Networks find room for minorities

TV: Latino groups join chorus for more people of color in the fall prime-time lineup.

July 28, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Two weeks after the NAACP decried a scarcity of minority faces on network television, a national coalition of Latino civil rights groups decided yesterday to put together a weeklong boycott of the four major TV networks in September to protest the "brownout" of Hispanics in the media.

While Hispanics constitute 11 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise less than 2 percent of the characters on prime-time television shows, said Lisa Navarrete, a spokeswoman for La Raza, a national Hispanic advocacy organization. She spoke in Houston at the annual convention of the National Council of La Raza, where the boycott was announced.

Navarrete said only one Latino actor, Martin Sheen on NBC's "West Wing," has been cast on a new network show for the new season.

The coalition said Latino leaders will meet in Washington on Sept. 12, National Hispanic Heritage Week. "There the group will launch the brownout," asking Hispanics to turn off their televisions to counter the networks' "brownout" that is evidenced by "a virtual absence of Latino images on television," a coalition statement said.

Organizers said they plan no action against sponsors, only against the networks.

This latest flap over TV's minority representation came the same day ABC president Pat Fili-Krushel called the overall lack of minorities on ABC's fall schedule a "major disappointment."

"I applaud the NAACP for speaking out and keeping the issue front and center," Fili-Krushel said yesterday, referring to a speech NAACP president Kweisi Mfume made earlier this month denouncing ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox for having no leading characters of color in any of their 27 new fall series.

"We have been in discussions with Mr. Mfume, and we will be setting a meeting as soon as his schedule allows," she said at a press conference before media writers in Pasadena, Calif.

Asked yesterday about the statements of the Latino group and whether ABC's promises to do better extended to Latino characters as well as black, Jamie Tarses, ABC president of entertainment, said, "When we're talking about diversity, I think we're speaking across the spectrum."

La Raza president Raul Yzaguirre said a lack of Hispanic faces on television contributes to marginalizing and stereotyping.

"People build perceptions of the world around them based in part by what they see on television," Yzaguirre said. "We want a balanced picture."

CBS president Les Moonves told critics two days ago his network will discuss with Mfume the lack of minority roles in new series.

Yesterday, NBC said in a statement that minority representation "continues to remain a top priority" and expressed pride in minority actors on shows including "ER" and "Law & Order." The statement added: "We realize there is still work to be done."

Stu Bloomberg, co-chairman of the ABC Entertainment Television Group, said yesterday his team of executives had noticed the lack of diversity before Mfume's speech and have taken steps to rectify the matter.

"And, so, to date, we have added two new significant characters to `Sabrina, the Teenage Witch' and one each to `Wasteland' and `Once and Again.' And, within a couple of days, we will be adding two really strong minority roles to `Bellevue,' one of our midseason [replacement] shows," Bloomberg added. One of the new characters in "Sabrina" is a Latina, Bloomberg said.

The announcement on "Once and Again," a drama about the romance of a divorced man and woman in their late 30s from Emmy Award-winning producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz ("thirtysomething"), was met with some tough questions.

In the immediate wake of Mfume's remarks, Herskovitz was quoted as saying that he would view any attempt to add minority characters to his all-white cast of leading characters as "tokenism."

Asked about that, Tarses said Herskovitz meant it would be tokenism only if the addition were not "organic" to the show. Tarses said all parties felt the addition of the new character was done in an "organic way." Herskovitz, who will meet with critics today, could not be reached for comment.

Wire services contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 7/28/99

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