Memo to black America: Turn off the tube

August 31, 1999|By Julianne Malveaux

IMAGINE that the cast of "Friends," the hit television show, was standing at your front door.

These are five maladjusted white twentysomethings who sleep with one another, talk much stuff, agonize over their nonexistent careers and generally behave like undisciplined brats.

Living in New York City, they are a group of white Generation Xers who seem not to have let the city's diversity puncture their smug cocoons.

So one of them comes knocking on your door and asking for entry. Do you welcome him or her, ask for identification or chase the character from your property? Or, do you simply turn your television off? I'm going with the latter option.

We have given prime time television too much power in our culture.

Rather that focus on the quality of television programming, there are some African-Americans who would be happy if the "Friends" flakes incorporated a black flake into their program.

Imagine the brother who would hang out with the "Friends." He'd have to be as nerdy as the old Steve Urkel, as thin-skinned as any of Samuel Jackson's characters and as sweet and unthreatening as Sidney Poitier in "Lilies of the Field."

Do we really want that black man on "Friends"? Could we stand to watch his emasculation?

Sitcom madness

When African-Americans ask that black folk get prime time roles on network television, are we clear about what we are asking for? After all, much of prime time television is the kind of situation comedy nonsense that bends strangely to diversity.

I'm reacting, of course, to the NAACP's recent call for the major networks to include more black people on television, to stop the whitewashing of America's mirror, the airwaves that we use to define us.

I think NAACP President Kweisi Mfume is absolutely right to focus on this exclusion, but I think the struggle is greater than the picture and the numbers.

We can make a black man a friend of the "Friends," which provides us with representation, but hardly focuses on issues of struggle and economic distribution. Besides the faces on the screen, we need to focus on what happens behind the tube -- who owns the programs, what stories are being told.

The NAACP must focus on content as well as the characters that play the roles. And there ought to be another focus, too: If African-Americans are underrepresented on television, what about Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native-Americans? Does our interest in a representative America include them?

I say we turn off the television. After all, advertising drives the television engine.

How many goods and services will advertisers sell when a sizable chunk of the consumer market shrugs off programming that excludes us? According to the 1998 edition of "The Buying Power of Black America," (Chicago: Target Market News), African-Americans spend 175 percent more than whites on watches; 84 percent more on automobile rental, 100 percent more on satellite dishes, nearly four times as much on telephones and accessories, and twice as much on gift jewelry.

If black folks turned off the tube, those selling these goods and services would have to find another way to reach this market.

And if black folks turned off the tube, our children, who now spend more than 60 hours a week soaking up junk, might turn their attention to reading. The passive might turn their attention to activism.

White, male view

Television is not a microcosm of our society; it is a reflection of some white male program manager's vision of the world.

Nationally, despite changing demographics, nearly all of the anchors, reporters and commentators are white. On the entertainment side, the white characters travel in packs, like those dingy "Friends."

In analysis and entertainment, the television set reveals a distorted, whitewashed view of reality.

You don't have to watch it. You can read a book, listen to (or create) music, relax. You can turn off the nonsense (also known as television), and take control of your world.

Julianne Malveaux is an economist and a syndicated columnist. Her most recent book is "Wall Street, Main Street and the Side Street: A Mad Economist Takes a Stroll."

Pub Date: 8/31/99

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