: 1C.

"Minorities Own Less Than 3 Percent of U.S. Radio, TV Stations." Jet 29 September 1997: 5.

Montgomery, Kathryn. Target: Prime time: Advocacy Groups and the Struggle Over Entertainment Television. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Munoz, Lorenza, and Kevin Baxter. "Minority Actors Lose Ground in Film, TV Roles." Los Angeles Times 4 May 1999: C9.

Muwakkil, Salim. "Real Minority, Media Majority." In These Times 28 June 1996: 18-19.

Puig, Claudia, and Greg Braxton. "Minorities Open Doors for Each other in Hollywood." Los Angeles Times 7 December 1995: A1.

Torres, Sasha. Living Color: Race and Television in the United States. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1998.




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