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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

The Battle of Sexes Isn't Even Close

September 12, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The new season is arriving, and with it affirmation that prime-time's gal gap is not narrowing. Look at the schedule, do the math and you learn that, with some exceptions, female characters aren't getting much of a break in the TV hours that matter most.

And so the question: Does prime time need affirmative action?

Well, not really affirmative action, but a flat-out quota system to ensure that TV programs grant equal attention and respect to all components of U.S. society?

It's a pie-in-the-sky notion, of course, because it won't and shouldn't happen that way in a democracy such as the United States, whose public airwaves must remain free from outside meddling for the nation to continue to thrive. Who would establish and enforce such a quota system, for example--the government? And where would that potentially lead, to the FBI checking political party affiliations of those working in TV? A chilling thought.

Yet what about something unofficial, something voluntary, with TV executives looking at what they disseminate not just from a fiscal perspective but through a prism of social consciousness? Well, some of us can dream, can't we? It's a wish based on reality and real need, for TV continues to have enormous influence on how we view ourselves and others; the patterns of pop culture often shape and reinforce social behavior.

Since these are the public airwaves, all segments of the public deserve quality representation at least roughly in proportion to their numbers. No, satisfying that principle wouldn't amount to bureaucratic head counting. No, it wouldn't weaken TV by lowering standards to accommodate those traditionally omitted. Instead, widening the palette would strengthen TV, to say nothing of elevating fairness.

Minorities correctly note the bias against them in prime time, for example.

Asians and Latinos have been nearly shut out when it comes to characters at the center of series. And blacks have gotten their due, numerically at least, only in comedy, as if those white-breads charting the course of TV entertainment believed them appropriate only as conduits for laughter.

The biggest numerical inequity in prime time is not related to race or ethnicity, however. Still looming largest is the gender gap.

The glaring irony of the TV attention being lasered on Princess Diana, and to a much lesser extent on Mother Teresa, is that females are anything but prime-time's favorite. This attitude is not peculiar to TV. Good movie roles for women are also in short supply, and female film stars command less money than comparable males. But nowhere is the gender difference greater than in network TV series.

Females, who are 51% of the U.S. population, according to government census figures, are the single lead characters in only 17% of prime-time series (according to my census figures). Males, the minority gender, are dominant in two-thirds of series. The remaining shows are ones in which males and females have about equal status (such as NBC's "Mad About You" and Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210").

Granted, these program definitions are mine, and thus subjective. For example, I designate NBC's "The Tony Danza Show" a male show even though it also prominently features the Danza character's brassy female assistant and his two daughters. But there is probably consensus about who is and is not dominant in a series, and that a spate of subordinate female characters is not equal in impact to the male they orbit around.

The gal gap is even worse in the 36 new series now arriving as part of the fall season. Only four--Fox's "Ally McBeal," WB's "Alright Already" and NBC's "Jenny" and "Veronica's Closet"--feature females around whom their fellow characters orbit. Yet males are the center of a whopping 26 series, with the rest of the schedule again being shows in which the genders coexist about equally.

Networks apply to females, moreover, the same comedy-drama philosophy they apply to African Americans. Three of four new series starring females are comedies, and the fourth, "Ally McBeal," is a quasi-comedy. Programmers seem to believe that women are far more likely to watch men in dramas than vice versa. Accordingly, drama series today are predominantly action oriented, affording relatively little opportunity for females to shine.

Throughout all of this season's prime time, in fact, drama series dominated by men outnumber those headed by women 26 to 4 (NBC's "The Profiler," WB's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and CBS' "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and "Touched by an Angel"). Another seven dramas co-star males and females.

There's much more to TV than prime time, naturally. The figures for prominent women are traditionally much higher in daytime, for example. But the shinny brass ring hangs elsewhere. Prime time doesn't have its name because it's the least watched strip of TV.

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