Practicing apartheid in TV land

Networks: In ignoring minorities on its shows, executives point to economics but sidestep responsibility.

July 18, 1999|By JaneTwomey

PROGRAMMING won't become more diverse until we show the networks it's in their economic interests to make it more diverse.

A furor occurred last week over the major networks' fall season line-up. It seems that no minority lead characters are in any of the new shows. In fact, we'll see very few blacks, Hispanics or Asians this fall in any type of role -- except maybe as criminals on the local news and those reality cop shows.

Welcome to the land of television apartheid.

This new reality so incensed NAACP President Kweisi Mfume that he suggested the organization might explore litigation against the networks and boycotts of sponsors. Speaking Monday at the national convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in New York, Mfume accused network executives of being "clueless, careless, or both."

Clueless? Probably. Careless? Probably not. At least not the way it works in television land these days.

It's no secret that, with the exception of Scott Sassa, a Japanese-American executive at NBC, most television entertainment executives are affluent white males based in New York or Los Angeles.

They're about as diverse as a polo club. And not just when it comes to race. The last time I can remember seeing a prime-time, network show about rural, poor people -- one that lasted for more than a couple of months -- John Boy Walton was saying good night to his poor, but happy, white family. To say that network executives are clueless is being generous.

But while executives might be clueless, they certainly are not careless -- and least not when it comes to making money.

In this respect, the executives know exactly what they are doing. And what they are doing is what the marketing and advertising people tell them to do. They are selling their programming to the most coveted target audience -- white, affluent 18 to 40-something-year-olds who buy the products that network sponsors sell.

Executives say this is the economic reality of network television these days. But it's only reality because we, the audience, allow it to be reality. Lost in the make-money world of network television entertainment are two important considerations that the networks seem to be ignoring.

First, the airwaves on which the networks operate are public, and are supposed to operate in the public interest of all Americans, not just the demographically desirable.

The networks have a public responsibility to represent the true face of America, and we must hold them accountable. The true face of America is this, according to 1990 census statistics: 73 percent white, 12 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian; and 1 percent Native American.

Of the 13 percent of Americans living in poverty, nearly half are white.

The true face of America is vastly different from what will appear on television next fall.

But the call to hold network entertainment television accountable is more than just a liberal's argument to make television the colors of the rainbow. It touches on some of the basic pluralist, democratic principles that we say we believe in. Every Fourth of July, the news feeds us stories of immigrants coming to the world's great melting pot to become Americans. Census projections indicate that in the next 50 years, two-thirds of this nation's growth will come from Asian and Hispanic immigrants, their children and their grandchildren.

If the networks have their way, what these immigrants will find as they try to socialize themselves into American life by watching television is well-to-do whites on entertainment shows and people of color in reality cop shows. This will deepen the divisions in our society and increase racial tension, class envy and ethnic misunderstanding. But the networks will make money.

The second consideration is more pragmatic. While some whites might like the new television season because it reminds them of the good old days of the 1950s and early 1960s, the truth is that America is rapidly becoming a nation of minorities. And more and more, these minorities have more and more money to spend. While minority households have less combined buying power than whites, they are gaining in this important area at an unprecedented rate -- depending on who you believe.

The Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia said the Hispanic market grew at three times the rate of inflation in the 1990s, reaching $348 billion in 1997. At the same time, the buying power of blacks grew almost 2 times as fast as inflation. In 1997, that buying power was estimated at $469 billion. At the same time, the center estimated that the buying power of all Americans grew at less than two times the rate of inflation.

And there are other trends the networks would do well to heed. By 2020, the black population is projected to increase by 31 percent; by 2050, blacks will account for about 14 percent of the population.

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