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Minority Coalition Assails the Networks on Casting

Television: Groups discuss boycotts or legal action to expand diversity in front of and behind the cameras.

July 21, 1999|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Accusing the four major television networks of practicing "ethnic purification" by virtually excluding minorities in their new fall shows, a coalition of grass-roots organizations and advocacy groups on Tuesday launched a campaign against the broadcasters, threatening action ranging from pickets to advertiser boycotts.

The still-unnamed coalition headed by the Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Brotherhood Crusade outlined their strategy at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, a little more than a week after NAACP President and CEO Kweisi Mfume launched a similar attack against ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. The coalition, which includes American Indians in Film, the Rainbow Coalition-PUSH and the Mexican American Bar Assn., said they would "follow the lead of the national NAACP" in their actions.

Brotherhood Crusade head Danny Bakewell said this fall's new shows were "a blatant disregard for the recognition that diversity is something that the networks should embrace." Billie Green, president of the local NAACP chapter, added that the networks "are guilty of ethnic purification on national television."

Bakewell said letters have been sent to the entertainment heads of the four major networks calling for a meeting to discuss increased minority diversity in front of and behind the camera. He added that one of the networks would be targeted for picketing and viewer boycotts during one week of the November sweeps--a ratings period that networks use to set advertiser rates.

Also, Bakewell challenged "anyone at the network to introduce me to an advertiser who says they don't care about diversity." He referred to a quote in a story in Monday's Los Angeles Times from a former network chief who said that more diversity would exist if advertisers presented it as a priority to broadcasters.

Coalition leaders said during the press conference their actions were in response to a story in The Times that reported that of the 26 new comedies and dramas premiering this fall on the major networks, not one features a minority in a leading role. There are very few blacks in secondary or supporting roles, and Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and other ethnic groups are virtually invisible. The lack of racial diversity has put a cloud over the new season, with producers and performers of every race expressing bewilderment and anger at the low visibility of minorities.

Mfume threatened a wide range of action against the networks--the most severe being possible litigation. He characterized the virtual absence of minorities in the new shows as a violation of the 1934 Federal Communications Act, which provides that the airwaves belong to the public.

Bakewell and others in the local coalition said they may also push for intervention from the Congressional Black Caucus and Latino legislators to pressure broadcast networks to be more inclusive.

Absent from the press conference was the performers' group We Won't Be Ignored, which had helped organize the coalition but pulled out over disagreements in strategies, most notably the prospect of boycotts.

Also not joining in with the protest is the Media Action Network for Asian Americans. The group's co-founder, Guy Aoki, said that he was supportive of the NAACP's activism, but they wanted to launch a separate campaign prompting viewers "to actively encourage the networks to develop series that feature Asian Americans as leads and regulars."

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