Not just white-guy television

July 21, 1999|By Tom Teepen

THE NAACP is making big noise about the blanching of network television programming, and not without reason. None of the 26 new shows this fall will feature, much less star, a black character.

It is more than a little creepy to find yourself aced out in your own country. Network television passes as the village common these days.

But there's more to this tale than a fit of racial absent-mindedness on the part of white programmers.

Say, first, that the NAACP is right to pound the lectern. It is perfectly bizarre that the major networks seem to have forgotten not only what country they are in, but also the increasingly diverse country we are becoming. The U.S. population is steadily becoming more kaleidoscopic.

The nets are hemorrhaging viewers to cable competitors and are hustling for ratings, but how much of a future can there be for a mass medium -- if remaining so is the networks' intention -- as white-guy TV?

That said, there's more at play here than the familiar racial negligence. New technical capacities and old market economics are combining to produce mixed outcomes.

Commercial radio has been subdividing its audiences for years. And now cable systems offer channels counted by the score with tightly targeted demographics. They typically offer two or more channels dedicated to black programming.

Counting cable, holdover shows on the major networks and black-cast shows on smaller networks (WB, UPN), it is likely that even with the default this fall, there still may be a greater black presence on television than ever.

What is more, the break away from mainstream TV seems to suit most black viewers. The lists of most-watched shows by white and black viewers rarely have more than one or two in common, usually major sports events. The presence of a continuing black character or two seems to give only a marginal ratings boost.

Part of what the NAACP is seeing is an energetic commercial tribalizing of U.S. life, as economic interests dice us into small bits.

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

Pub Date: 7/21/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.